Review: Iron Man 2
Let’s get something straight. I already know that what I write here will have exactly zero impact on whether or not you decide to give you twelve dollars to the megacorporations that put Iron Man 2 into every other market except for the U.S. a week ago. If you’re going to buy a ticket, you’re going to buy a ticket. It’s critic-proof. I get that. It’s cool.
Here’s the good news, though. If you’ve already put IM2 into your datebook, you’re in luck. That isn’t to say that it’s a great movie, but it’s entertaining in the same way the first one was, even if it tends more towards shiny explosions than interesting filmmaking.
Now, I understand that people just love the first Iron Man. What they seem to forget is that it’s really just okay. Sure, it’s fun, sure. Robert Downey, Jr. struck all the right notes as the narcissistic billionaire cum superhero Tony Stark, and Jon Favreau‘s direction was extremely fanboy-friendly. But it’s easy to forget that the ending is totally generic, and Jeff Bridges never made for a scary villain even though he shaved his head and grew a nasty beard.
The sequel fixes those mistakes, but it also misses out on some of the things that made the first one tick. Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko, a sociopathic Russian physicist convict, makes for a much more intimidating bad guy than Bridges, and the climactic battle is actually pretty awesome. Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes, and War Machine–Rhodey in a blinged-out Iron Man suit–is formidable. Cheadle’s always been a fun actor to watch, and he plays nicely off of Downey, Jr.
Here’s the deal: Tony Stark is essentially Bono in an Iron Man suit. He’s a superhero rockstar billionaire playboy who has saved the world from everything and anything. But it isn’t all cheerleaders and Cristal. The government, in the form of a puffy Senator Garry Shandling, would like to get its hands on the suit. The smarmy Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a weapons manufacturer who filled the void Tony left when he went all pacifist, wants a bigger chunk of the spotlight. He can’t keep up with the responsibilities of running his corporation. Oh, and that power source he crafted in that cave in Afghanistan that keeps him alive and makes the suit so cool? It’s killing him. And to top it all off, it turns out Tony’s dad had a former partner, a disgraced Soviet scientist who finally expires in the film’s opening minutes. His son wants some payback, and too bad for Tony, his son is big, bad Mickey Rourke, covered in serious tattoos, and sporting a mouthful of gold.
So yeah, everything goes wrong. Vanko starts working with Hammer. Rhodey steals a suit and turns it into War Machine. Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) takes over Stark Industries and takes with her Tony’s best assistants, Happy (Favreau) and Natalie (Scarlett Johansson). The world feels like Iron Man is rusty. And he’s dying. The middle third of the movie is long, dreary, and mostly unnecessary, until Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up with a box of his dad’s stuff and sets him straight. But all of this is just an unnecessary plot device designed to give the entire affair some gravity. It doesn’t work, because it feels as manufactured as Iron Man’s Radio Shack heart.
See, what’s missing from Iron Man 2, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, is the human side of the equation. Robert Downey, Jr. brought some actual introspection to the first one, whereas this time around, even though his life span may be limited, he can’t be bothered to ponder his own mortality. All of this stuff, his unresolved feelings towards his father, feels manufactured, and it’s the part you’ll simply skip over when you’ve got the DVD at home.
So, yes, there’s plenty of smoke and mirrors in Iron Man 2. But here’s the thing—it’s pretty awesome smoke and mirrors. The climactic battle, which takes place between Iron Man, War Machine, Whiplash (Ivan’s alter-ego), and dozens of high-tech war drones, amidst a state-of-the-art Expo and thousands of innocent bystanders, is worth the slog through the talky bits. It is flashy and exciting and entertaining, which is all a movie like this is supposed to be. Like Tony Stark, Iron Man 2 is at its best when it is a shameless piece of commerce, setting up the forthcoming Avengers movie (stick around through the credits, by the way), pimping AC/DC tracks, and strutting around proclaiming itself to be badass. That’s actually enjoyable. But when it tries to be something more, something softer, something more, well, human, it just feels like cold metal.