Note: This review was originally written on May 8th, 2010
Iron Man 2 is all in all a pretty entertaining sequel that manages to flounder as often as it succeeds. Iron Man was a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways. It offered a lighter but no less entertaining alternative to 2008’s The Dark Knight. The film is very problematic but ultimately a worthwhile experience.
In the sequel, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is now dealing with the consequences of revealing his identity. He is given a subpoena for being a weapon which is considered dangerous by the government. He is dealing with Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who is desperate to show Tony Stark up with his own Hammer Tech. There is also primarily the matter of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian with a vengeance for the supposed wrongdoing of his father from Tony’s father Howard Stark (John Slattery). Let us not forget that Tony is slowly dying from the palladium which is simultaneously keeping him alive and is nearing hopelessness at the film’s start for a harmless replacement. There is also a matter of the new assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) who Tony has a hard time getting a read on. Basically there is a lot going on in Iron Man 2; too much. Instead of a faster and busier pace, it makes for a somehow slower pace that is weighted down in set-up while failing to provide much pay off.
To start with, an intrinsically problematic aspect of the Iron Man franchise is the fact that all of the action scenes take place between CGI machinery which is ultimately not very interesting to watch. It is more entertaining to watch actual people fighting each other than to see two machines go head to head with occasional shots of Downey Jr. in his helmet. It is not something that cannot really be fixed since the machinery is such an essential element to the story. Favreau and Theroux know that the situations the characters find themselves in are what make or break an action scene and they do find little ways to tweak the circumstances. Each action set piece does satisfy in one way or another. The racetrack scene in Monaco is probably the most memorable, the party scene between Stark and Rhodes (Don Cheadle) escalates in a surprising way and is the most character driven fight sequence, a spin on War Machine’s wiring makes for a unique dynamic near the climax and yet another scene following that comes to an amusingly quick end making for a dash of unpredictability. These examples, without delving into specifics, all contribute to action scenes that are essentially more interesting than they should be. However, when you put all the scenes together and think about the time spent on them, it does not add up to anything truly interesting. The best fight scene in the film is the one involving Johansson because it is the only scene featuring actual people fighting each other.
The final face-off with Vanko is completely underwhelming. The scene does not last long and there is nothing and the situation within it is uninteresting at this point. This leads to another issue with the film which is the misuse of Vanko’s screen time. Vanko and Stark barely have any screen time or dialogue together. When the hero and villain spend most of the film apart there should be a lot of anticipation going into the final battle or some sort of past. Unfortunately there isn’t. In terms of action, their best scene together comes at the racetrack and they only have one actual scene of dialogue between each other and it comes at about the half way point and is quite short. Vanko spends most of the rest of the film interacting with Justin Hammer in what is essentially the same scene about four times. These scenes involve Vanko working for Hammer, pretending to have a language barrier and Hammer being frustrated as Vanko seemingly screws up the job he has been hired to do. Oh and also; Vanko wants he damn bird. It does not take a genius to figure out that Vanko has some tricks up his sleeve. The problem here is too much set-up with Vanko spending so much of the film working on machines and very little pay off in comparison with how little time he spends actually interacting with the main characters and taking part in the action.
A refreshing aspect of Iron Man was the banter between Tony and Pepper which actually made the love interest subplot to lend itself to the original as opposed to dragging it down. The sequel ups the banter ten-fold but does so in an misguided way. Downey Jr. and Paltrow spend all of their time literally overlapping each other with dialogue as if this were Iron Man as staged by Robert Altman. However, this is not where the problem lies; in fact the overlapping makes the scenes a lot faster and interesting. The problem lies in the content. The banter involves Pepper complaining or nagging about something and Tony brushing said problems off like no big deal. This does two things; first it makes the scenes all one-note and eventually tiresome. Second, it turns Pepper Potts, who was once a concerned but ultimately fun character into a nagging non-character who becomes a burden every time she appears on screen. Once refreshing, Paltrow’s presence cannot help but instigate the thought “here we go again”.
These complaints are all significant and problematic, however, the film is ultimately a pretty worthy sequel with many decent qualities. Overall it is more consistent than the first. While Iron Man is better, the best scene in the first was the opening scene and overall the first half was a lot stronger than the second. The sequel has equally interesting halves even if both have their own specific significant deficiencies. All of the actors perform and contribute well. Downey Jr. is as snarky as ever and while the film depends on the overwhelming personality of both the actor and character too much, it is impossible for Robert Downey Jr. not to be entertaining. Don Cheadle makes far more of a presence than Terence Howard did, giving Rhodes a better sense of character and also a more palpable feel of friendship and history between him and Stark. Johansson makes for a welcome presence especially in comparison to Paltrow’s pestering Potts. However, Johansson has never been good when she is not working with much. Seeing her on Broadway has confirmed for me that she is a great actress and someone who is truly talented. However, some people can make good, underwhelming or bad material work; she can’t. When she’s got a great character she owns it, but when she is given a thankless supporting role she sort of flounders. She looks better than she ever has here and she does a serviceable job but nothing more. Mickey Rourke does a really nice job with Vanko, making him a spectacle but never going over the top with him. Garry Shandling is fantastic in a very small role as well.
However, Sam Rockwell gives the most interesting, and I would argue strongest performance. As Justin Hammer, playing a character much younger than he should be and with a significant amount of screen time, he plays a villain only intimidating in his severe efforts to overcompensate for his own ineptitude. It’s a tough role because it is not a showy character as written and he is also not the big bad. What Rockwell does is go full force with Hammer’s levels of obnoxiousness, misplaced arrogance and awkward repetitive and impatient delivery. Every scene with him goes from being potentially tiresome to quite fascinating as he portrays a man who is in over his head but is so dead set on gaining respect from everyone that he never acknowledges it and continues to be as smarmy and aggravating as possible. It is a give in at this point that Rockwell steals any film in which he has a supporting role. Without him the film would have been too black and white.
Stark’s relationship with his father Howard, who died 20 years ago makes for an interesting aspect of the film. While it did feel like it was self-consciously acting as the film’s “deep” moments, its execution is handled so well that it ends up being one of the most successful things about the film. John Slattery’s presence does not exactly hurt either. The dialogue as written by Tropic Thunder screenwriter and actor from Mullholland Drive, The Baxter and other films, is filled with wit and energy. There are many stand out one liners that come out of nowhere and are really amusing, in particular a line with a “Supernanny” reference and another line about “two seals fighting over a grape” among others. As director, Jon Favreau smartly prioritizes by concentrating on giving each scene an energy which definitely helps the films pace which is simultaneously very weighted down in set-up. Still, Favreau’s direction is a high point and it keeps everything light and fun amidst the heaviness. Also, Vanko and Hammer make for much more interesting villains than Bridges’ Obadiah Stone who was a considerably underwhelming aspect of the first film.
Iron Man 2 is certainly laden with significant problems. However, through it all Favreau and his team somehow made a pretty entertaining and surprisingly satisfying sequel. All of the elements of the first are present and are expanded upon for better and worse. It is mostly consistent as well which made for a more even experience than the first. Also, it seems like a film to satisfy fans of the comics as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is given a couple of key scenes and the film overall succeeds in most of the elements that make an entertaining film. It is certainly not anything I would call great or even truly good, and its deficiencies are significant but considering that it was better than I expected, it is easy to simply sit back and be entertained by it. While I cannot overlook the negative traits of the film and it does feel self-indulgent in its premature celebration of itself, I can appreciate that it has succeeded in what it set out to do which is to entertain. That alone might not make it great, but it certainly counts for something.