It may be hard to remember right now, but when "Iron Man" blasted onto the screen in 2008, its success was a bit of a surprise.
Comic book movies were popular, but "Hulk," "Fantastic Four," and "Spider-man 3" had recently proven that the formula was vulnerable. Tony Stark may be a big player in the Marvel comic world and a geek icon, but there was question as to whether the hero had a fan base outside of the comic book stores. Besides, the brooding "Dark Knight," just a month away from release, seemed to be saying that audiences wanted their heroics with a bit of angst and soul-searching.
But, we know the story. Robert Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau's funny, exciting and witty take on the Marvel hero not only was a critical and commercial smash, but it also paved the way for Marvel Studios to begin laying the groundwork for future superhero adventures and crossovers between characters...just a few months after "Iron Man's" release, Tony Stark would show up in "The Incredible Hulk." It wasn't that "Iron Man" did anything we hadn't seen before...it's that it did everything so well and with such confidence that it was impossible not to have a great time.
"Iron Man 2" bursts out of the gate with the confidence still in check, with Robert Downey Jr. crash landing at the Stark Expo and emerging from his metal suit to proclaim "It's good to be back" before launching into a monologue full of Stark's egotistical ramblings and boasts. Once again, it's the superhero as rock star, and while Stark may have quit the arm's race and taken up the mantel of world protector, Downey is quick to remind us that the character is a flawed, overly-cocky narcissist, someone who would be annoying if he wasn't so darn charming.
Of course, much like Christian Bale's portrayal of Bruce Wayne, Stark's reckless public persona masks deeper concerns. The material used to power Stark's heart and Iron Man's metal getup is quickly poisoning the billionaire. He's trying to find a replacement, but it's hard to find time with a Senator (Gary Shandling) breathing down his back, demanding the Iron Man suit be turned over to the U.S. military. Even his friends are turning on him, with trusted sidekick Rhodes (Don Cheadle, stepping in for Terrence Howard this time around) testifying against him at the Senate Hearings and able assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) trying to acclimate to her new role as Stark Industries CEO.
Things are about to get worse. A Russian baddie (Mickey Rourke) who blames Stark's father for stealing credit from the work done by his own dad is developing a suit much like Tony's, but with strange electric whips on the side. A competitor named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) hopes to utilize the new villain to make a name for himself--something he's never been able to do from under Stark's shadow. Meanwhile, SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has amped up his screen time to include more than just the film's end credits this time, and he's keeping an eye on Tony to talk about his secret "Avengers Initiative." And then there's the quiet, sexy little assistant to Stark (Scarlett Johansson), who has a few secrets of her own.
Yes, there are a lot of characters and plot threads to keep in line in this second go-around. And at times you can feel the joints bending and rivets stressing to keep everything in place with the right balance of humor, adventure and romance. But for the most part, "Iron Man 2" manages to be just as exciting, witty and fun as its predecessor, even if it never really takes the story to the levels of other comic book sequels, like "Dark Knight" or "Spider-man 2."
In a genre most known for incredible special effects and set pieces, it's still refreshing to see a comic book movie that gains so much of strength for its cast. Downey doesn't reveal much new depth about Stark this time around, but he's clearly having a great time playing the wisecracking, womanizing hero for a second time. I love the looseness he brings to the performance, the live-wire energy that makes us belief Stark would vacation in Monaco and then, on a whim, race his own car down the city streets. Any actor could handle the melodramatic moments of Stark contemplating his own mortality or discovering the truth about his father; Downey makes those cliched moments work because he's brought so much life and humor to the role in the throwaway moments. It's hard to believe that with the first "Iron Man," Downey was seen as a major risk---with this and "Sherlock Holmes," he's commandeering two franchises, and it's obvious he has a blast with both of them.
Of course, a hero is only as good as his villain. Rourke, not wasting the cache brought to him by his "Wrestler" rebound is solid as the Russian bad guy out to kill Stark. He plays the heavily-tattooed, snarling heavy not as a monster, but as a man out to avenge his father. He may be trying to kill our hero, but he's doing so to avenge what he sees as wrongdoing. Rourke makes him both fearsome and surprisingly sympathetic, a combination that often makes for delicious villains.
Stealing the show is Rockwell as Hammer, the darker side of Tony Stark. Rockwell was one of the original actors in contention to play Stark in the first "Iron Man," and I love how he plays Hammer as just as quirky and weird as Stark, the same confidence through a creepy sheen. Rockwell's work in "Moon" was my favorite performance of 2009 and he's quickly becoming one of my absolute favorite actors to watch.
Everyone else is reliably solid, but given the packed roster, there's little for them to do. Potts' and Starks' screwball chemistry was the highlight of the first film and when they're together here, that spark comes through again. But with the busy plot, their would-be romance seems shoehorned in and best left to be resolved in a third film. Favreau gives himself a bit more screentime as bodyguard Happy Hogan, although he's little more than comic relief. Cheadle is fine as always, although he seems to be a bit stiff when delivering his one-liners; Howard had a looseness about him that I liked. Jackson acts like the coolest cat in the room (as always) and Johansson stands (and kicks) around looking pretty, but it strongly feels like the actors are biding their time until the "Avengers" movie comes around in 2012.
In one sense, there are certain moments where "Iron Man 2" feels like an "Avengers" prequel, existing to set up another movie. There are blatant references to Captain America and Thor, both of whom have movies that will be released next year to further set the stage for "The Avengers." Were the principle cast not so engaging and Favreau unable to keep the action moving fast and furious, this would easily feel like a placeholder.
Instead, we're so captivated by Stark and Co. that even when the sequences feel like trailers for an upcoming movie, we quickly forget them once we're on to the next scene. I liked the feeling of a larger world beyond this film, and it's set up so that comic book novices can enjoy it just as much as die hard geeks.
Favreau, criticized by some for not packing "Iron Man" with a ton of action, ladles on the set pieces with skill here, from a brutal fight in Monaco to a bone-crushing brawl at Stark's pad to a fantastically choreographed climax featuring to Iron Men against an Army of robots. The action sequences, while using large amounts of CGI, feel thoroughly rough and brutal, sometimes ending a bit quickly, but still leaving the audience rightfully walloped. The action is fun to watch, but never detracts from the bigger story.
In the end, "Iron Man 2" may not achieve the scope-widening triumphs of its comic book brethren. But Downey is still fun to watch, Favreau can craft a thrilling action sequence and there's a sense of joy and humor about the enterprise that keeps everything enjoyable and exciting.
It's a machine that gets the job done, even if the joints start to show some wear. Let's hope "Iron Man 3" puts some oil on and avoids getting rusty.