"It's good to be back!"
Iron Man 2 had big iron shoes to fill, and I think it has made a damn good attempt, but falls just a little shy of the brilliance of the original. Rotten Tomatoes rates the movie at 74%, and since I'm writing this up a full month after the release I'm fairly sure that score should remain constant.
This time around the movie begins in the aftermath of Stark's announcement that he is Iron Man. The US Military wants the suit, for obvious reasons and Tony is stalwartly refusing to turn it over. Into this situation comes Ivan Vanko, a man seeking vengeance against the Stark empire for the death of his father, Justin Hammer, a rival weapons manufacturer and the fact that Tony himself is slowly being poisoned by the very same device that is keeping his heart beating. As you can imagine things get pretty interesting before the end credits role.
Robert Downey Jr is still terrific as Stark, they really couldn't have cast anybody better in the role. He possesses just the right mix of authority and immaturity that really brings Stark alive onscreen. It was also great to see Gwyneth Paltrow back as Pepper Potts. The chemistry between her and Downey is very natural and adds a real sense of closeness to the characters. Mickey Rourke turned in a good performance, for the relatively small amount of screen-time he got. As Whiplash was billed as the villain of the piece, I rather expected to see more of him, instead his character was restricted to a few key scenes. Instead Sam Rockwell, as rival weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer, seemed to be front and center as the main antagonist to Stark and Iron Man. I absolutely despised Hammer as a character, for which I give enormous credit to Rockwell, his performance created a man the audience loves to hate.
A fairly large degree of press surrounded the fact that Scarlett Johansson was going to be playing Russian super spy Black Widow in the movie. Aside from serving up some rather delicious eye candy, she adds absolutely nothing to the movie. Her performance was bland and about as wooden as Keanu Reeves on a good day. It almost seemed like she didn't even care about the role, or the character, delivering every line with a completely expressionless look on her face and in a dry monotone. Is this the fault of the director? Did Favreau tell her to make Widow stoic? Was it really the case that she knew she was there to look hot and didn't really give a damn about anything else? Who knows, but I suspect the latter is the truth in this case.
Finally, we come to Rhodes. In the first movie Rhodes was played by Terrance Howard, in the sequel Don Cheadle steps into the role. I doubt we will ever know what really happened to spur such a switch, but it happened and we have to live with it. In any case I like Cheadle as an actor, I'm a fan of several of his movies (including the terrific Traitor), but it's difficult to gauge his performance without comparing it to Howard. Howard played Rhodes as a real straight laced air force officer, but also showed the capacity to kick back and relax with Stark. When Howard was Rhodes, it was easy to get the sense that he and Stark will good friends. Cheadle nails the straight laced air force officer, but in my opinion fails to convey the friendship between Rhodes and Stark, at least until the climactic showdown. This colors every action he makes in the movie to suggest that instead of being Stark's friend, he'd quite happily stab him in the back to satisfy the military.
Some have criticized the plot for being slow in places, I think I have to disagree on this point. I have, over the years, developed a foolproof system to determine if a movie is dragging or not. If I am repeatedly glancing at my watch to see how much time is left in the movie - then it's slow. I did not, even once, glance at my watch during the movie - thus I wouldn't call it slow. There are however some points that strained the realm of believability, such as how Stark solves the problem of his blood poisoning. In the interest of a spoiler free review I wont go into detail about it, but suffice to say it was both rather convenient and somewhat skeptical. As a whole though, the overall plot of the movie is fairly solid. Though granted it doesn't quite seem to flow as well as the original movie did - sequels are always judged harsher though.
Once again the special effects and fight scenes were top notch. Favreau has, in both movies, done a fantastic job of merging comic book style action with a real world feel. The Iron Man suits really feel like the they have weight, and when they strike something the sound effects really help sell the impact of metal on metal. Whiplash's energy whips also looked really good, though they were somewhat spoiled by their prevalence in the trailer. Between cutting edge visuals and top of the line sound design, the fight scenes really come alive in a big way.
Of course Iron Man 2 is about more than just fights. The continuing relationship between Stark and Potts is treated very well in the sequel, from the beginning we can sense connection between them that neither one is willing to pursue. Stark, as a results of the blood poisoning, has to come to terms with his own mortality and tries to tie everything off so that he doesn't leave a mess behind for the people he cares about. Despite the lack of what I'm call to call the "friendship vibe" caused by Howards replacement, there is also some development between Rhodes and Stark. Stark has to accept that he can't save the world alone and needs to trust Rhodes to help him, which means trusting another person with the Iron Man technology.
Overall I thought that Iron Man 2 is a really entertaining movie. Is it as good as the first, when I walked out the theater I thought so, but on further reflection I think perhaps it does fall short a little. There is an element of 'Die Hard syndrome' to be had here. While the sequel is a good movie in its own right, as a follow up to the near perfect Iron Man it does seem a tad lacking. The other factor to consider is that Iron Man 2 bears the burden of having to lay threads for the Avengers movie (which is the only reason Samuel L Jackson's Fury was in there) which also bloats areas of the story with unnecessary exposition that is probably what most folks find slows down the pace of the main story. Despite this I still really enjoyed the movie, and will definitely be adding it to my collection when it gets its DVD release.
Final Verdict on Iron Man 2: