The energetic drive and carefree spirit that made the original "Iron Man" such a welcome change of pace is slightly muted in this problematic yet still quite entertaining sequel. Over-burdened with subplots and more rigidly welded to the comic book movie formula, the ambitious narrative often seems to lose track of itself - especially in its jumbled second act - before steering toward a satisfying finale.
Though having become overpraised in succeeding years, and lacking the gravitas of a true genre re-definer like the clunkier but thematically richer "Batman Begins", 2008's "Iron Man" remains arguably Marvel's strongest superhero origin film. Utilising a character lacking overfamiliarity, a partially improvisation-driven approach, and an unabashed brazenness that reveled in its pursuit of sheer entertainment - 'Iron' often defied the label of 'comic book movie' which made it a much more accessible and engaging work than many of its self-serious and all too familiar brethren.
"Iron Man 2" only manages to sporadically capture that spirit again. Far more self-conscious this time out, it overcompensates by expanding the world and its roster of characters without any real logical plan behind it. The looser approach on the original worked because the plot remained fairly linear and consistent. Here both director Jon Favreau and scribe Justin Theroux have the unenviable job of trying to balance a straight up villain, a prickly rival, an ill health subplot, the repercussions of Tony Stark's Iron Man persona being revealed to the public at large, a lot of the initial setup for "The Avengers", several large-scale action set pieces and the occasional light character moment.
It's a lot to throw into a two-hour film and as a result certain elements suffer - most visibly the light but confident sense of self-assurance which rings slightly more hollow this time. The effortlessly charismatic Robert Downey Jr. once again rules the film with his brilliant delivery and surprising knack for action which helps proceedings jump over a few plot holes. Downey doesn't walk the line between cheeky charmer and arrogant prick so deftly this time, though the increase in obnoxiousness does seem a deliberate choice.
The biggest surprise here is Gwyneth Paltrow. Armed with a juicier subplot this time out, Paltrow steps out of Downey's shadow and proves just as enjoyable as him in many ways with a surprising knack for comedy (her reaction shots in the Monaco scenes are priceless). It's both their relaxed chemistry and the way that relationship is handled that proves to be the film's unexpected high point. In contrast Don Cheadle plays Colonel Rhodes rather flatly, the normally strong actor simply lacks that eye-twinkling spark that made Terrence Howard's version in the first film such an enjoyable sidekick.
The villains are something of a mixed bag. Though the name 'Whiplash' is never mentioned, Ivan Vanko is a rather archetypal bad guy with a personal vendetta. It's a role that could be played very broad, yet full credit goes to Mickey Rourke for delivering it in an understated tone. Unlike seemingly everyone else in the film, Rourke is not playing this for laughs which lends the film a much needed sense of actual menace. As a result the brutal attack sequence around the Monaco Grand Prix proves to be the film's strongest scene with Stark in immediate danger and a relentless villain fuelled by the single most basic motive of them all really adding weight to the sequence.
Unfortunately after the first act there's little to do with him. Stuck for much of the film behind a computer screen, the always unwashed Vanko (an odd costume/make-up choice) is essentially left to his own devices and serves more as comedic relief via his lack of respect for other people's property. In the end he comes back in for a brutal robot battle, but it comes immediately after a superior fight scene with a bunch of his robotic drones. As a result his big moment feels forced and falls victim to the problem of the first film where Jeff Bridges suddenly became a lot less interesting when he's put behind a metal hood.
Not helping is far too many scenes of mostly fruitless talking between Vanko and Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer character. The two actors simply don't share any chemistry and don't play off each other that well, making many of these scenes feel quite strained. Hammer is a fascinating character on paper, a kind of schoolboy-level Salieri to Stark's Mozart, and Rockwell nails the insecurity, the pettiness and the ineffectual arrogance perfectly. What he doesn't do quite so well is the darker side of such a character - the desperation, the seething resentment, and the self-destructive obsession. Thus his motivations and talk of destroying Stark's empire comes off more sadly amusing than potentially threatening - and a serious threat is what the film needs.
Full props to Favreau for his direction. The action has noticeably improved this time with the final half-hour a fast-paced and deftly handled series of exciting scenes that help give the film a strong buzz walking out of the cinema. Production values are solid across the board, despite a few dodgy CG effects and John Debney's score which veers between forgettable and downright odd. Theroux's scripting has its moments in spite of a few big clunkers. A subplot about the U.S. Senate wanting Stark to turn over the suit is balanced well and Garry Shandling is fun as the senator trying to bring the cocky billionaire down.
There's some nice character moments spread throughout and in spite of all the different characters in play, it never loses sight of the titular hero. Stark's subplot about blood poisoning causing him to act reckless and push everyone away doesn't quite work - the idea of the eternal man-child suddenly facing his mortality can yield rich rewards, but the film seems to be wary about digging too deep into its main character's emotional psyche. After a painfully bad drunken scene at a party, the ultimate solution tying back in with Stark's father is a nice touch - even if it comes hand-delivered by an ancillary character.
That character? Nick Fury. It's something of an irony that probably the most anticipated element of this sequel by fans, the 'Avengers' tie-in, ends up being its weakest link. Samuel L. Jackson's eye-patched Nick Fury pops up three times to help solve some plot problems, but each of his scenes feel like they come from a different movie and ultimately do little beyond grind the pace to the halt. Scarlett Johansson is utterly useless, the actress does fine but the role only entails a few seduction jokes and a fight scene in a catsuit - perfect masturbatory material for much of its audience but a sheer time waster for the rest of us. The final post-credit scene would be cute if the item in question didn't look so ready to be sold by Mattel.
We've gotten spoiled over the years with superhero film sequels often defying the odds and improving upon their predecessors. "Iron Man 2" sadly isn't part of that group, but it's not a disappointment along the lines that many third entries in this genre often turn out to be. Some of the energy that made the first one so refreshing isn't here, but most of the important elements have been carried over and in a few minor cases improved upon. It's a solid summer blockbuster that's entertaining and sparkles at key moments with strong action and some nice character touches, just don't expect much more than that.