It’s going to be a long summer.
What else to say after the popcorn movie season’s most anticipated picture arrives with such fanfare, only to disappoint?
“Iron Man 2” is a victory lap of a movie with daddy issues front and center. The special effects are bigger and much better, the action set pieces extravagant, and Robert Downey Jr. fantastic in the role he was born to play. This is a movie with attitude and arrogance to match Tony Stark’s, yet it still misses the mark in so many ways.
Is it good? Yes, but given how high the bar was set with the exhilarating first “Iron Man” movie, it’s not good enough.
The film begins with the live broadcast of the press conference where Tony Stark revealed to the world he was the man in the Iron Man suit. Watching in Russia is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who blames the Stark family – specifically Tony’s late dad Howard Stark – for ruining his family.
Decades earlier, Howard Stark and Anton Vanko had worked together on a trailblazing energy device, a variation of the palladium-powered device Tony uses to keep his ailing heart alive. Vanko believes Stark cut his father out of the invention to take all the credit.
Tony has his own problems to sort out with his dead dad. For all his legacy building, Papa Stark didn’t build much of a relationship with his son. It still stings
But Stark keeps it all to himself. He’s seemingly on top of the world in his role as the world’s superhero, and preparing to relaunch the Stark Expo, which is kind of the Marvel Universe spin on Disney’s old World of Tomorrow exhibit.
It’s difficult to imagine any actor other than Robert Downey Jr. being able to pull off the astounding arrogance of a guy who proclaims himself “a walking nuclear deterrent,” while still making said character likeable. Somehow he does, with boundless charisma, a twinkle in his eye and a smile that tells you even he isn’t buying all the manure he’s shoveling.
Downey Jr./Stark – at this point in time, it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart – is like a one-man Rat Pack. His back-and-forth with Garry Shandling’s inquisitive Senator Stern during a televised hearing in Washington D.C. is pure gold. Stern wants the Iron Man suit turned over to the government. Stark says he can’t have it, that the suit and him are one and the same.
But he’s Iron Man, not Superman, and Stark’s kryptonite turns out to be the very thing keeping his heart beating. The palladium in his chest piece is poisoning his bloodstream. He’s tried and failed to find an antidote.
Tony Stark isn’t used to failing, and he isn’t used to getting his butt kicked either. But that’s exactly what happens when Vanko ambushes him at the Monaco Grand Prix. Watching Vanko whiplash Stark with his super-charged coils and toss him around the track is, pardon the pun, electric. Much of the sequence will seem familiar since it’s been part of the trailers for months, but it’s still impressive, especially when Stark suits up with the suitcase armor.
Just as good is the jailhouse scene, in which Downey Jr. and Rourke face off. What makes Vanko so dangerous is that he is the first to discover the chink in Iron Man’s armor. “If you can make God bleed, then people will cease to believe in him.”
That’s compelling stuff, striking at the heart of Stark’s growing superman complex that has the government so afraid to let the Iron Man technology remain in the hands of a civilian. Too bad it’s basically tossed aside for the rest of the film.
Sadly, Monaco also marks the high point for Rourke as Whiplash (he is actually never referred by his comic book nom de plume). Which is a shame, because Rourke gives Vanko attitude and anger. This is a villain with genuine purpose.
Favreau, who rode “Iron Man’s” astounding $585 million haul to Hollywood’s directing A-list, crafts a movie that during the early going has the cocky, not-taking-this-too-seriously air of a Bond movie. The action scenes are thrilling and loud (aided by the relentless AC/DC soundtrack) and the CGI is seamless amidst all the explosions. About halfway through, however, the movie hits some turbulence and never recovers.
You may get a feeling of Déjà vu during “Iron Man 2,” because a lot will seem familiar. There is another lavish party scene, another crude weapon-building sequence in less-than-plush surroundings and another climactic battle against a guy in an iron suit. We probably could have done without another montage in which Tony rebuilds his chest piece, as well.
Thankfully, the top-shelf cast mostly delivers. Sam Rockwell oozes sleaze as Stark’s rival industrialist Justin Hammer, who bankrolls Vanko in exchange for the creation of an army of iron soldiers. In Rockwell’s capable and very funny hands, Hammer is closer in spirit and style to the guy selling fake Rolexes in Times Square than a billionaire weaponeer.
Don Cheadle does his best stepping in for Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but the character is still an underwritten sidekick burdened with some of the wimpiest superhero dialogue ever. Even when he dons the War Machine suit, you don’t get the sense that Rhodey is there to do anything else but keep Tony company.
Scarlett Johansson looks great and gives a yeoman’s effort as Natasha Romanoff, but her fight scenes are choreographed like a Jean Claude Van Damme movie and worse, the character is completely inconsequential. She’s strictly Fanboy eye candy. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, but there is still no reason to care about her except for how well she wears the Black Widow costume.
Faring better is Paltrow as the beleaguered Pepper Potts. Pepper is tiring of Tony’s quirky genius act, his selfish attitude and she calls him on it. Paltrow seems as comfortable with her role as Downey Jr. seems in his. Their affectionate bickering lends the movie the easy charm of a 60s romantic comedy.
Samuel L. Jackson has a nice extended cameo as Nick Fury, the main purpose being to bring the elements together for the inevitable “Avengers” movie. Aside from revealing a few new details on what Stark’s role with the team could be, Fury also sheds light on who Howard Stark really was.
As the Stark patriarch seen in old newsreel footage, “Mad Men” star John Slattery makes the most of his brief screen time. He looks like a cross between Howard Hughes and Walt Disney.
We also get the first crumbs of the legendary ‘Demon in a Bottle’ storyline. As his health issues worsen, Stark alienates his closest friends, Pepper and Rhodey. The much-anticipated debut of War Machine comes when the two friends get into a suited-up brawl during Stark’s birthday party that nearly levels his Malibu mansion.
The fact that he had to set the table for so many things – the Avengers Initiative, Stark’s drinking problem – was obviously a problem Favreau couldn’t completely solve. Now we have the first indication that achieving a fully formed, interconnected Marvel Movie Universe isn’t going to be quite as easy as most people expected.
[Although there is a nice post-credits scene worth sticking around for.]
Unlike other standout superhero franchises like Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men, which made huge leaps forward with their second chapters, “Iron Man 2” largely runs in place. It lacks the zip and cohesiveness of the first film, and falls back too often on familiar moments.
Screenwriter Justin Theroux’s screenplay touches on a bushel of topics – government weapons programs, corruption of power, the Avengers (more on that later), as well as old-school revenge. But it loses sight of the heart and soul of the Iron Man story: The guy inside the suit.
Not even Downey’s irresistible charisma can overcome that misstep.
That’s the problem with hitting one out of the ballpark your first time up. Everyone expects you to do it every single time.
“Iron Man 2” aimed for the fences, but came up short.