"Iron Man 2" leaves off directly where the first one left off, with weapons connoisseur Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) admitting to the media that he's Iron Man. The world has changed since then. Thanks to Stark's design, the world is now safer. For now at least. The movie catches Stark at something of a crossroads in his life: he's more successful than ever, yet the same technology that's kept him alive is now turning against him. He becomes more and more narcissistic than ever.
While Stark remains in denial that the Iron Man technology can ever be doubled, someone looks to do just that. There's Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), an even more smug version of Stark who's looking for a job in the Pentagon, and psychotic Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) who's seeking revenge on Stark for past injustice.
One thing I must hand it to director Jon Favreau for doing is putting his own comedy background into an action film. His natural eye for comedy always adds a good extra entertainment value to the "Iron Man" films. The brand of humor he incorporates here probably wouldn't be a good fit for a Batman or Spider-Man film. However, this particular story involves a character who's CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world, yet he's still willing to call a senator a jackass.
In Favreau's strength, unfortunately, lies his weakness. While he knows his way around humor, he just couldn't quite nail a lot of the action here. Strangely though, he seemed to know what he was doing in the first movie. In "Iron Man," some of the war sequences had an odd sense of realism while the scenes where Stark was just mastering his suit were sometime even quite graceful. Here, much of the action was either too silly to take seriously or too quick to ever appreciate. I call it the "Quantum of Solace" complex: a sequel to a great action film which looses hold of the great action of the original.
Take for example, the final battle. I'll do my best to spare the details. What I will say is that for a battle built up so much, in a location so tight, it turns out to be a major letdown. It's as if the whole scene, the whole plot line, was simply to end with a giant laugh.
One of the main factors that keeps "Iron Man 2" from falling apart is its superb cast. Downey is almost too perfect for the part. Only a free spirit like him could portray a free spirit like Tony Stark. But unlike the first film, "Iron Man 2" adds a level of emotional vulnerability to Stark. He's certainly not the Messiah he once thought he was. Downey manages to balance that fine line, without turning Stark into a total contradiction.
Then there are a few supporting actors truly worthy of recognition. While this film suffers from a loss of The Dude, it makes up for it with the presence of Mickey Rourke. Call it a stretch, but his performance reminded me somewhat of The Joker with more motivation. He always seemed to take such ease in being such a psychopath. While I can sometimes be annoyed by too much backstory for a villain, here it's used simply to show motivation rather than to create unnecessary sympathy.
But I digress. Rourke shows here why he's such a great actor. He is an actor who needs no direction. All he needs is a character description, and he makes it into his own (his odd relationship to his bird was all his idea). The only problem is that Rourke is given such limited screen time. Maybe with a little more freedom, and a little more time, Ivan Vanko would've been even more of a villain to remember.
Yet another scene stealer is the even better Sam Rockwell. He taps into all the anger, frustration, and even dark comedy that define his other performances (especially in "Moon"). His character differs from most other villains of superhero mythology because he doesn't achieve evil through highly advanced weapons or murder. Rather, he is so creepy because he's such an egomaniac that he will resort to literally any means to get to the top. View him as a much less intelligent version of Hans Landa.
While the cast is sprawling, one problem is that many are either underutilized, or are just plain useless. No offense at all to Gwyneth Paltrow, but her performance mainly consists of her yelling "Stop!" and "Don't!" at Tony. While Scarlett Johansson's Natalie Rushman certainly has a little more purpose than that, her role in the film would've been better in another sequel.
Again, "Iron Man 2" is a film I can recommend, but only give slight praise to. It can be hard to give a movie a passing grade for entertainment value alone, but "Iron Man 2" manages to deliver a solid two hours that never has a dull moment. Yet, with the high standard set by recent comic book films ("Spider-Man 2," "X-Men," "The Dark Knight," "Sin City"), "Iron Man 2" could've been a lot more. And with the extreme likelihood of a third film, Favreau and the "Iron Man" crew should stick to the factors that made the first film great rather than the ones that made the sequel decently mediocre.