Directed By: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Gwyneth Paltrow
Tag line: "It's not the armor that makes the hero, but the man inside"
Trivia: In total, 11 different visual effects studios worked on the film
In the current chronology of the Marvel Universe (at least as it pertains to the "Avengers Initiative"), Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2 is the keystone film in the studio’s first wave of movies, coming after Iron Man (naturally) and The Incredible Hulk, and before Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger (references to the latter two appear in this sequel), all leading up to 2012’s mega-hero spectacular, The Avengers.
Now that he's revealed to the entire world that he’s Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is an even bigger celebrity than before. Of course, not everyone is singing his praises. For one, the Federal Government believes the Iron Man suit is a weapon, and has tasked Stark’s close friend, Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), with trying to get the billionaire playboy to surrender the technology to the military, something Stark refuses to do. Then there’s Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian genius whose father (Evgeniy Lazarev) was screwed out of millions by Stark’s old man some 50 years ago. Using the Iron Man suit as a basis, Vanko creates his own armor, and, with the help of Stark’s chief rival, weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) sets out to destroy Iron Man. Along with these external issues, Tony Stark must deal with the fact that the power source which is keeping him alive is also poisoning his system. Having researched every possible fix to the problem (all of which have failed), Stark realizes his days are numbered, and there isn’t a damn thing he can do about it.
In Iron Man 2, Downey Jr. pulled off the remarkable feat of broadening his character without altering his persona in any discernible way, giving us a Tony Stark who’s every bit as egotistical as he was in Iron Man (his appearance before the Senate committee is Stark at his arrogant best), yet also suddenly aware of his own mortality (the scene where he decides to drive his race car in the Monaco Grand Prix is Stark's way of living what little life he has left to its fullest). The fact that Downey Jr. convincingly portrays Stark’s overconfidence is no great revelation (the actor brought this same level of haughtiness to the character of Sherlock Holmes in a pair of recent movies directed by Guy Ritchie), but I was pleasantly surprised at how well he handled the scenes where the billionaire playboy is wrestling with the notion of his own demise (you can see the fear in his eyes whenever he checks his blood’s toxicity level). .
Along with Downey Jr., Iron Man 2 has an impressive supporting cast, featuring some familiar faces (Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury) as well as a few new ones. Don Cheadle seamlessly steps into the role of Lt. Col. Rhodes, a part played by Terence Howard in the 2008 original, while Scarlett Johansson gives us our first look at the lethal Natasha Romanoff, who’d continue her ass-kicking ways in The Avengers. As for the movie’s villains, Sam Rockwell is appropriately slimy as Justin Hammer, yet it’s Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko, an imposing figure with a huge chip on his shoulder, who steals the show. In fact, one of the film’s weaknesses is its failure to delve more deeply into this fascinating character (Rourke is always an interesting actor, and I’d have liked to see what he might have done with a little more screen time). Even the final confrontation between Stark and Vanko is something of a let-down (it’s over far too quickly).
The problem, I think, is that Iron Man 2 tried to take on far too much, dividing its time between Stark’s illness; his battle with the Federal Government; Hammer’s manipulation of Vanko; the growing relationship between Pepper Potts and Tony Stark; and S.H.I.E.L.D’s involvement in all these events. As a result, the movie over-extended itself, and was forced to cut a few corners (Ivan Vanko being one of them). Its overly ambitious storyline aside, however, Iron Man 2 still features plenty of great action (the racing scene, where Stark first encounters Vanko, is especially well-handled), and has enough of that “Marvel Magic” to make it a rollicking good time.