In Defense of IRON MAN 2
I wasn't planning to publish my review of IRON MAN 2 here, but after reading some of the other reviews I felt compelled to come to the film's defense. While Greg's and Oggs' opinions are both hugely valid (and they're certainly not the only ones to express disappointment), I've seen the film twice now and had a great time on both occasions. For what it's worth then...
Comic book sequels have enjoyed a pretty good run of late. Bryan Singer's X-2 and Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN 2 were both heralded as the best of their kind upon release and of course Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT seems to have forever transcended cowled crime-fighting into the global mainstream. So, the return of Robert Downey Jr. as industrialist-turned-saviour of the western world, Tony Stark, is arriving on a wave of considerable expectation.
Jon Favreau's 2008 original managed to appear almost unnoticed, tucked away in the shadow of Batman's high profile return, only for it to become one of the year's biggest hits, turn Downey from recovering enfant terrible into global superstar and bring the arguably second tier hero Iron Man to the forefront of the medium for the first time. For the sequel, both star and director return, bringing Gwyneth Paltrow back as Stark's loyal P.A. Pepper Potts, while Don Cheadle takes over as Stark's buddy James "Rhodey" Rhodes after the franchise parted company rather unceremoniously with Terrence Howard.
From the outset it should be conceded that IRON MAN 2 does not manage to surpass the high standards set by its predecessor, but that is not to say that it is a bad film. It looks fantastic, serves its characters and their origins faithfully and easily recaptures the entertaining, cocky spirit of the original. There have been criticisms levelled at the film's second act, accusing it of being slow and baggy, but while Favreau does ease off the pedal slightly, he forgoes action to spend more time with his characters - in particular the newly-arrived Justin Hammer, played with scene-stealing relish by the always-awesome Sam Rockwell - and this should not be discouraged.
Hammer's less successful arms dealer is the perfect nemesis to Stark's peerless entrepreneur. He is ambitious, jealous and willing to do whatever necessary to win Stark's highly lucrative government weapons contract. Even if that means making backdoor deals with known criminals such as Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke). Admittedly, considerably less time is spent detailing Vanko's motives for wishing harm on Tony Stark, and if you miss the opening credits you'll have no idea who he is or how he acquired his badass electro-whips. Rourke's highlights, gold teeth and heavily tattooed torso, coupled with a rather impressive accent, make him rather convincing as a psychotic Russian. However, believing he's also a highly accomplished physicist proves harder and Justin Theroux's script does little to convince us, save having Rourke wear glasses, type fast and be handy with a soldering iron. But, it's not like we're asked to believe he's discovered new atomic elements or anything...no, that's left for Stark to pull off.
IRON MAN 2 introduces its hero at a particularly tricky crossroads. Stark is launching his year-long tech expo, but is under increasing pressure from the US Senate to hand over his Iron Man suit to the government. The daily running of his company is a job too far for its preoccupied CEO, especially as the palladium reactor that keeps him alive is also poisoning his blood at a life-threatening rate. Couple these problems with the fact even Rhodey seems to be pushing him to hang up the iron boots and it's no surprise that when his F1 car is attacked by Whiplash at the Monaco Grand Prix, Tony loses the plot somewhat and turns to the sauce.
There's always plenty going on in the film and Jon Favreau bravely rises to meet the challenge, for the most part keeping things ticking by nicely and avoiding the kind of melee witnessed in SPIDER-MAN 3. Where the script forgoes back story or exposition - largely side-stepping Whiplash's motives, Howard Stark's all-important plans for the future, or just who Scarlett Johansson's character is exactly - it remains infused with crackling wit and feisty dialogue, not least in Stark's relationship with Pepper.
Comic book fans should have little to complain about. Nick Fury and The Avengers initiative are given a higher profile this time out, Rhodey finally gets to play with the suit himself and is nicely introduced as War Machine, we see the portable Iron Man suit in suitcase form, Stark's battles with alcoholism, a welcome if all-too-brief appearance by Black Widow that should set pulses racing and even a final, post-credits sequence that...well, you'll just have to wait and see.
In the end, only a mean old curmudgeon would fail to draw at least intermittent enjoyment from a film that exudes as much enthusiasm, energy and obvious love for its subject matter as is on display in IRON MAN 2. It may not feel as fresh as its predecessor, but that is the inescapable fate of the sequel - burdened by the expectation, plot, characters, relationships and legacy of what has gone before. The film succeeds in taking its story and characters forward, nurturing Stark's relationship with Rhodey and Pepper, it lays promising foundations for Fury, Natalia Romanov and the whole Avengers deal, while introducing a great villain in Justin Hammer and an aesthetically pleasing bit of muscle in Whiplash.
To bemoan IRON MAN 2 for not accomplishing anything beyond these parameters is rather beside the point and needlessly coming between you and what is for the most part an accomplished and highly entertaining summer spectacle.
Cross published in bc Magazine (Hong Kong)