As franchise blockbusters go, the first Iron Man movie was pretty surprising. It was anchored by strong character work from all involved, and it reached beyond its canned thrills for some surprisingly deep subtext. It was almost inevitable that a follow-up would lose some of the original's lustre, and so it has. The new film, Iron Man 2 (2010, directed by Jon Favreau), reunites most of the principals of the first film (exceptions are Jeff Bridges, who got killed off in the first movie, and Terence Howard, who got the ax after feuding with Marvel), and adds a bunch of other supporting characters, including Sam Jackson's Nick Fury, Scarlett Johansson's Natalie Rushman, Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke's Whiplash. This is, all told, the makings of a pretty good indie drama, but we get the canned superhero thrills instead.
That might sound overly harsh, because, on the whole, Iron Man 2 isn't bad at all. It mainly suffers in comparison to its predecessor.
The new movie is still built around Tony Stark, as played by Robert Downey, Jr. What was only hinted about his character in the first movie emerges full bore in this one. He's his own worst enemy, a self-destructive playboy with serious guilt complexes and a boundless ego. He's a pretty complex character, and it's telling that Stark, unlike say Bruce Wayne, can carry the movie all by himself. Watching Downey inhabit the role is a pure pleasure. If ever there were a character and an actor more perfectly suited to each other, I don't know who it is.
Where the movie trips itself up is in its plotting. This has three distinct major plotlines and a couple of minor ones that vie for the viewer's attention, with none getting enough time to be wholly satisfying on their own. First: We have Stark's self-destruction, in which he bears the burden of saving the world with a weapon that is slowly killing him. Second: We have the machinations of Stark's enemies--mainly Mickey Rourke's Ivan Danko/Whiplash, but also Rockwell's incompetent industrialist and Gary Shandling's grandstanding Senator. Finally, we have the Avengers, being orchestrated by Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. Although all of these threads do eventually intersect, it gives the movie the feeling of being overstuffed. And, really, the only one of these threads that's really interesting as narrative is the first one. The other two are fun, but seem perfunctory, like the movie HAD to do these things. As a result, they don't really resonate, even though individual elements will tickle the fancy of fans of the character. Maybe that's what's wrong. It bends over backwards to include a ton of elements from the comics whether they advance the narrative or not (and don't get me started on the credit cookie at the very end). This seems like pandering.
Some general thoughts on elements of the movie:
I've been hyper-critical of Scarlett Johansson in the past. I've never thought she was much of an actress. Surprisingly, she brings an "A" game to her role in this movie. She's really good in a part that could have been a disaster. Thankfully, they chose not to give the character an accent (a possibility, given the character's origins). She's well-conceived, and visually well-designed. Kudos to the costume designer.
Even though Mickey Rourke's supervillainous persona is Whiplash, the character himself is another supervillain, The Crimson Dynamo, and at the end the movie conflates the two. This is an interesting solution to the demand of fans to see the various rogues galleries on film. This also makes the character a LOT more interesting than he is in the comics. Hell, he doesn't really bear a resemblance to either character, so he might as well be sui generis. Rourke does a terrific job of humanizing him while still making him seem like a really bad guy to know.
Sam Rockwell's character is interesting, but I wish the actor could have toned down his "Sam Rockwell"-ishness. Of the major cast members, he's the one that doesn't quite "get" what the movie is trying to do. Ah, well.
The movie gives thanks in the credits to numerous comics writers and artists who have worked on Iron Man over the years. For the most part, Stan Lee's contribution to the character was pretty much covered in the first forty minutes of the first film. Almost none of what's in this film comes from Lee. It mostly comes from David Michelinie and Bob Layton's version of the character, which, for the most part, is probably the definitive comic book Iron Man. Still, it's nice to see Gene Colan get a shout out in the credits (he is Whiplash's co-creator, after all).
The Iron Man movies seem like they have a fair chance of supplanting the James Bond movies for depicting day-after-tomorrow high tech. These films are basically science fiction, and as science fiction, they do a fine job of imbuing their world with a "wow, when can I have THAT!" sort of mindset. The Bond comparison isn't totally frivolous, either, given the heavy presence of Marvel's Bond knock-off, S.H.I.E.L.D. In any case, this movie is a gadget-lover's wet dream.
Where one could argue that the Tony Stark in the first film is a reconstructed neo-con (and, in fact, I argued exactly that in my review of the film), I think this film falls more on the side of a Randian fantasy. (No secret here, given that the superhero archetype is inherently fascist.) This film is arguably conservative in its outlook, venerating a wealthy man who is getting results while the Government is the problem. On the other hand, the primary thrust of this is to show how irresponsible that man is when given the weight of this responsibility, and how self-destructive it is to even attempt it. This is cunningly constructed to speak out of both sides of its mouth.
Stark's relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) continues to be modeled on a romantic comedy, which is fine and appealing, but there's way too little of it in this movie. It's the one element of the first film that I really missed this time out. On the other hand, Happy Hogan (director Favreau) gets a somewhat bigger part this time out. On balance, I'd rather more of Pepper Potts.
The action sequences in this film were storyboarded by animator Gennedy Tartakovsky, and sometimes this is evident (the scene where the droids drop from the sky to surround Iron Man and Warmachine is the most obvious instance). Sometimes, though, what works in animation doesn't work so well in live action (or, at least, live action plus digital effects). Most of the battle at the end of the film happens at such a distance from the camera that it's mostly a light show where you can't really see what's happening. This is something of a flaw. On the other hand, the Grand Prix sequence is a bravura piece of filmmaking, but it happens too soon. It's the first action sequence in the movie. The filmmakers should have contrived a way to place it later in the film. Given the plot mechanics, though, I think they were kinda strait-jacketed.
Anyway, as I said about another equally "plot-compromised" recent movie, the real key here is whether or not one wants to spend any more time with these characters once the screen fades to black. At this point, the answer is still yes, but the desire is a little bit diminished.