When it comes to super hero movie sequels, it's usually the second time, not the third, that's the charm. This trend began with 1981's Superman II and we've seen it carried on more recently with Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2: X-Men United, and of course, The Dark Knight, which currently stands as the most financially and critically successful example of the entire genre. (Contrast those sequels with Superman III, Spider-Man 3, and X-Men 3: The Last Stand, all of which were colossal disappointments—can the recently announced Christopher Nolan-directed Batman 3 avoid the same dismal results?)
Iron Man 2 sits comfortably among those second films that are just as good as—and in some ways even better than—their predecessors. It is a true sequel in every sense of the word. It picks up where the previous film left off and continues the story thread introduced at the very end of 2008's Iron Man—namely, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) revealing to the public that he is the new armored hero known as Iron Man. The new film sets out to explore the effects that this revelation has on the world, on those closest to Stark—particularly his long-suffering executive assistant and possible future romantic interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, who matches her charming performance in the first film) and his best friend, U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing the original film's Terrence Howard)—and on Stark himself.
Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts.
Cheadle takes over as James Rhodes.
And as time goes on, it becomes clear that outing himself may not have been Tony's brightest move, as it jeopardizes his relationships with friends and associates and earns him the wrath of business rivals and those who have a personal axe to grind against the billionaire genius inventor/industrialist. Those who come not to praise Stark but to bury him include weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and renegade Russian physicist/ex-convict Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke). Plus, a U.S. Senate committee, led by the determined Senator Stern (Garry Shandling, believe it or not), demands that Tony turn over the Iron Man armor to the U.S. government. And if that's not enough, Stark is dealing with a very personal problem, one that even his brilliant mind is finding impossible to solve.
Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) makes his case.
Rourke on the rampage.
Hey now! Shandling takes on Stark.
Along with the new faces in the cast is Scarlett Johansson, who plays Stark's enigmatic new assistant, Natalie Rushman. And returning with bigger, somewhat meatier parts are the film's director, Jon Favreau, as Stark's bodyguard/driver, Happy Hogan, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, director of the U.S. espionage organization called S.H.I.E.L.D.
There are parts of Iron Man 2 that reminded me of another sequel: Rocky III. As Tony Stark relishes his wealth, fame, acclaim, and popularity, Ivan Vanko is in a cramped, dingy, decrepit lab, laboring tirelessly as he prepares to confront Iron Man. I couldn't help but think of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, flush with success, too busy posing for the cameras and adoring admirers to focus on training in his lavish luxury hotel suite, while Mr. T's Clubber Lang is in a dark, filthy rathole of a gymnasium, working to push his body beyond its limits.
In fact, if there's anything truly disappointing about Iron Man 2, it's that the conflict between Stark and Vanko does not really reach its full potential. It's handled somewhat superficially, in very broad strokes, and the final resolution of their conflict comes off somewhat anti-climactically—though not quite as anti-climactically as the final confrontation between Iron Man and Jeff Bridges's Obadiah Stane in the first film.
Robert Downey Jr. is terrific, as one would expect. He simply OWNS this film, and while Tony Stark isn't always the most likable person, your sympathies are always with him because of the charm and the humanity that Downey Jr. brings to the role.
Mickey Rourke is effective as Ivan Vanko (his character is never referred to by his super-villain name, Whiplash), bringing plenty of menace and sleaze and still possessing the impressive physique he displayed in The Wrestler.
Sam Rockwell has the somewhat thankless task of competing with Rourke as the villain of the piece, and while Justin Hammer is nowhere near as flashy or as threatening as Vanko, Rockwell delivers. He's smarmy, weaselly, and conniving—sort of a less comical version of the character that Paul Reiser played in Aliens.
In the role of James Rhodes, Don Cheadle brings more warmth, humanity, and intelligence to the table than Terrence Howard did. The friendship between him and Downey Jr.'s Stark seemed more real to me. In Cheadle's hands, Rhodes gets to make good on a promise he made to himself in the first film, and this results in some spectacular action and fight sequences.
The chemistry between Downey Jr. and Paltrow is palpable. They work together as if they've been doing it for decades, and their scenes sparkle with witty banter and mutual affection.
Scarlett Johansson's Natalie is not given a whole lot of character development, due to the demands of the story, but she has great presence and acquits herself nicely and believably in one of the film's more exciting action scenes, during which she (sort of) teams up with Favreau's Hogan. However, those people who are familiar with the comic-book version of Johansson's character will no doubt wonder why we never hear her speak with an accent.
Johansson springs into action.
Not surprisingly, the special effects are great. The fight scenes are like a comic book come to life. And there are great little moments and in-jokes that are sure to please comic-book fans and filmgoers who are enjoying watching the "Marvel Movie Universe" unfold and develop, with the establishment of an ongoing continuity that will stretch across a number of different films. The building of this continuity is aided by the participation of Jackson as Nick Fury. Oh, and by the way: DO NOT LEAVE DURING THE END CREDITS. STAY UNTIL THE VERY END OF THE MOVIE. You'll thank me later.
That Nick Fury is one bad mother—
I must acknowledge that there is some disjointedness in the storytelling, causing a few moments where I was pulled out of the film and a little confused by the narrative. Things may become clearer with repeated viewings, but I do know that there are some moments that were shown in the trailers that didn't make it into the final cut. Maybe that's part of the reason for the disjointedness, in which case an expanded director's cut for the DVD release would be welcome.
Overall, Iron Man 2 is fun and exciting, which is exactly what you would want and expect from a blockbuster super hero movie. It doesn't try to reinterpret the genre or challenge the audience in the way that The Dark Knight did—and that's fine. It's not out to turn everything in the first movie on its ear, or set off in a completely different direction. It's a continuation of its predecessor, a logical next step. A worthy sequel.
Now, all Marvel has to do is avoid the dreaded "third-movie trap" that ensnared Superman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men. Maybe Favreau, Downey Jr., and crew should start comparing notes with Christopher Nolan...?