Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, powered by a revelatory Robert Downey Jr. performance, was a surprise megahit in 2008, wildly successful with critics and audiences alike.
Advance word on the sequel hasn’t been promising: early reviews haven’t been overly kind (not that there have been many, I’m mainly going by Kirk Honeycutt’s in The Hollywood Reporter), and the fact that it’s opening in foreign territories a week ahead of the US raises some flags (though I’m guessing this might have more to do with curbing piracy.)
But fear not: Iron Man 2 is very nearly as good as the first installment, and in some ways, it’s better. One of the big gripes with the first film was the third act, which abandoned most of the good that had come before it with a rather pedestrian smash-‘em-up climax.
That’s not so much of a problem here, as the film keeps getting better as it goes along. 30 minutes in, though, I was worried. Over the opening credits, we have Russian Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) tending to his dying father and preparing some heavy machinery from Stark Industries blueprints. Up next, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) drops into the Epcot-like Stark Expo to deliver a keynote speech.
Then he’s off to a Godfather II-like senatorial hearing, during which Sen. Stern (Garry Shandling) and weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) want to force him to turn over his designs for the good of the country.
Also, Stark is dying, as the palladium used to power his heart (and his suit) is rapidly poisoning his blood. He turns over the reins of Stark Industries to his hard-luck assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who happens to have a pretty new assistant in Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who you might guess by the casting has a larger role than is initially implied. And there’s some muted animosity between Stark and friend/Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, filling in for Terence Howard from the first film).
That’s too much setup. Far too much setup, and the first half-hour of Iron Man 2 really drags and tests your patience and threatens to turn the movie into another overstuffed and overcomplicated Spider-Man 3.
But then we have our first big action set piece as Vanko shows up in Monaco as the supervillain Whiplash (though I don’t think he’s ever referred to by that on the screen), slicing up race cars and going after Stark. From there, the film reaches a high that it maintains till the very end as all the varying plotlines and characters converge, each given enough time to really pay off; by the finale, the rough half-hour of setup was worth it.
The screenplay is credited to a single writer, actor Justin Theroux (working, of course, from the original comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and others); unusual for a major blockbuster. It’s his second script, following Tropic Thunder, and the comic flair here is one of the best things on display.
Director Jon Favreau puts all the pieces together as well as he did in the first film, and improves upon the action scenes (not that there are many, also unusual for this kind of film); special credit goes to the spare (or rather, sophisticated) use of CGI: everything here feels more real than it ought to.
Downey Jr., however, remains the real attraction, and he’s as good here as he was in the original: witty, sarcastic, narcissistic, yet incredibly endearing. With everything else going on, there’s less of him on display this time around, but an excellent supporting cast makes up for it.
Rockwell, especially, has some wonderful dialogue and makes for a far better corporate villain than Jeff Bridges did in the first film. Rourke and Cheadle occasionally feel out of place, however; Rourke, due to a sketchy Russian accent and an underwritten character, and Cheadle, when compared to Howard in the original, feels less suited to the role.
Samuel L. Jackson, who had a cameo at the end of Iron Man, has a more significant role here as Nick Fury, which includes a great donut shop scene that serves as a nod to Pulp Fiction. Fury still serves as little more than a teaser for an upcoming Avengers movie, among other works.
Marvel Studios, after years of licensing out their characters led to inferior products, is really taking care of their material now, and should be richly rewarded.