Published May 07, 2010It's only been two years since B-list Marvel hero Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) vaulted into mainstream consciousness with a hugely successful movie that, at the time, seemed like another apex in superhero adaptations and tent pole summer movies. But The Dark Knight came hot on its heels and changed the game, in terms of the landscape of moral complexity for the superhero genre, followed by Avatar, which rewrote the expectations for both visual ambition and box-office success.
Just 24 short months later, Iron Man 2 feels like a throwback to a more innocent time, when charming rogues, cartoonish villains and zippy special effects were enough. Iron Man 2 is treading on its own familiar ground: billionaire Tony Stark is publicly flaunting his Iron Man tech while secretly battling for his health, since the heart implant that saved his life is leaking poisonous chemicals into his system. He's beset on all sides by self-interested entities both corporate (weapons manufacturing rival Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell) and governmental (Garry Shandling returns as a war-mongering Senator). Even his military insider/friend Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing the original's Terrence Howard) is conflicted about Tony's refusal to turn the Iron Man tech over to the government.
Tony still wants to seduce babes and play with his toys, like driving his Formula One car in the Monaco Grand Prix, an event that's disrupted by a whip-wielding Russian maniac named Whiplash (a prison-tatted Mickey Rourke, who relishes tearing into some scenery with his gold teeth). Stark is nagged about the troubled finances of Stark Industries by his former assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and has his suspicions about his new assistant Natalie (Scarlett Johannson, who reveals herself to be an agent with her own agenda as well).
When Samuel L. Jackson arrives as eye-patched mystery Nick Fury to talk about the secret SHIELD organization and getting Iron Man involved in the Avengers initiative, Iron Man 2 starts to feel like a chapter in the larger saga that Marvel Entertainment is trying to shove into place. Fury first appeared in a post-credits scene in the first movie, and will take a bigger role in the upcoming Captain America and Avengers films. As a result, integrating him into the narrative makes Iron Man feel like a bit of a pawn in his movie.
Indeed, there's a lot going on in a film whose success should rest on the shoulders of its witty, sarcastic, flawed hero, especially since Downey Jr. has proven himself the perfect balance of strength, vulnerability and charm, delivering the best comic movie performance outside of Heath Ledger's Joker. But Downey Jr. gets somewhat set aside for other company business, and it's a bit of a disappointment.
While Rourke, his daddy issues and his cockatoo make for some over-the-top hilarity, Justin Hammer, the government and the love/hate relationship with the public over Iron Man's existence feel like ground well covered in the first film. The final result is certainly entertaining, but revelatory and relevant have zoomed past Iron Man in the fast lane.
Fan-boy excitement is sure to be further whipped into a frenzy by another Avengers-teasing post-credits moment, but keen music fans will be in for a bit of a shock when DJ AM (aka Adam Goldstein, who died of an accidental overdose last August) is spotted spinning tunes at a chi-chi Stark party. Iron Man 2 is a piece delightful entertainment in a world whose comic book heroes have taken a darker and more ambitious path since Tony Stark arrived at the party. (Paramount)