Movie Review: Iron Man 2
By Matthew Huntley
May 12, 2010

He says he's taller than her but she is (correctly) pointing out the suit adds a foot.

Sequels have become so common among the superhero genre that their formula is almost as rigid as the origin story. The elements are basic: a) a pre-established superhero faces a personal crisis; b) a new villain obtains powers tantamount or greater than the hero's; c) temporary doubt surfaces over whether the hero will find his way before the climactic battle sequence. There are other inevitabilities to consider, including the higher-tech gadgets; bigger, louder action scenes; further development of the hero’s relationships; and variations on the crowd-pleasing moments from previous installments.

All of these qualities are a given and Iron Man 2 sticks to the formula near perfectly. It’s not as special or transcendent as Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight as far as superhero movies go, but it's a shining example of the genre and reminds us why we continue to love superhero movies, despite their seemingly unavoidable conventions. It's not a must-see, but it's either just as good as its predecessor or, on some levels, a little better. To many, that's some pretty high praise.

The story more or less picks up where the original left off, with Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), explaining to Congress that he will not hand over his beloved metal suit to the United States government. A snarling senator (Garry Shandling) says it’s considered a weapon and should be donated to the military for research. But Stark is too attached and egotistical to part from it. He’d rather the country be grateful for Iron Man’s contributions to world peace. Plus, he reminds them, there’s no one else in the world with his kind of power.

Almost no one. Over in Russia lives a mad physicist named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who has the same brains as Stark but none of the charm. Vanko holds the Stark family responsible for his father’s death and seeks revenge. He invents an arc reactor similar to Iron Man’s and attaches electric whips that have the power to cut through metal. Strangely enough, they can’t penetrate Iron Man’s suit, but never mind. Vanko becomes Whiplash (although the name is never actually uttered in the screenplay) and he teams up with Stark’s chief industry competition and fellow megalomaniac, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), in an effort “to make Iron Man look like an antique.”

Stark has other problems to face: his own source of power is slowly killing him by intoxicating his blood; he can’t seem to form a decent relationship with his anxious assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow); he’s having trust issues with his old pal Rhodey (Don Cheadle stepping in for Terence Howard); and he can’t take his eyes off the new girl working for him, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who displays some sick moves inside the boxing ring.

Director Jon Favreau once again proves he’s got what it takes to make an exciting and rhythmic action picture. Like the original, Iron Man 2 is full of energy and wit, but there are also some nice directing touches along the way, including when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a leading agent from the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency, has a heart-to-heart with Iron Man in a doughnut shop; or the fight between Iron Man and War Machine (Rhodey in an Iron Man suit) that destroys Stark’s Malibu mansion; and when Tony’s father (John Slattery) speaks to him on an old film strip. The movie isn’t wall-to-wall action and sometimes flows better than the original (it has the benefit of not having to introduce all the characters this time around).

The movie isn’t without flaws. Vanko, for instance, is under-developed as a villain. He goes crazy just minutes after we meet him and has almost no back-story. So what was this guy doing before his father’s death? Was he just counting down the minutes until he had enough incentive to go after Stark? Because Mickey Rourke is such a talented actor, we want the movie to utilize his talents and make him more than just a prop. Rourke sells the character with a convincing Russian accent and makes him intriguing right off the bat. I just wish the movie had shown us more of him.

I also had a problem with Scarlett Johansson as Natalie. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a beautiful woman, but she didn’t breathe enough life into her character and she lacked a genuine presence. It doesn’t seem like she even believed herself in the role. Fortunately, the same isn’t true of fellow newcomers Don Cheadle and Sam Rockwell, who are both superb and give us more reason to look forward to Iron Man 3.

And yes, there will be an Iron Man 3, and while I wouldn’t mind if the franchise stayed its present course and remained a fun and exciting action series, I wonder if the filmmakers have it in them to make Stark darker and more complex. In Iron Man 2, he’s still a bigheaded playboy with good comic timing. Stan Lee gave him a dark side in the comics, but the movies keep him laid back and his emotions bottled up. These limitations are what hold the Iron Man movies back from greatness. For the most part, they play it safe and stick to the tried-and-true formula, which entertains but doesn’t exactly lay new ground. After two light-hearted movies, I think it’s time for Tony Stark to join Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne and become more realized beyond his genre.