Like its predecessor, Iron Man 2 delivers the finest form of entertainment within the confines of a very limiting genre. The first Iron Man was a strict superhero origin story that managed to stand out above the rest thanks to Robert Downey Jr.’s quirky acting. This time Iron Man 2 presents the superhero sequel formula with unprecedented elegance.
The essence of the story rests in brilliant (and rather logical twist) Tony Stark is dying. The apparatus built in the first movie that keeps him alive is also slowly killing him. Knowing that he probably has less than a year left to live (unless he finds a very rare source of energy) Tony Stark begins to act much more rashly than usual; “What would you do if you though this was your last birthday party?” he asks Natalie. “I would do whatever I want”, she responds. You can imagine that with Tony’s attitude and money ‘whatever I want’ can literally mean ‘whatever I want’. From racing an F1 in the Monaco Grand Prix to playing shotgun pulley with the Iron Man suit while drunk at a party. It is not long before people (particularly the US government) begin to question if Stark is competent and responsible enough to be trusted.
In what is possibly the best re-introductory scene in any sequel, Tony Stark appears at a series of hearings in Washington where we rapidly and effectively learn everything we need to know about the main characters: Tony, Pepper, Rhody, and the new-comer Justin Hammer the CEO of Hammer Industries (a rival company to Stark Industires). Like many others Hammer does not trust Tony but he holds a personal grudge against Tony mostly because he wants to be Tony (who doesn’t). Hammer finds an opportunity to take down Tony and Stark Industries in Ivan Vanko, the son of a Soviet engineer who had worked alongside Tony’s father in developing the Stark Reactor (that’s the big version of Tony’s heart thing). Vanko wanted it to be named the Vanko-Stark Reactor; Stark wanted it to be named the Stark-Vanko Reactor; they could not agree to disagree so Vanko was sent to Siberia. Now his son is off to get Tony; the fact that Ivan has the original blueprints for the reactor only makes him much more dangerous.
Does the story sound a little cliché? In a way it is. We have seen this story many times before but never like this. As mentioned already Iron Man 2 has all the qualities that made the first installment so memorable plus a few others. Once again Robert Downey Jr. does a brilliant job as Tony Stark in both the good times and the bad times. However this time he is paired with co-stars that do just a good a job. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Tony’s romantic interest and better half Pepper Potts, although this time it seems she is much comfortable in the character. Don Cheadle replaces Terrance Howard as Jim Rhodes and does a job good enough to justify the change (which is never easy). But the real worth comes from this story’s villains: Mickey Rourke gives us an Ivan Vanko, who I believed to be a real Russian that grew up in Siberia (wiki says Rourke spend a week in a Russian prison and learned actual Russian to get into character) and Sam Rockwell, who was considered for Tony in the first movie, gives an ironically comedic performance as the man that did not get to be Iron Man. Scarlett Johanson and Samuel L. Jackson do an OK-job as their respective superheroes. However, in a film where I believed every characters to be true, they standout pretty badly simply because they were typecast.
I must also mention that John Favreau deserves an Academy Award for his directing. “What are you talking about? Iron Man can’t be Oscar quality”. Well, in a time where most action sequences are incomprehensible, having a film in which you know where everything is standing in relation to everything else so you see the character aim, shoot, and you exactly know what, why and how he hit or missed is worthy of an award. Not only do we understand what is going on but Favreau also manages to place reaction shots (with good acting) in the middle of the action. And as a plus, the simpler scenes where characters simply talk are just as exciting. Favreau also has a major secondary role in the film as Tony’s driver and he does a decent job at it. Say whatever you want, he deserves recognition. Big Time.
Finally and most importantly this film touches a certain intellectual depth about current world affairs not found in any superhero film so far including The Dark Knight and the horrible Xerox-copy that Watchmen was. The film hypothesis a very probably future for us; no, it does not involve superheroes flying around. This future involves an energy and arms race akin to the one we saw during the cold war. However, this race will not be fought between two opposing countries; instead it will be headed by rival corporations seeking personal gain and willing to sell to the highest bidder. This is a rather scary forecast since as the film points out the Tony Starks of the world hold no allegiance to any ideal but themselves. For entertainment’s sake the superhero genre does not require such depth. Nor does it demand great acting, nor great directing, and at times not even logical story arch to entertain yet Iron Man 2 proves that when they got it these movies can shine as bright as the Iron Man suit. This movie is a solid well deserved 5. If the next installment holds itself against the previous two, Iron Man will become the classic memorable saga of the superhero frenzy that has plagued Hollywood since Spidey hit the big screen almost 10 years ago.