While “Iron Man 2” isn’t quite as entertaining as the 2008 original, it’s certainly a worthwhile kickoff to the 2010 summer season. A number of critics have characterized this sequel as suffering from "sophomore superhero-movie syndrome": too busy, too many villains, too many plotlines. I didn't see that.
For me, 2007’s “Spiderman 3” is the quintessential hyper-frenetic superhero movie. That film’s various plot threads and villains never meshed in a satisfying way. The result was a hectic, convoluted mess that played like a series of unrelated, Spiderman-themed vignettes. “Spiderman 3’s” story was buried beneath an avalanche of special effects, action sequences and chase scenes.
“Iron Man 2” is built on sturdier stuff. Yes, there are numerous plot threads and more than one villain—more than one hero, actually—but, especially in the film’s first half, the writing is tight and sufficiently focused so that “Iron Man 2” never feels out of control. Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux have a clear vision of where the film’s going and how the various character and plot elements interrelate. The result is two hours of solid entertainment.
The villains here are Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). Vanko is a destitute Russian criminal but also a brilliant physicist. His father was physicist Anton Vanko, who was once the business partner of Tony Stark’s father, Howard. When Daddy Vanko tried to cut Howard out of the patents for the original arc reactor (the device that powers the Iron Man suit), the partnership soured and Daddy Vanko and Little Ivan were ultimately deported to Russia. Ivan grew up largely in Siberia, nurtured on his father’s hatred of the Starks. Daddy Vanko dies in the film’s opening, penniless in a Russian slum; Ivan, who’s grown into a formidable, dangerous ex-con, is with him and promises revenge.
To that end, based on his father’s designs, Vanko develops his own version of an arc reactor and a low-rent Iron Man suit as well. He also develops an energy weapon that’s like an electrified cat-o'-nine tails. Despite his intelligence, cunning, hatred and sheer bad-assery, however, Vanko’s still unable to defeat Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) by himself. After he ambushes and tries to murder Stark on worldwide TV, Vanko’s ultimately defeated by Stark and sent to prison. He needs a benefactor.
Enter Justin Hammer, CEO of Hammer Industries. Hammer Industries is a global leader in weapons manufacturing and the chief competitor of Stark Industries. Justin Hammer despises Tony Stark and aches for a way to steal the technology for Stark’s Iron Man suit. Short of that, Hammer decides that Vanko is his best chance of gaining Iron Man technology. As such, he arranges to break the Russian out of prison, faking Vanko's death in the process. Hammer then “hires” the officially-dead Vanko to develop an Iron Man suit that can be sold to the military. He will later come to rue that decision.
The primary hero here, of course, is Tony Stark, a billionaire playboy and CEO of Stark Industries. As the film opens, Stark has recently revealed to the world that he's Iron Man. Hammer isn’t the only one who wants the Iron Man suit; the US government wants it too, seeing it as an unstoppable weapon. Stark, however, refuses. Lt. Col. James 'Rhodey' Rhodes (Don Cheadle in a role previously played by Terrance Howard) serves as a kind of liaison between Stark and the government, trying to convince Stark to share the Iron Man technology.
Much of the film’s appeal rests on the chemistry between Cheadle and Downey, which is significantly more appealing than the chemistry between Downey and Howard in the previous film. Rhodes fluctuates throughout between friend to Stark and friendly foe. Ultimately, though, the pair fight side by side against an Iron-Man-like army of robots developed by Vanko; Stark wears his usual Iron Man armor and Rhodes wears a tricked-out suit confiscated from Stark’s estate.
Also along for the ride in the hero category are Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D., a secret superhero agency that wants to recruit Iron Man. Rushman, consequently, is an undercover spy/liason for S.H.I.E.L.D. posing as an assistant at Stark Industries.
Jackson’s role amounts to a meaty cameo and a shameless setup for Marvel’s upcoming “The Avengers” (2012). Johansson’s role, however, is more substantial. Rushman is as deadly as she is sexy and proves integral to thwarting Vanko. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, Stark’s overworked, under appreciated right-hand woman; this time around, however, Pepper gets a significant promotion—in more ways than one. Director Favreau, a capable actor in his own right, also has a small, but entertaining role here as Stark's assistant.
As with the first film, Downey is the film’s primary attraction. This time around, though, his glibness and ultra-cheesy one-liners at times border on obnoxious. They never quite go that far, but there were certainly moments when Downey could’ve reigned himself in a little. Don Cheadle is undeniably better as Rhodes than Terrance Howard, which is no dig at Howard so much as a testament to Cheadle’s considerable talent.
Mickey Rourke deserves special mention as Vanko. He commanded attention each time he appeared and was as darkly magnetic and menacing as Downey was witty, suave and glib. I’m sure Rourke, like most actors, strives to avoid typecasting, but, based on this performance, he’s certainly found a niche, provided he’s inclined to exploit it.
Although “Iron Man 2” lost steam near the middle and dragged slightly, it regained traction in the last quarter or so and ended strongly. It was certainly entertaining enough to merit a sequel and I’ve no reservations in recommending it.