Though I am writing this review in 2015, less than a week before the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I am attempting to place myself back in the mindset of 2010 when Iron Man 2 was released and it became clear that Robert Downey, jr, could carry even a not-so-great Marvel movie.
Let’s get this out of the way: Iron Man 2 is simply not as good as Iron Man. It’s not even a close race.
Let’s get this out of the way, part two: Don Cheadle is better than Terrence Howard as Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes.
Let’s get this out of the way, part three: Iron Man 2 has an awful lot in common with Spider-Man 3, the movie that all but killed the Spider-Man movie franchise: too many villains, a highly convoluted plot, special effects that almost overwhelm the narrative and a protagonist that behaves wildly out of character for a few scenes.
And yet, Iron Man 2 emerges from all of this as a pretty enjoyable movie that continues Marvel Films’ process of creating a remarkable shared universe. Most of the credit for that has to go to Robert Downey, jr.
There is way too much going on in Iron Man 2 and that may not be director/writer Jon Favreau’s fault. This movie begins to really define the so-called “Marvel House Style” and this means that Easter Eggs and set up for future movies must be a part of the business at hand. It also mandates cameo appearances, continuation of storylines from prior films and set up for future ones. That’s a bunch to juggle. While I love the Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, Black Widow stuff, I just named 3 characters that have very little to do with Iron Man himself and that would be second bananas in other films, barely having any screen time. In this one, they are more than supporting characters, they each advance pieces of the plot (in this movie and for other films) and, therefore, take away from the main characters’ story.
There is a story for the main characters and, I would guess, that’s the story that Favreau was really intending to make. Tony Stark is about to go off the rails as the movie begins. He’s being poisoned by the very invention that keeps him alive and he is confronting his own mortality. Further, it’s become clear to the world that Iron Man is a political force and one that is outside of any government and, therefore, uncontrolled by any government. Called to appear before Congress, Stark is taken to task for his proprietary control of the Iron Man technology and refuses to acknowledge that the United States (or any other government for that matter) should be at all concerned about what he chooses to do in his armor. Here, Stark confronts his own morality.
In the background is a developing romance with Pepper Potts, played to great effect by Gwenyth Paltrow. Pepper is more than window dressing in the movie, and that’s refreshing for a superhero romp. Paltrow and Downey, jr. have real chemistry and their scenes together crackle. They are an onscreen couple that works and Paltrow’s Pepper is a force to be reckoned with throughout the movie.
Stark is also supported by Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes. Don Cheadle takes over the role in this movie and he is terrific. He’s one part best dude and one part Jiminy Cricket to Tony Stark and things really get happening when Rhodes dons the so called “War Machine” armor. Yes, we get the obligatory superhero v. superhero fight, but we get something even more interesting later in the film when Rhodes, a solider, is forced to choose between friendship and country. A different actor than Cheadle might phone this thing in. He simply doesn’t.
There are 2 villains on hand in Iron Man 2 and it’s like an NFL team having two quarterbacks – if you have 2, you don’t have 1. I think that Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer is completely awesome. Rockwell himself is a fun actor and he plays his role here as something of an anti-Tony Stark. He’s rich. He’s smart. He has power, but he comes off like the kid always picked last in elementary school a, trauma he’s never gotten over. He’s a step back, a few stones less, a quip behind Downey, jr.’s Tony Stark throughout the movie, and it’s great to watch. He doesn’t come off as a Jeff Bridges retread because Rockwell is so fun. In fact, Justin Hammer would have been villain enough for the movie and, in fact, he could have carried almost all of the action that is given to villain number 2: Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko.
Mickey Rourke seems to be one weird dude and he brings all the oddness to his work in Iron Man 2. When creating villains, writers often attempt to recast the hero’s story in darker shades and that’s exactly what we get in Rourke’s Vanko. He’s the son of a brilliant scientist. Check. He’s incredibly smart. Check. He can create technology no one else can. Check. He’s like Iron Man but from Russia! Check. And he’s pretty one note. There’s no arc for Vanko. He’s given some fun speeches – his “There’s blood in the water and the sharks will come” sounds so good it seems ad libbed – and an okay gig in his laser whips, but all of that doesn’t amount to a very compelling villain. He’s pretty forgettable.
So, Iron Man 2 is pretty packed already and we’ve not hit Scarlet Johanssen’s Black Widow, the Monaco Grand Prix, the Stark Expo and Tony’s discovering of a new element yet… and we won’t. Johanssen’s good. The Grand Prix scene is fun. The Stark Expo is cool. Tony’s discovery of a new element is deus ex machina of the highest order.
But, here’s the thing: it’s all too much. This movie is so over stuffed it falters under its own weight. It’s so full, characters simply leave the movie having really played no role in it at all (hello Agent Coulson, goodbye Agent Coulson). it’s so strange that it even contains a Gallagher reference. Is it bad? No – Downey, jr. and Paltrow and Cheadle and Rockwell are so fun that they make it worth the price of admission. Is it good? No – but it’s a Marvel Movie, so it gets more benefit of the doubt than it should.
Iron Man 2 is one of the lowest points of the Marvel Films, which is a shame.
Iron Man 2 receives TWO AND A HALF exploding watermelons out of a possible FIVE.