Robert Downey Jr. again dazzles as billionaire Tony Stark in Iron Man 2, an enjoyable sequel that keeps the juggernaut rolling forward despite a few too many villains, subplots and plugs for future movies.
This is a ridiculously crowded film that, at times, feels like it could fall victim to the same type of overkill that has temporarily ruined the Spider-Man franchise. Director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Theroux stuffed the movie with three major villains, played by Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell and none other than Garry Shandling.
Iron Man 2 picks up where the first left off, with Stark brazenly telling the press he's Iron Man. Far away, Ivan Vanko (Rourke), a greasy, muscular, gold-toothed Russian scientist, watches the press conference on TV with his dying father and his beloved cockatiel. Vanko is working on a destructive invention, and he has major reasons to be pissed at Stark.
At the Stark Expo in Flushing, N.Y. (former home of the World's Fair), Stark basks in the glory of his creation. Everybody loves Iron Man—except for factions within the U.S. government that want the suit as a weapon. This leads to a hearing during which a scheming senator (Shandling) demands that Stark hand over the Iron Man suit for the good of the country.
Also crammed into the 124-minute running time is Scarlett Johansson as a new Stark employee who is some kind of kick-ass spy for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, getting a little more screen time in this chapter). Fury, as comic readers know, is the leading agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., the espionage agency with a strategic alliance to The Avengers, a gathering of Marvel superheroes that will soon get their own motion picture.
Johansson's presence feels like nothing more than an obvious setup for sequels and/or spinoffs. She does look mighty fine in her tight black outfit, but she factors little in the Iron Man 2 story. Other Avengers teasers include a prominent Captain America joke and a short scene involving another Marvel superhero after the credits.
Throw in Don Cheadle—competently replacing Terrence Howard as Lt. Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes, Stark's best friend—and you have enough major characters for three or four superhero movies.
If there's anything in the Iron Man universe that confounds me, it's this: How do Stark and Rhodey remain friends? Rhodey flat-out steals an Iron Man suit and turns it over to the government, which allows evil weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Rockwell) to get access to it. Rhodey also augments the suit with super weapons without Stark's authorization. Yet he and Stark join forces to battle an army of droids engineered by Vanko in the film's finale, and wind up being all chummy. The dude stole a billion-dollar suit! He should be banned from the premises!
On top of all this, Stark is dying. (Of course he's dying!) That energy reactor thing implanted in his chest is releasing toxins into his body. We know this, because he has a little blood-toxicity monitor that he occasionally sticks his thumb on.
The romantic subplot (yes, another subplot) involving Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, who seems to scream a lot more this time out) is nothing but an afterthought, and that's probably a wise move. The film couldn't handle the weight of a major love story. Pepper spends most of her time in the film fretting over becoming the new CEO of Stark Industries. I actually forgot the two were supposed to be romantically involved for a while.
While Jeff Bridges' Obadiah Stane from the first film gets my vote for Best Iron Man Villain, Rockwell is no slouch as Hammer. He's responsible for some of the film's funnier moments and maintains a serviceable level of menace.
Rourke's work drifts into caricature, and his insufferable Russian accent reminded me of Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. However, Rourke does look mighty cool while sporting electric whips and slicing racecars in half.
Despite all of these shenanigans, Downey still finds time to riff aplenty, and Theroux, who co-wrote Tropic Thunder (and helped Downey score an Oscar nomination), gives Downey some funny stuff. His screenplay delivers enough of the comic-book mythos (maybe a little too much) to keep the geeks happy while supplying Downey with a sufficient amount of pathos.
Iron Man 2 doesn't stand alongside the great superhero sequels like The Dark Knight, Superman II and Spider-Man 2, but it's far better than the disasters that were Batman and Robin and Spider-Man 3. I left the film feeling slightly satisfied—and anxious for the inevitable next chapter.