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Sequels are supposed to be bigger and louder, but not better than the first movie. When it comes to expensive comic book movie sequels with Event Status attached, the expectations are even more concrete. That’s not a rule I made up; that’s the expectations many will have going into Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2”, and it’s because of that that many will leave disappointed. It’s unfair, of course, because as with the first movie, “Iron Man 2” bucks genre trends in many ways, and for those who actually appreciated the first movie for its adult charms and comedic sensibilities, the sequel will be a continuation of what Favreau very successfully executed in the first film. In that respect, Favreau has not changed one bit, for better or worse, depending on your perspective. Such is life – and the world of comic book movie sequels.
In “Iron Man 2”, ol Shellhead is back, and he’s still got issues. Lots of issues. First up, some Russian guy with a bird fetish is jonesing for vengeance, thanks to something Tony Stark’s dad may or may not have done back in the day. To accomplish his payback, our Russian villain has fashioned electrical whip constructs using the same tech that powers Stark’s Iron Man suit. Back in the good ol USA, the United States Government wants Iron Man, but Stark isn’t budging. Since we last saw him, we’re told that Iron Man has become a force for good and has single-handedly brought peace to the world one repulsor ray at a time. Meanwhile, fellow weapons seller and corporate nemesis Justin Hammer is really getting on Stark’s nerves, and the secretive spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., led by a guy with an eyepatch played by Samuel L. Jackson, is keeping a very close eye (ahem) on our hero.
Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” begins sometime after the events of the first film, with Stark’s identity as Iron Man (voluntarily) exposed. Stark’s assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) suspects something is amiss with her boss despite his usual cavalier public demeanor, but exactly what eludes her. Before she can figure it out, Stark promotes her to CEO of Stark Industries, a job Pepper takes seriously because, well, someone has to. Meanwhile, a Stark employee name Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) enters the picture, immediately piquing Tony’s (and ours, natch) interest. And as for that Russian fellow, he’s a disgraced former scientist name Ivan Vanko (played by an impossibly likeable Mickey Rourke), who launches his surprise attack on Stark during a vulnerable moment. The hit fails, but it lands Vanko in the company of the opportunistic Justin Hammer, whose lucrative contract with the Pentagon has just gone kaput thanks to – of course – Stark.
Lost in all the superhero CGI and snappy one-liners of the first movie is the fact that Jon Favreau had crafted a very adult superhero movie. “Iron Man 2” is Favreau building on what he created back in 2008, but he has neglected to amp up the action along with the characters. The film doesn’t even feature any superheroics until 30 minutes in, and that is followed by a mild friendly firefight. The bulk of the film’s action, and what is all over the trailers, occur in the last 20 minutes of the movie, when Vanko launches his grand plan into motion and tries to kill everyone cause, well, that’s what comic book bad guys do, duh. I say all that now to alert you to the fact that “Iron Man 2” is not going to blow you away with its action sequences, because frankly, there isn’t really all that many of them to make your jaw go slack. What I’m trying to say is, keep the kids at home, because the adult stuff in-between the guy-in-suit scenes will bore them to tears and you’ll have a riot on your hands for 30-minutes at a time.
Helping Vanko in his devious plans to pound Tony Stark into metal siding is Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell as a third rate (if that) Tony Stark wannabe. Rockwell is in full comedy mode here, and you only need to compare this performance to his recent turn in “Moon” to see just how talented this guy really is. Rockwell mirthfully sidewinds his way through the movie like he knows he has to do more than just recite his dialogue in order to stand out in a movie where Robert Downey Jr. gets all the great lines. Rockwell excels, turning a jokey, silly one-note villain role into an excellent counterpoint to Tony Stark. Everything Stark is, Hammer is not, but wishes he were. Hammer is definitely cliché, but Rockwell makes him never boring. Actually, Hammer and Rockwell’s handling of the character reminds me of Jason Patric’s Max in “The Losers”. Both men turned what are essentially one-dimensional Bond villains into an amusing, ongoing presence.
