Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) life as industrialist-turned-wisecracking superhero hasn’t gotten any easier after his debut as Iron Man. He’s still the bad boy playboy industrialist and he’s even worse in the sequel for good reason.
Stark is dying. The miraculous invention that had saved his life in the first film is also killing him and the genius inventor of the Iron Man suit has no idea what to do to stop it. He’s tried everything and has told no one since he’s, after all, Tony Stark. If he can’t figure it out, then what’s the point of asking?
And that’s where the fun begins.
To add to his troubles, the United States wants him to hand over the Iron Man suit for their own defense needs and industry rival, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), can’t resist kicking Stark when he’s down. But the biggest threat to Stark is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) whose vendetta against him goes well beyond product placement ads and merchandising.
But it’s the impact of Stark’s dying days that trip up the lives of everyone around him that give the film just enough humanity to lend some warmth to the iron-plated CG that make up most of its action sets. Gwyneth Paltrow’s fun performance as Stark’s close-confidant and personal assistant, Pepper Pots, is tested when she’s suddenly thrust into his shoes without knowing the real reason why, drawing the audience into the muted feelings that they both have for each other onscreen. Don Cheadle (smoothly filling in for Terence Howard) as Stark’s best buddy, Lt. Col. James Rhodes, also does a superb job in trying to keep his friend’s growing party-boy image under control. It’s a buddy move that stands out with Cheadle’s cool playing off of Downey’s exuberance as Stark and it works well enough without feeling shoehorned.
Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer plays up the ‘second-fiddle’ to Stark’s genius with a subtly sinister edge to the one upmanship he plays with imported desserts and Iron Man knockoffs. Despite his own comedic attempts to show up Stark, you get the idea that he’s a man with as much money and potential genius to play with the Iron Man genie in making trouble now that it’s out of the bottle. Scarlett Johansson’s turn as Stark’s new, martial arts trained assistant, added a little punchy surprise to his life and playing off of that, director Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, Starks’ driver, is probably the only “normal” person in this film who does his best with what he’s got.
And it is Mickey Rourke and his character that riddle the screen with enough tattoo’ed zing and growling Russian indifference. Whenever he shows up as Ivan Vanko, Rourke makes him as much a part of Stark’s life outside of the energized whips he uses to shred his way into it. The man smolders with grinning hate for the guy whenever he shows up.
The action lights up the screen with plenty of explosive SFX that doesn’t drown out the actual story and rapid-fire dialogue between each of its players, but it tries its hardest to do so. When it comes down to what Iron Man does best when the bullets start flying, it’s not so much as something that will blow you out of your seat as it is a return to familiarity. Its got the gratuitous showdown and Stark is made mortal in more ways than in simply scratching the paint on his suit, but it’s still as entertaining.
There are certain expectations that you might carry with you to a sequel featuring Iron Man if you’ve enjoyed the first film: that it’s bigger, badder, and has raised the volume on everything else. Iron Man 2 does that with choice moments weaved in between its steel-on-steel action and if you liked Tony Stark’s first foray into the world as the man who “privatized world peace”, this can also feel like a repeat performance. But I liked it. When it works, successfully staying the course can also be as heroic as it can come.