It’s important to kick off the summer movie season with a bang. No one wants to get their summer off to a bad start, especially if you’re a movie studio. Iron Man 2 is arguably the most highly-anticipated film this year and it’s expected to break box office records in its opening weekend. While it should easily meet the demands of a weekend gross, you should rest assured that it doesn’t fall short on quality either. Robert Downey Jr. still charming as hell? Check. Strong supporting cast? Check. Bigger and better action sequences? Check. As tightly constructed and paced as the original Iron Man? (Errr…) Enjoyable time at the movies? Check! Iron Man 2 may not be quite as good as the first film, but it’s still a strong lead-in to the march of the summer 2010 blockbusters.
After revealing himself as Iron Man to the entire world, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) has defied expectations by becoming even more of an egomaniac. Declaring himself the savior of mankind, a one-man nuclear deterrent, and so brilliant that it would take decades for someone to recreate the Iron Man technology, Stark is riding high…except that he’s dying. The Arc-Reactor energy core he used to save his life is now slowly killing him. The reactor core is burning out its Palladium power source and leaving Tony with the gift of blood poisoning. The fact that the Iron Man suit is also powered by the mini Arc Reactor means he’s using it more than he has to just so he can show off and dazzle the world as Iron Man. His ego is literally killing him.
Of course, his ego will have to get in line. The U.S. government wants Tony to turn over the suit, rival weapons industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) wants to create a line of Iron Man-like suits for a fat government contract, and Tony’s friend Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is being forced to betray his pal in order to save him. Oh, and there’s a very angry Russian physicist named Ivan Danko (Mickey Rourke) who is building his own Iron Man-like suit in order to kill Tony.
As you can see, there are a lot of little storylines coming at Stark in this movie along with the mandatory Avengers set-up that has to come in and remind us that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are part of a bigger universe that’s coming together over several films. Iron Man 2 manages to hold everything together, but the film is stretched so thin that it begins to lose some of its energy midway through. But nothing can overcome Downey’s performance and before the flick begins to fray, director Jon Favreau charges into the third act and brings the house down (in this case, the house is the size of several square blocks).
It goes without saying, but I can spare the digital ink: these movies would not work without Robert Downey Jr. In the hands of a less-talented actor, Tony’s arrogance and self-indulgence could easily have the come off as obnoxiousness. With Downey, arrogance becomes bravado and self-indulgence becomes eccentric. But you can’t praise Downey without praising Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays his beleaguered assistant/confidant/love-interest Pepper Potts. They play off each other so well and their quick and easy banter is unique in the realm of superhero movies.
I was a little worried about Rourke and what he would do with such an odd character who is a physics genius/Russian prisoner/bird-lover, but he makes it work. Johansson doesn’t get to do much except look sexy (and she’s very good at that), although her one action scene drew cheers from the audience. As for Cheadle, he took over the role of Rhodey from Terrence Howard after Howard’s contract negotiations with Marvel fell through. Cheadle’s a little stiff in the beginning, but as the film progresses, the role seems to fit him better and by the end, he’s happily kicking ass and making quips alongside Tony. It’s amazing what a world-saving suit of armor will do for one’s personality.
But the performance people will walk away talking about is Rockwell. We all knew Downey would be great and he doesn’t disappoint. Fans of Rockwell know he’s great in just about anything he does. But during the second act when the film begins to sag and Tony become isolated, Rockwell picks up the slack and leaves his mark on the film. His performance as Hammer is like if a used car salesman one day got promoted to run a global weapons manufacturer. Hammer is Tony if Tony wasn’t gifted, brilliant, moral, and charming. Rockwell had me laughing at almost every single one of his lines and he keeps the film fun when the film is running low on energy.
It’s important to mention the performances first because that’s where Iron Man 2 places its priorities. Despite the numerous mini plotlines, Iron Man 2 is ultimately a character-driven film. However, Favreau did not forget the lessons of the first film when it came to staging action. Every set piece in the sequel far outdoes the climactic battle against Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges) in the first film. In fact, the climactic battle of Iron Man 2 could use a little bit of a trim, but it’s staged so well that it doesn’t really matter. People will argue over which action scene they liked the best, and that means they all worked of them worked (well, almost all;there’s a mano-a-mano fight between Stark and Rhodey that feels sloppy and poorly-staged, especially when compared to the other action sequences).
Iron Man 2 doesn’t manage to out-do the first film. If you’re thinking back to how the sequels for X-Men and Spider-Man were better than their first installments, remember that the first Iron Man was and still is the best superhero movie debut. It’s a tough act to follow. Unfortunately, the simple structure provided by the origin story is no longer around to provide a solid backbone and the movie falters at times as a result. But when it works—and it works most of the time—Iron Man 2 is a highly-enjoyable time at the movies and a great kick-off to the summer.