Iron Man bests the biggest adversaries of the superhero genre in his second outing: production troubles, sequel-bloat and overwhelming, unrestrained fanboy hype. Iron Man 2 – beyond all reasonable expectations – even raises the bar set so very high by director Jon Favreau and co. on the surprisingly ingenious original. With Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man finally retired (after the lamentable Spider-Man 3), the Iron Man films now hold claim to being the most energetic, fun-loving and enjoyable comic-book franchise around. Sorry Dark Knight! When I need a soul-crushing examination of the human-psyche through costumed vigilantism, I’ll give you a call. In the meantime…
Robert Downey Jr. (the most welcome wildcard leading man of the past five years) returns as billionaire entrepreneur/freakishly smart engineer Tony Stark. Having revealed to the world at the end of the first film that he is indeed Iron Man, he finds himself weighed down by the pressure of being the self-anointed saviour of humanity. Actually, that’s not the case at all. This is less “Iron Man No More” and more “Iron Man (and Loving It!)” Although Stark’s comic-book alcoholism has (mostly) been written out of the films, he finds himself drunk on the adulation bestowed upon him by his followers. Frankly, there is little in cinema more entertaining than seeing RDJ at his charmingly arrogant best. That alone could keep me entertained for 90 minutes. Thoughtfully, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) have thrown in some action and conflict just to sweeten the deal.
With Tony more interested in his growing cult of fandom (something Downey Jr. must also be getting used to), his feisty PA Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is promoted to CEO of Stark Industries – an impressive shift up the corporate ladder any way you slice it. Enter Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) to take on Pepper’s old job, which apparently, requires almost endless pouting. But things aren’t falling into place so much as they are falling apart. Tony’s slowly being poisoned by the palladium that powers his heart, the U.S. government (fronted by Garry Shandling) want him to hand over his suit for military use, and fellow industrialist/nemesis Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is in cahoots with scorned Russian scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) to take down Iron Man once and for all. Oh, and his best friend Jim Rhodes (once a dead-ringer for Terrence Howard) suddenly looks like Oscar nominated actor Don Cheadle. What’s up with that?
A lot of new blood has been pumped into the Iron Man team, but mostly for naught. Although the film avoids the dreaded clutter of other character-packed superhero sequels, I can’t help but feel that a couple could have been excised without much protest. Johansson is given very little to do, and she doesn’t do much with that which she is given. The same goes for Cheadle, who is perfectly serviceable as Rhodey (eventually becoming fellow suit-wearing hero War Machine). Even Rourke (who is surprisingly, impressively restrained) isn’t required to do much except inspire menace. He ends up playing second fiddle to the great Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, a graduate from the William Atherton School of Cinematic Jerkicity. It’s yet another feather for Rockwell’s (already brimming) hat.
Of course, the supporting cast was always going to have trouble shining amidst the shadow of Downey Jr. and Paltrow’s wonderful will-they/won’t-they double act. Their frantically funny conversations pepper (no pun intended) the film and give us a relationship to invest in throughout all the explodey action. Although the Iron Man films can hardly be relied on for thoughtful pathos, at least Favreau and his cast know how to sell a genuine moment between characters. Not a single line of dialogue shared between Downey Jr. and Paltrow feels false.
Although “genuine moments” are what make this movie special, they won’t drive in audiences on the opening weekend. The fans come for the action – and there is plenty of it to go around. Iron Man 2 does not need to adhere to the centuries-old laws of “origin storytelling”, and Favreau takes the opportunity to dive straight into some fantastically thrilling set pieces (the highlight being a racetrack showdown between Vanko and Stark). Even the first film, in all its charismatic glory, was unable to provide as satisfying (and explosive) a climax as seen here. It should also be noted that Iron Man 2 is pretty damn hilarious – aided not only by Downey Jr. and Rockwell’s natural comic timing but also a great (yet short) performance from a firing-on-all-cylinders Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (ask the comic book fans about him).
Who decided that comic book movies needed to be gritty to gain respect? Sure, we all love The Dark Knight, and most of us appreciate dark (if uneven) satires like Kick Ass. If superhero movies are ever to gain true clout, we need to be shown all the colours of the comic-book-rainbow. If TDK is ‘burnt sienna’, then Iron Man 2 (particularly in this post-Raimi’s Spider-Man world) proves that there is still room in a superhero film for ‘broadway pink’. It’s flashy, fun and the scenes move briskly, as if they were spilling from one comic panel to the next. Iron Man 2 proves that Hollywood blockbusters, on occasion, can still exceed our expectations. The bar has officially been raised for Iron Man 3.