The pressure was on. With the release of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel Studios and the universe created by director Jon Favreau turned the world of comic book movies upside down. Big action, a charismatic lead and a demographic-bending mainstream success meant one thing — the sequel was coming. But sequels are delicate business. As Favreau and company have certainly learned by now, raising the stakes without digging up roots is an ever-tricky task. You can’t just throw a bunch of new characters into the mix and make the explosions bigger. Their financier Paramount Pictures learned that last year with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. And you can’t change your tone. Iron Man 2 could never be The Dark Knight. It exists in a much brighter and more comical world. For Favreau and company, the name of the game was being smart about expanding the world of everyone’s new favorite hero. And for the most part, they’ve succeeded.
The story is more complex. Tony Stark is six months removed from his rise to power as the world’s foremost iron-clad superhero. And he’s loving it. In his opening scene, Iron Man jumps from a plane flying high above the Stark Expo — a fictional extension of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which was created by Stark’s father Howard (Mad Men’s John Slattery) in this universe. As Iron Man lands, the suit is stripped away to reveal the rock star inside. Tony Stark, embodied perfectly again by Robert Downey Jr., is having the time of his life saving the world and showing off. But as we soon learn, Tony Stark has a problem. The Palladium that powers his chest piece is slowly poisoning him. And with no cure in sight, Stark is slowly losing his grip on his noble intentions.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, a plot against Stark is forming in the mind of Ivan Vanko, played by the colorfully tattooed and wild-haired Mickey Rourke. Following the death of his father, who worked with Howard Stark on the Arc-reactor technology that is now the core of the Iron Man suit, Vanko begins work on a suit of his own. A suit that will quite literally shock the world.
Soon after, we see Tony Stark in Monaco. In a span of several minutes, he promotes his trusty assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to CEO of Stark Enterprises, has a rousing hearing with the U.S. Senate (and a slimey Senator played by Gary Shandling), and runs into his old friend Col. James Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle). But he has time to drive his own car in the Monaco Grand Prix — a decision that puts him square in the sights of Vanko, who takes to the track with his electric whips and his bad attitude. It is the catalyst to Iron Man 2‘s first big action set piece — one that includes some fast cars and perhaps the coolest piece of tech in the Iron Man arsenal, the suitcase armor. As Iron Man fights it out with Vanko for the first time, it is clear that adventure is afoot, and the action of this second film is operating on a level far above that of its predecessor.
It is that action that carries the film, especially early on. As villains go, Vanko is not exactly the most formidable opponent for Stark. But when combined with rival weapons developer Justin Hammer — a fast-talking ball of crazy tuned perfectly by the performance of Sam Rockwell — he becomes something more than a nuisance, at least in the end.
The problems begin in the film’s second act, in which both Vanko and Iron Man seem to disappear. Enter Tony Stark’s dark journey of hitting rock bottom and learning about his roots. It’s hard to imagine, but the introduction of several characters — including Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) — come at a time when the film’s momentum slows to a crawl. Sure, there’s a wild birthday party scene in which Tony’s drinking goes off the deep end, forcing Rhodes to don an Iron Man suit and put a stop to his antics. But it plays tonally over-the-top, leaving the emotional effect of Stark’s fall from grace overshadowed by silliness. Though, like all of the film’s dull moments — of which there are a few — they serve their purpose to move the story toward a thrilling final act.
Act two is also saved by charisma. Robert Downey Jr. has charisma oozing from every second of screen time, making even the most full banter engaging. Sam Rockwell is also on top of his game as Justin Hammer, a character that is as eccentric as Stark, and twice as twisted. He begins fun and quickly turns nasty as his rivalry with Stark intensifies. Also well cast is Scarlett Johansson, whose stoic nature is perfect as Natasha. Her usually flat delivery works well, as her character is tasked with blending into the background. And when she finally does get some action, she delivers an unexpected level of physicality that steals an entire sequence. Even as Iron Man is off battling like hell, we can’t take our eyes off of the tightly clad Natasha as she whoops a hallway full of goons. It’s just one example of where this film goes right.
Make no mistake, act three of this film is some of the best action you’re going to see on screen all year. Favreau raises the stakes with some impressive high-flying action. And once again, his restraint and dedication to mixing practical effects with CGI gives the final action set piece a strong base. And for the first time in a movie that tries so hard to put its hero in peril and never quite achieves it, we believe that Iron Man might be over-matched. It’s a final run of adrenaline-fueled explosiveness that makes it all worthwhile. It’s a final act that gives purpose to a bloated middle act and a few extraneous story-elements. It’s also a technically impressive movie. The soundtrack — filled with AC/DC — moves the story along nicely and John Debney’s score puts much of the film (especially the introduction of Vanko) on a grand stage.
In the end, Favreau accomplishes something quite special with Iron Man 2. Avoiding the pratfalls of sequelitis and simultaneously building a bridge for Marvel to cross over to The Avengers. Some of the building blocks of that bridge do feel as if they were forced in there, but Favreau’s ability to tie it all together in the end makes all the difference. When Iron Man 2 doesn’t work, it is still enjoyable. And when it is working — which is more often than not — it works on a level that far exceeds that of the first film. It is an intense ride, full of fun performances, that works hard through its problems to earn the ‘must-see’ tag. But in the end, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of those films that you absolutely must see.
The Upside: The action is kicked up, the performances are well-tuned and once again, Iron Man impresses with an awe-inspiring final action set piece.
The Downside: Its middle section is bloated, and our hero’s peril is avoided too easily. Luckily, that Downey Jr. guy is electric, even in the film’s dull moments.
On the Side: The film is dedicated to Adam “DJ AM” Goldstein, who appears as the DJ at Tony Stark’s birthday party. DJ AM died of drug-related causes in late 2009, not long after filming his scene.