The sequel in a superhero franchise is generally highly anticipated for all the promise it holds. With all of the origin work out of the way thanks to the first film, the second entry in the series naturally possesses more room to maneuver and wow audiences without being stymied by a need to portray the narrative birth of the hero and explore the conflicts that lead them to consciously take up their mantle and battle forces of one form of villainy or another. Put in shorter terms, the superhero sequel is where things really kick off. Over the years this has evolved from being an expectation to a basic rule of superhero cinema; from Spider-Man 2 to Hellboy 2, the sequel has turned into the true showcase for the character and for the director to flex their muscles and shine.
So naturally, with Iron Man coming out as such a surprise hit in 2008, Iron Man 2 has a lot of organic hype to live up to. The natural question of course is…does it? The short answer, regrettably, is “no”. So as not to get too far ahead of myself and twist things– Iron Man 2 is a decent, serviceable sequel. But in point of fact, that’s exactly the problem. The film sets itself up extremely well, but stumbles and drags for a bit halfway through before coming to an inconsistently satisfying conclusion.
Picking up after the events of the first film, Tony Stark’s status in the world has burgeoned in importance in the wake of his revelation of his secret identity. With Iron Man on patrol, something close to world peace has come to planet Earth for the first time in ages. Of course, things aren’t all peaches and roses: The US government hounds Stark constantly for access to his design, and far away in Russia, Ivan Vanko/Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), whose father who helped Howard Stark develop the arc reactor tech that allows Iron Man to exist, develops his own arc reactor to claim vengeance on the Stark name. Worst of all, that very same wondrous technology is slowly killing Tony each time he dons his Iron Man armor.
With that much going on, one might suppose that Iron Man 2 doesn’t cut it because Jon Favreau put too much on his plate. But while there is a lot going on here, Favreau does a solid job setting up each thread in the early going and there isn’t a sense of being overwhelmed as his film admirably plods on in the last act and resolves its multiple plot lines. Instead, Iron Man 2‘s problems stem from a hampered narrative drive that begins petering out around the midway point as the story runs out of gas and begins to repeat itself. It’s hard not to feel like the movie truly wants to get somewhere, and that Favreau just didn’t know exactly how to make that journey.
It’s not a case of the director trying to synthesize a variety of truly disparate plot elements and devices. Tony’s palladium poisoning, his deep-rooted father issues, his alcoholism, Vanko, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s continued presence in Tony’s life, and Stark’s relationship snafus all thread together very well. There’s harmony in that mixture. There’s also an enormous amount of unnecessary repetition, which is where Iron Man 2 trips itself up. What could be done in one scene is drawn out over several scenes in such fashion that each feels like a duplicate of the last, and the result is frustratingly and sufficiently redundant so as to render the film’s conflicts and drama inert and the questions it asks meaningless. (There’s a potentially great arms race allegory here that is touched upon and never fully explored. This may well be the film’s biggest and most obvious missed opportunity; such an examination would have been relevant and close to home given today’s dialogue on nuclear armaments.) Once the end-game is clear and the story begins heading in that direction, things pick up again and the result is pretty strong entertainment, but Iron Man 2‘s ultimate flaw is that what doesn’t work weighs down all of the good that makes the film worth recommending in the end. It’s an imperfect movie, and it’s easy to see how it could have been far, far better.
And it’s a shame, because so much of the movie is totally wonderful and engaging; it’s only through the efforts of one poorly-sketched second act that the positive elements lose much of their heft. Taken on their own, though, those elements really do pop, and of course here I’m speaking of Favreau’s fantastic cast and thrilling action. Like another certain superhero movie from this year, Iron Man 2‘s action sequences each exist independently from one another; each scene is totally singular. If the film is repetitious in its narrative, then the same cannot be said of its action scenes, all of which are crafted in a way that benefits both the characters involved and the overall plot (particularly a brawl between Stark and his best friend, James Rhodes). Favreau certainly seems to have learned a few lessons from the action scenes of the first film, which were quite good, and used that knowledge to bring ever more creative destruction to the screen.
But in a film with a cast like this, the most special effects of all* are the interactions between the actors and actresses. Robert Downey Jr. returns as the brilliant, simultaneously magnetic and repulsive engineer whose hidden double life isn’t quite so hidden anymore. The challenges for Tony Stark in this outing are plentiful and unique, and Downey responds to each with his own brand of arrogant charm without totally smothering the character’s genuine thoughts and emotions. There’s a distinct impression that there are few problems Stark can’t solve with wolfish smirks and biting snark, and that’s just how he handles smarmy US Senator Stern (played to unctuous perfection by Garry Shandling) and the military’s bid to get their hands on the Iron Man armor. Of course, most of Stark’s problems fall into the other category, and the toll that each takes on him is clearly felt. Even at his quipping-est best, Downey instills a sense of exhaustion in Tony that reads in every line of his face. Downey does an incredible job translating the burden of the hero to the audience, moreso than many of the actors portraying today’s cinematic superheroes. As with the first film, we get a lot of Downey this time around, and with so many other characters making moves in the sidelines, it may be too much, but he’s so entertaining and soulful at the same time that it’s hard to treat his excessive presence as a negative.
Iron Man 2 presents two villains for Tony Stark to contend with– the previously mentioned Vanko, and Sam Rockwell’s arms dealer Justin Hammer, Tony Stark’s business rival. Both men are out to get Tony for similar reasons. Hammer, tired of being humiliated and bested by Stark at every turn, wants to trump his enemy’s own inventions and become a public icon in the same fashion. Vanko wants to avenge his family name on Tony’s for the respect and acknowledgment that was denied his own father. They are Tony’s opposites in terms of success (Vanko) and personality (Hammer); the former lives in crushing poverty despite his mechanical aptitude and the latter is a sniveling, socially awkward Tony Stark wannabe. Rourke unfortunately has a less meaty role, one that affords him little to do for most of the film after his emergence in the first action scene of the picture, but he makes the most of what he’s given. Rockwell, on the other hand, makes Justin Hammer into a character who is despicable much like Stark is, but without any redeeming qualities to balance out his flaws. Hammer is a pretender. Verbally sparring with Stark reveals how far Hammer is out of his league. Amazingly, Rockwell’s affectations make the character a lot of fun to watch in spite of his spinelessness.
Also joining the cast are Don Cheadle, filling in for Terrence Howard as Rhodes, and Scarlett Johansson, playing someone who may be much more than just Stark’s new personal assistant. Cheadle, while a quality actor, feels really out of place here; he neither reads as military, nor meshes with Stark in the way that two best friends should. Johansson, on the other hand, plays her character’s masquerade with surprising deftness, and shows that she can handle an action scene more than admirably. Johansson isn’t an actress known for her physicality, but given how efficiently she deals with a squad of armed combatants, maybe she should be.
There’s no point in trying to scare anyone off of Iron Man 2, and I’m not really trying to do that anyways. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s not glorious, either. And while it might be unfair to expect Spider-Man 2 greatness from the second entry in a superhero franchise, there’s nothing wrong with expecting something wholly excellent. In that respect, Iron Man 2 drops the ball; it has all of the right ingredients to be something really iconic but lacks the proper execution in just the right places. Short verdict: It’s worth seeing, but it’s not going to be crowned the king of the summer by a long shot.