Directed by: Jon Favreau
Written by: Justin Theroux
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson
Iron Man caught everybody off guard when it was released two years ago. Directed by Jon Favreau, who was best known for small independent gems, it turned out to be one of the most witty, deft superhero movie since Tobey Maguire squeezed into Spider-Man’s tights. Though it lacked the depths explored by The Dark Knight (which was released later that summer), it nonetheless managed to linger in the viewer’s imagination long after the credits rolled. A sequel was inevitable. Iron Man 2 brings back most of the original cast and director Favreau and adds screenwriter Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder), but doesn’t capture the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the original.
When last audiences saw Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in Iron Man two years ago, he revealed to reporters that he was, in fact Iron Man, a relationship that has only deepened as Iron Man 2 opens. When at a Congressional Subcommittee Hearing Senator Stern (Gary Shandling) demands that Stark turn over the Iron Man technology to the U.S. government, the former military arms contractor (now a privateer of peace) refuses. “The suit and I are one,” he says. How refreshing to see a superhero movie where the hero, instead of straining to keep his identities separate and secret, instead openly embraces both, even if the hero in question, however brilliant, is a smooth talking narcissist.
It’s not all fun and games for Stark, however. The reactor core powering the Iron Man suit and keeping him alive is killing him, and he doesn’t know how to stop it. This explains his need to engage in risky behavior, such as driving in a high-speed race in Monaco. Here he does battle with Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a heavily-tattooed Russian physicist who has designed whip-like extensions powered by the same technology Stark uses and surging with enough electrical energy to sever speeding racecars. The weapony impresses Stark’s competitor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) enough to spring Vanko from jail and hire him to develop military technology to rival Stark’s, though Hammer does not realize Vanko has his own, personal vendetta against Stark.
When Iron Man 2 works, it works very well. Downey, Jr. and Cheadle, who replaces Terence Howard as Stark’s friend Lt. Colonel James “Rhodney” Rhodes, play well off each other (that Cheadle is a better actor than predecessor Howard only helps), and in the opening and closing acts the banter between Downey, Jr. and Paltrow channels that of William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies. Though the introduction of Rourke’s Vanko during the opening credits is so corny that it induces more winces than menace, the first thirty minutes do not misstep. Unfortunately, the movie falters during the second act and nearly plods to a halt when Stark faces his impending mortality and Rhodes, under orders, steals one of the Iron Man suits for weapons adaptation by Hammer. In addition, the introduction of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) of S.H.I.E.L.D., while meant to tie into an upcoming Avengers movie, distract from this one.
A climax full of battles rife with robotic weaponry saves Iron Man 2 from an advanced case of rust, but the movie never quite regains its footing, or its sense of energy, or for that matter its identity, becoming indistinguishable from most summer fare. The suit and Stark may be one, but they’ve merged into something aggressively bland. Yes, it’s fun to watch, but if only it had a heart...