How do you follow up one of the greatest film franchise launches ever? The question weighs on every director who takes up the mantle of the sequel. For some, the pressure proves too much and the movie falters. Others take hold of the challenge and push the second installment to even greater heights than those reached by its predecessor.
Such a challenge awaited Jon Favreau and the team tasked with bringing Iron Man 2 to the screen. Did they succeed in pushing the Marvel brand forward, giving us the adventure and action that we all believed that Tony Stark could deliver? Or does Iron Man 2 get lost in its own success, trying desperately to catch lightning in a bottle again, but doing so in a contrived fashion, rather than simply letting it happen?
Moviegoers and fan boys can rest easy. Iron Man 2 does not launch itself into the strato-sphere alongside The Empire Strikes Back. Rather it settles in nicely in moving the story of Tony Stark (so perfectly realized by Robert Downey Jr.) along expanding the Marvel universe and placing us on the collision course toward the Avengers, an impact we all so desperately await.
The film follows the events of Tony's life after his "I am Ironman" speech at the end of the first film. He has enemies coming at him from all sides and is dealing with a personal issue that could prove deadlier than any foe.
Robert Downey Jr. again owns this film. This character is so fully realized thanks to the effort and commitment that Downey has made to the role. Watching him as Tony Stark you imagine that he could walk around and play the character full time in real life, knowing exactly how he would react or adjust to any situation. In some ways, Tony Stark is infinitely more interesting than his Ironman alter ego. This is why I don't have any issue with the longer exposition that we see in film. I can't imagine anyone being annoyed or bored because of how intriguing a character Downey Jr is weaving. Though for those looking for the action to be amped up, rest assured there is more action in this film than in the first one.
The villain again holds the film back a bit. Mickey Rourke is spot perfect to play the tortured Russian Ivan Vanko, that is not the problem at all. He has the physical presence required for a character who doesn't rely on speaking as much to make his point. The problems come when the battle is joined. The battle scenes between Vanko and Ironman aren't anything special to behold. The presence of the electrified whips does indeed present an ascetic that we haven't seen before, but at times they feel a little rushed and after the conclusion of each you wonder whether any threat was really ever posed. Like many other super-hero films, I just never believe that the hero is in all that much danger.
All the more reasons why the scenes of character interaction and exposition are so important. Because we never truly fear for Tony's life, we need to be drawn into the story through his relationships (both old and new) that develop, grow and deteriorate over time. Luckily most of the cast is up to the challenge.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Jon Favreau (the director himself!) return as Pepper Pots and Happy Hogan (driver, bodyguard and all around side kick). Both are much more involved in the story this time around and provide both emotion and levity to the events of the film. From watching Happy, I get the feeling that Favreau saw how much fun his actors were having with the last film that he decided he needed to get in on the action. One would think he's earned it.
Newcomers Sam Rockwell and Gary Shandling are wonderful as foils for the charismatic Tony Stark. Rockwell plays Justin Hammer, a Stark-wannabe weapons developer. His interaction with Stark is crisp and the dialogue between the two is perfectly biting. Just the type of aseptic attitude you'd expect between rivals. Shandling portrays Senator Stern who is hell bent on acquiring the Ironman tech. Shandling could not be better in his scenes as a smarmy politician with an intense disdain for Stark. The Senate hearing scene, revealed a little bit in the trailers for the film is fantastic and rides entirely on the shoulders of Downey and Shandling trading barbs.
Don't think I've forgotten the stunning Scarlett Johansson, as Natalie Rushman, the new assistant to Tony Stark. I won't spoil her true identity or her motivations, but suffice to say she's got deadly skills that are not quite suited for procuring coffee or making dinner reservations. Also, full disclosure, I'm completely enamored with her and the scenes where she is "suited up" are a little hazy for me because I was distracted by how incredibly hot she is. Sorry.
I said "most of the cast" because there is a weak link. It is with Don Cheadle's Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes that the baton gets dropped a bit. Taking over for the departed Terrence Howard, Cheadle isn't terrible, but he's more rigid and has much less charisma than Howard's portrayal appeared to. He's much more robotic and military in his delivery, which is fine for scenes that require the character to act as such. Yet, it just doesn't transfer to the intimate character scenes between Rhodey and Stark, which is frustrating especially when you consider how well Downey Jr. is doing on the other side. This also doesn't bode well for those hoping to see the infamous Demon in a Bottle storyline in a later installment. Rhodey becomes a huge part of that and I'm not sure Cheadle is able to play the character properly for that kind of story.
All the other elements of the film come together with the quality we're beginning to expect from Marvel productions. The visuals are slick as is the camera work. There are one or two issues during action scenes when the camera jumps into the suit to give a full view of Tony Stark inside the Ironman outfit. This takes us out of battle and I wonder if showing that as a small camera inset to the entire shot (sort of like a comic book) would have been better, but that's a minor quip. Also, those looking forward to The Avengers will be happy to see a few Easter eggs and the return of Agent Colson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Pay special attention to the map behind Nick Fury during one of his scenes, and the "item" that Agent Colson finds in Tony's workshop.
Whether you're a diehard Marvel fan or just someone yearning for the kickoff to the summer movie season, Iron Man 2 will deliver. It's an admirably response to the surprise smash hit of the original, but it doesn't come anywhere near the heights of The Empire Strikes Back or The Dark Knight. You know what though? That's okay; this film stands on its own as an entertaining ride that isn't afraid to take a moment or two to delve into the characters behind the super-suits. Oh, and for you diehards, stay till after the credits roll.
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