“Iron Man 2” fields a lot of familiar faces (including director Jon Favreau as Tony Stark’s personal bodyguard/driver/punching bag Happy Hogan), and introduces some new ones. Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow is beyond stunning, and I’m not just saying that because Scarlett Johansson in a tight black outfit is, well, stunning. Although Gwyneth Paltrow has the bigger role as Stark’s love interest, it’s amazing how effortlessly the shorter and more curvaceous Johansson simply overwhelms Paltrow in every scene they’re in together. Whereas Paltrow comes across as vanilla and generic (not her fault, really, that’s how you would normally describe Gwyneth Paltrow in a nutshell), every scene with Johansson is electric. The Black Widow finally gets to show off her stuff in the Third Act, taking on a corridor full of goons. No wonder Marvel is going gaga over her performance and are already talking about writing her into the Joss Whedon-directed “The Avengers”. How about a spin-off movie, guys? Pretty please?
Another new face is Samuel L. Jackson, previously seen in an after-the-credits Easter egg in the last movie, but who has a much bigger role in “Iron Man 2”. As Nick Fury, Jackson’s presence is a mystery, but the character’s seemingly limitless reach hints at bigger and better things are in store for future Marvel Studio movies. Maybe that whole “Avengers Initiative” thing he keeps bringing up has something to do with it, but of course I could be wrong. The other notable addition/replacement to the series is Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard as James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Stark’s best friend and the Government’s front man in their attempts to get control of Stark’s tech. Howard was famously and unceremoniously dumped by Marvel Studios over money, though honestly, I don’t think it would have mattered. Although Rhodes gets more screentime and his character has more of an impact on the storyline (Rhodes eventually becomes War Machine, a souped up, weaponized version of ol Shellhead), Rhodes as a character is mostly unnecessary until he puts on the suit.
One of the things I appreciated most about the first “Iron Man” film is the state-of-the-art production that Favreau invested on the screen. The two films are incredibly well done, from the acting to the directing and from the computer effects to the practical sets. Even though “Iron Man 2” lacks the overkill in superhero action that many were probably expecting (trust me, you’ll hear this complaint a lot when the film opens on Friday), you can still see where all the money went. It’s all up there on the screen, from the final 20-minute battle of the Iron Men to Tony Stark’s mansion to the incredibly cool graphics in-between. “Iron Man 2” just looks expensive, and that’s probably because it is. On a purely aesthetic level, there’s a lot of eye candy to enjoy, and you’ll probably need a couple of viewings to appreciate all the little gems that the filmmakers add to every scene.
“Iron Man 2” looks absolutely gorgeous, and Robert Downey Jr. is spectacular as the loud, crass Tony Stark the Playboy, and equally brilliant as the sullen, private Tony Stark who spends what brief, private moments given to him by his hectic life to ponder his mortality, with his father’s shadow continually hanging over him. Nevertheless, there will be complaints, and not all of them will be unjustified. The film lacks the punch that a comic book movie sequel with millions at its disposal should be bringing to the screen. “Iron Man 2” is not bigger or louder than the first film, though it is very much just as good. The fact is, the sequel is almost completely at the same level as the first film in every way, which depending on your expectations going in, will either satisfy or disappoint you. As a big fan of the first movie, I appreciated Jon Favreau’s ability to remain on the same wavelength two years later, but others may find it less accomplished in terms of bringing the superheroics.
Jon Favreau (director) / Justin Theroux (screenplay)
CAST: Robert Downey Jr. … Tony Stark
Gwyneth Paltrow … Pepper Potts
Don Cheadle … Lt. Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes
Scarlett Johansson … Natalie Rushman / Natasha Romanoff
Sam Rockwell … Justin Hammer
Mickey Rourke … Ivan Vanko
Samuel L. Jackson … Nick Fury
Clark Gregg … Agent Coulson
Jon Favreau … Happy Hogan
Paul Bettany … Jarvis