The first Iron Man surprised audiences with its excellent acting, story and jaw-dropping visual effects. It also appealed with its sense of realism offering a hero that fought real life bad guys. If one could criticize Iron Man, it would be that the first film was light on action, but that was a forgivable point since it was an origin story. Iron Man 2 has all of the elements that made the first film amazing, but unfortunately those elements are in the wrong proportions. This sequel is still very entertaining; it just feels like it could have used more. Or less.
At the end of Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) had revealed that he was indeed Iron Man. With his superior technology, Stark has been able to quell hostile military actions around the world, garnering him the attention of the US government as well as new foreign enemies. One such enemy is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) whose father worked with Stark’s father on the technology that currently powers the Iron Man suit. When elder Vanko passes away in poverty and anonymity while Stark is lavished with fortune and praise, it drives Ivan to seek revenge, using Starks own technology against him. Of course that’s just the beginning of Stark’s problems. His competitor, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), is trying to run Stark out of business by creating his own version of armored soldiers. Finally, Stark is also slowly dying from blood poisoning originating from the Palladium in his chest piece. With a little help from new and old friends, Stark must battle his downward spiral and emerge the hero everyone expects him to be.
There’s a lot going on here and maybe unnecessarily so. The blood poisoning was a good idea from a story perspective, because it put a lot of pressure on Stark, which motivated his self-destructive behavior early on. That foundation allowed for the expansion of subplots for other characters, like Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Lt. Col. James Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle). Potts gets a promotion and Rhodes gets his own Iron Man suit. The blood poisoning should have also tied the villain to Stark as well in some way – like maybe Vanko had developed a substance that counteracted the blood poisoning or something – but that never happens. Instead, Starks condition is used to reintroduce Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) whom audiences met in the tag at the end of the first Iron Man. Fury’s involvement also introduces a new character played by Scarlett Johansson, Natasha Rushman. Then, of course, there’s the extra bad guy Justin Hammer to threaten Stark on a corporate level. There’s almost too much here to appreciate in one movie.
It also doesn’t help that many of these characters don’t add much to the film. They’re not necessary for dealing with the main crisis and some of their subplots aren’t very interesting. Poor Pepper Potts is saddled with trying to run Stark Enterprises throughout the movie and that’s it. Fury and Rushman didn’t need to be in the film at all and their actions should have been absorbed into other characters, like Rhodes and Potts. It was nice to see a sexy girl like Johansson kick ass in her extended fight scene, but it was completely indulgent. Trying to develop all of these new characters while still being fair to the original cast takes its toll on the movie’s pacing. The second act will drag.
Thankfully, the acting is as strong as ever and watching Robert Downey Jr. own his scenes helps take the edge off the sluggish plot. He’s pompous, sarcastic and all of the other things audiences love about Downey Jr. It would have been nice, however, if Stark was played with a little vulnerability. Even when he’s depressed about his incurable condition he still seems totally in control. At no time does he have that sobering moment of reflection that one would expect to see when a person discovers that they’re dying. Mickey Rourke is another highlight in the film. His Vanko is believable, menacing and sometimes sympathetic. It’s a shame that he’s not in more of the film. Paltrow and Cheadle don’t look like they’re having any fun in this movie, sadly.
It’s the visual effects, however, that will be the biggest draw for audiences and they won’t be disappointed. The filmmakers did a fantastic job bringing the Iron Man world to life with little touches like novelty palm lights for Iron Man fans to wear at the Stark Expo. The Iron Man outfit(s) also look(s) completely realistic and eliminate the ability to guess what parts are CGI. New, brutal weaponry and a really cool way for Stark to get into his suit on-the-go also await viewers. Unfortunately, Iron Man 2 is a little light on the action. Moreover, the climactic battle suffers from the same problem as the rest of the film: it felt thin because it was spread out over too many characters. Nevertheless, the fights still pack a solid punch and there are enough explosions and bullets flying through the air to satisfy most action moviegoers.
In the end, Iron Man 2 gets the job done. Its production value is through the roof, its action is visceral and unique and the hero and villain are both acted extremely well. Hopefully the following Iron Man films will focalize their stories and deliver the epic action movie audiences were expecting here.