Iron Man was a surprise hit. No one expected much from a vehicle for a (comparatively) obscure Marvel superhero character. While X-Men and Spider-Man spawned hugely successful franchises, each were based off of famous, popular properties. Other attempted franchise starters for Marvel characters as varied as Daredevil, The Punisher, Electra, The Hulk, Ghost Rider, and The Fantastic Four met with, at best, mixed reviews and fan response and solid box office, and, at worst, terrible reviews, angry fans and weak ticket sales. Iron Man performed far above expectations, receiving praise from critics and fans alike and ticket sales from the public. Director Jon Favreau (Made) and star Robert Downey Jr. (Two Girls and a Guy) were well suited to bring us Tony Stark, a playboy weapons designer and arms dealer who has a literal change of heart and becomes a modern-day knight in a powered suit of armor. With an excellent, playful supporting cast, including Terrence Howard (Crash), Jeff Bridges (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), and Gwyneth Paltrow (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), the film delivered glib dialogue, good pacing, and solid special effects, overcoming a weak plot through a sense of fun and solid performances. Iron Man also brought the exhilaration of the comics to the screen, a much-needed antidote to the grim and/or angst filled approach of characters like Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men.
Iron Man 2 tries to replicate the high points of its predecessor, but the film doesn’t quite succeed. While Iron Man 2 is an enjoyable event film, and the actors and Favreau are clearly having a ball, the approach feels less fresh and more forced this time out. While this may be the only comic book film where the character moments are more enjoyable than the superhero stuff, it’s a shame that the heroics feel so neglected. Iron Man 2 is burdened with clunky “let’s set up the Avengers film” scenes, too many heroes (Black Widow, Iron Man, and War Machine) and weak villains (Whiplash, re-imagined as an angry Russian hacker/engineer, and Justin Hammer, a dorky wannabe Stark who is in over his head). Hammer is amusing, but is too incompetent to register as a real threat to Stark, while Whiplash starts strong, but in the third act his scheme and final appearance lose that sense of menace. While the film tries to bring back the Pepper Pots/Tony Stark “will-they-or-won’t they” tension, there are few sparks, probably due to the limited time they share on-screen. One wonders why the film includes Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation) at all, since all that comes of her presence is some leering by Stark (though on the hero side of things she gets one bad-ass scene where she wipes out security squad goons, then out-hacks the villain).
The film is a typical sequel in that “more of the same only bigger and dumber” substitutes for continued development or expansion of the ideas from the first film. Favreau continues to bring style (though perhaps a bit too Maxim and not enough 1960s Hefner) to the “glitterati” scenes as well as nice comic touches. The actors-Downey and Paltrow returning, supported by a very seedy looking Mickey Rourke (Sin City) as Whiplash, and Sam Rockwell (hilariously scene-stealing as Justin Hammer)-bring that same playfulness that they and their counterparts brought to the first film, although Don Cheadle (Out of Sight)- taking over for Howard as Rhodes-and Johansson don’t seem to be invited tot he same party (Johansson is particularly flat). The less said about Jackson’s clunky promos for the next few films, the better.
The biggest problem with the film is the script. We move from scene to scene at a nice clip, but this is summer event moviemaking at its finest (?), where things happen and characters make decisions purely to get us to the next moment required in that particular genre or franchise. That a good cast and director (not to mention a large budget) are attached to a rote story is a real shame, since everything is in place for a great superhero film rather than a simply “fun” one. The film is entirely disposable, and you will be forgetting it even as you make your way back home from the theater. This is not to say that it isn’t enjoyable, but anyone hoping for a pleasant surprise on the level of the first film will be disappointed.