Pros: Great acting, Decent story, Wonderful special effects, Good character development, Pacing
Cons: A few cheesy lines, Movie gets a little melodramatic in the middle.
The Bottom Line: An amazing super hero sequel, Iron Man 2 ramps up the menace in the Iron Man universe and offers a real thrill for summer movie viewers!
There are, arguably, very few sequels which surpass the quality of the original story which inspired the sequel. Origin stories have the advantage of originality and a freshness for the actors which allows them to stride out in a new direction for them. Sequels, on the other hand, lose the originality both of the story concept and the push for the actors and the best ones trade these things for refinement and character development. In fact, the best two sequels which come instantly to mind for surpassing the originals - The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight - succeeded because the stories progressed, the characters developed and some of the problems with the first movie in the series were effectively ironed out. That is exactly how it is with Iron Man 2.
In preparing to see Iron Man 2, I rewatched Iron Man (check out my review by clicking here!) and while I have long suspected I was originally too harsh on the movie, it wasn't long into the film that I found myself cringing at special effects or feeling like the pacing was off. Neither of those problems were present in Iron Man 2, a film which continues where Iron Man left off and promises to be one of the biggest movies of the year, both critically and from fans buying movie tickets. Iron Man 2 has everything fans could have hoped for without alienating new viewers with too much self-referentialism. It is worth noting that I've never read an Iron Man comic book, so this is very much a pure review of the film Iron Man 2 unencumbered by bias of what the book-version of the characters of Tony Stark or Rhodey are "supposed" to be.
Having made it through confessing to the world that he is the armored superhero Iron Man, Tony Stark finds himself in a whole new world of trouble. Pressured by the United States government, most notably in the form of Senator Stern's nagging, to give the military the technology behind the Iron Man suit, Tony Stark finds himself beleaguered. As Stern attempts to enlist Stark's friend James Rhodes to his cause, Stark finds himself pressured by Nick Fury - whose invitation to join the Avenger Initiative Stark has so far declined - and plagued by problems with rival weapon's manufacturer Justin Hammer. Meanwhile, in Russia, a vengeful patriot - Ivan Vanko - rises up. Angered over how Stark's weapons (most notably the Arc Reactor technology) were based upon works by his late father, Vanko works on developing technology similar to Stark's Iron Man suit. After a successful test, Whiplash comes into play as an antagonist to Iron Man.
Stark, wrestling with his personal feelings for Virginia Potts, finds himself drawn to his new personal assistant, Natalia. But when an act of corporate espionage gives the military what they want, Stark finds his problems multiplied and even his most trusted allies turning against him. Rescued and now employed by Hammer, Vanko begins developing an army to undo the good Iron Man has done. As Whiplash sets out on a mission of vengeance to destroy Stark, Stark must also confront his friend, Rhodey, who now has a suit of his own and a will that rivals that of Tony Stark!
Have you ever seen a film which is far better as clips in the preview trailer because all of the best parts are spoiled in fifteen-frame shots set to a much cooler soundtrack than the actual movie possesses? Iron Man 2 is not that film. A lot of credit for that has to go to screenwriter Justin Theroux (whose work I only previously knew as an actor) who has a real gift for character work. Even more than with the flippant Tony Stark, Theroux makes a vivid character out of Ivan Vanko. As Vanko evolves into Whiplash, Theroux continues to focus on the sense of injustice the character has for crimes done in the past. Theroux creates a sensible villain who is rooted in a strong sense of realism and there is a perspective where his cause makes sense, if not his methods. By creating a better villain – and one with an empathetic motive (unlike the random sociopathy of, say, the Joker) Iron Man 2 is enhanced because the hero seems that much more heroic as he works to overcome him.
Similarly, Theroux does an excellent job of fleshing out James Rhodes. Rhodey is conflicted in Iron Man 2 by a sense of military duty and propriety – which Stark does not possess – and a friendship with Stark. The conflict, like the conflict between Stark and Vanko, is rooted in something very real and understandable. Rhodey sees the potential good that comes from an army outfitted in Iron Man-type suits, the Stark with discipline and training. His friendship and his belief in the innate good of the military are both shaken and while the resolution to that conflict might seem campy, it is arrived at in an essentially human way.
Add to that, Iron Man 2 is entertaining on every other level. As the villains develop, Tony Stark basks in the celebrity that comes from being a one-man army. The triangle relationship that develops with Pepper and Natasha and Stark is played out well and it’s fun to watch. Again, the destination is not as enjoyable as the journey and it works quite well.
The acting in Iron Man 2 is all-around wonderful. In previous big special effects films, there are often acting flubs that come from interacting with virtual characters and eyelines being missed. In Iron Man 2 there is none of that. As well, the actual acting is quite good. Mickey Rourke manages to be completely menacing as both Vanko and Whiplash without every going over-the-top and he has a great physical presence in the role. Even Scarlett Johansson, whose work I have usually been disappointed with, lives up becoming a bona fide action hero as the Black Widow. She, like Gwyneth Paltrow have great on-screen chemistry with Robert Downey Jr.
Iron Man 2 is Robert Downey Jr.’s movie. If in Iron Man he has a hesitancy about him as he came out of his shell and viewers worked to believe he could pull the role off, Downey Jr. returns to this sequel with a confidence that mirrors that of his character. Unlike roles from shows like Ally McBeal or Sherlock Holmes where one might feel like they are just watching Robert Downey Jr. play on screen, the role of Tony Stark seems genuinely to be a character of its own. This is ironic as Downey Jr. has often said himself that the role comes easily to him because it is just him with cool gadgets. One never feels that when watching Iron Man 2.
But the one who steals the show is Don Cheadle. Cheadle takes over as Rhodes and he fits into the role beautifully. He makes his scenes seem effortless. Unlike Downey Jr., whose Downey’s best moments of acting come from playing Stark vulnerable and in peril outside his suit, Cheadle steals his scenes when he is military crisp and trying to be a buddy to Stark both. He might not have the screentime of Downey Jr., but he has as powerful a resonance in this film.
Ultimately, Iron Man 2 starts Summer Blockbuster Season off right, in a way we always wish it would. The movie is smart, fast and big and the combination is everything we would hope it could be.
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© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.