The first Iron Man was not only the first film in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but it also served as the launch point for the “Avengers Initiative.” It created vast amounts of buzz around the rest of the films in the series leading up to the culmination of “Phase One”: The Avengers. Iron Man 2 feels like an incomplete cliffhanger episode of a television series. It contains some great ideas that feel incomplete and is certainly entertaining in its own right, but too often feels entirely like set-up to The Avengers. There’s too many references and hints to what will come down the line as opposed to the here and now of the actual story in Iron Man 2.
In contrast to almost every superhero sequel out there, Iron Man 2 presents a world in which the public is entirely aware that the superhero and an alter ego are one and the same. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is now a duel celebrity thanks to Iron Man, consistent with the events of the previous film. He refuses to hand over his technology to the U.S. Government, fearing it will be used for malicious purposes. At the same time, his health is deteriorating due to internal poising via his arc reactor and becomes increasingly reckless. He’s also battling adversaries in the form of business rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian parallel to Stark in many respects. Both of their fathers worked together and are also technological geniuses.
If this sounds a bit excessive, you would be correct in that assumption. Because there’s a great deal of subplots in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark’s characterization is inconsistent and regressive compared to the first film. For just about the first hour, Stark is very much in line with how he was following his traumatic experiences in the Middle East. He’s still incredibly charming and self-absorbed, but now possessing a conscience. Following a thrilling action scene at a Monte Carlo race track between Stark and Vanko, he reverts back to a slumped out state dependent on booze and women. The race track sequence and preceding events at a party personify everything great about the Iron Man films. There’s witty dialogue, an emphasis on character development, and Tony feels like he is in actual danger. After these events, he again becomes a bystander to the events happening around him.
Tony’s character arc in Iron Man 2 wouldn’t be as much of an issue to me if it had some kind of excellent payoff. There’s an absence of emotional weight on Tony’s situation because most of it comes off as awkward or slapstick. We see him make a fool of himself at a local party only for Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to awkwardly battle him using one of Tony’s old suits. Instead of weight, the film solves the complexities of mortality and heroism in a hackneyed showcase of lazy writing. Upon discovering some old schematics from his father, Tony synthesizes a new element in order to cure himself. I can buy Stark finding his father’s work, but suspension of disbelief only goes so far. It also comes out of nowhere and is a poor resolution to one of the numerous scattershot plot threads.
I mentioned Rhodes a little while ago and neither he nor Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) have the prominence they did in Iron Man. Their arcs are just meshed together with the new characters without any feeling substantial. Vanko feels too much like a generic Russian stereotypical villain from the Reagan era of action films. He teams up with Hammer for no other reason than because neither had anything to do. Rockwell gets the majority of the funniest quips in the film, including naming a missile “the Ex-Wife.” Hammer is my favorite character in the film, aspiring to be Tony Stark but lacking in those traits only Stark possesses. Rhodes even considers joining up with Hammer at the expense of Tony, but this idea doesn’t have as much focus as it should.
The most glaring example of Iron Man 2 mainly functioning as Avengers set-up is the involvement of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the introduction of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Fury occasionally shows up to explain the workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Stark or to belittle him for his behavior. Originally introduced as Stark’s new secretary, Black Widow serves as a plot device for a portion of the climax. It’s a standout action scene, but I feel like she’s there only to introduce her prior to The Avengers. Once again, the climax of Iron Man 2 is nothing special. It’s a bunch of guys in armored suits fighting drones with no personality. Even the big showdown between Vanko and Stark feels rushed.
Rushed is the perfect word to describe Iron Man 2. Between the several underdeveloped plot threads and meandering second act into the climax, the movie feels formulaic and lacking the wit or sharpness of its predecessor. It’s a darn shame because the first hour of Iron Man 2 starts things off on a high note. That portion of the film feels like the spiritual successor to Iron Man. The majority of what follows feels more like a commission by Marvel Studios as opposed to the labor of love that Jon Favreau created with Iron Man.
Movie Review – Iron Man 2 (2010)