In 2008 Marvel Comics released it’s very first in-house financed film through it’s Marvel Studios. That film was called Iron Man. It was a film that definitely was given buzz and hype by the comic book crowd, but wasn’t highly-anticipated by the general public. Even the prospect of Robert Downey, Jr. as the character of Tony Stark was received by the fanboys with trepidation and by the rest of the film-going public with apathy. When the film finally came out the reaction wasn’t what industry experts had expected. The film became a bonafide hit and it was all due to one man. That man happened to be the very person people thought was wrong for the part: Robert Downey, Jr. His performance as Tony Stark and as Iron Man was one of those which makes a franchise. Robert Downey, Jr. was born to play Tony Stark and it showed on the screen. The film was a major success not just for RDJ but for the fledgling Marvel Studios.
It is now 2010 and the follow-up to Iron Man has finally come out. The road to this second film wasn’t as difficult and mired in trepidation as the first, but now people wondered whether the first film was just a fluke and would lightning be caught once again in the proverbial bottle. The complaints this time around prior to the film’s release was that there were too many new characters both villains and allies being introduced. Would the action scenes be as average and all-too-brief as they were in the first film? Would Robert Downey, Jr. be able to handle the pressure of being the foundation of a world Marvel Studios was building with not just the Iron Man franchise but the other films coming down the pipeline like Thor and Captain America then the big boy in the room: The Avengers. These were all credible worries, but in the end this sequel made a great leap forward into calming down these fears. Iron Man 2 definitely lives up to the first film and improves on certain weaknesses of the first film, but not all which just keeps this sequel from being on the same level as past Marvel superhero sequels like Spider-Man 2 and X2.
The film opens up literally just as the first film ends as we see a Russian TV rebroadcasting Tony Stark declaring himself as Iron Man in front of a crowd of reporters. It’s who is watching this broadcast that moves the story along from start to finish. We meet Ivan Vanko (played with inherent menace by Mickey Rourke) who finds out from his dying father that Tony stark and Iron Man was to blame for their family’s hardship and lost legacy. That very theme of patriarchal and familial legacy becomes a running theme throughout the film. This opening intro sequence shows the audience that Tony Stark wasn’t the only one capable of creating the very power source keeping him alive and powering up the Iron Man suit. The extended intro also does a good job of introducing a main character right from the start and giving us his background, motivations and skill set and why he makes a credible opponent for a one-man army which Iron Man truly has become. But Ivan Vanko, or Whiplash as the credits have dubbed him, won’t be the only problem Tony Stark has to face throughout the film. All the problems he’s having to deal with since becoming Iron Man and publicly declaring himself as such comes from that very declaration.
The U.S. government now sees Iron Man as a problem, despite having stabilized the world by his very existence, and has been trying to force Tony Stark to relinquish the suit and the technology necessary to operate and replicate the Iron Man suit/weapon. Whether it’s his self-inflated and fame-fed ego or his new-found ideals to rewrite his family’s warmongering and war-profiteering past, Tony Stark refuses to give up the suit and even embarrasses the senator (played by Garry Shandling) heading up the subcommittee trying to get Stark to relinquish the suit. The other more immediate and personal problem Stark now has to find a solution for happens to be the very thing keeping him alive. The minituarized ARC Reactor in his chest is gradually poisoning him due to it’s palladium core. While the poison levels slowly builds as he continue to wear the reactor it jumps up in levels whenever he uses the suit. Without a suitable replacement to the toxic palladium all the good work Tony Stark thinks he has done will be for naught as death was something he couldn’t fight against.
Right in the middle of both Vanko and the US government sits one Justin Hammer of Hammer Industries. Hammer (played with weasly and loser aplomb by Sam Rockwell) runs a competing arms manufacturer to Stark Industries. A company who took the opportunity of Stark ending all arms manufacturing and sales to become the government’s newest primary defense contractor. Hammer also looks to replicate the Iron Man suit and arc reactor technology either in-house or through less reputable means. Hammer is instrumental in giving Vanko and the government the resources needed to take on Tony Stark. Most of the comedic aspect of the film involves Hammer trying to help out these two competing antagonists with hilarious and, in the end, lethal results.
Not everything about the film centers on Stark’s problems. The film also works in further building up and rounding out the cast of characters supporting Tony Stark. Pepper Potts has now turned from being Tony’s personal aide and secretary to actually becoming Chairman and CEO of his company by his choice. His military liaison and best friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terence Howard for this sequel in the role) returns with conflicted agendas as he’s caught between his friendship to Stark and his commitment as an Air Force officer to the military and this to the U.S. government. We get more screentime with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Nick Fury as he appears in the middle and very end of the film. Another ally to join this core group is Natasha Romanoff as the Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johannson). These people try their best to keep Tony Stark grounded and focused throughout the film.
Iron Man 2 pretty much equals what the first film did in providing the audience with some very good performances from all the actors. Great performances despite another script which definitely needed some help in tightening up the story and it’s many converging subplots. While the screenplay done up by screenwriter Justin Theroux is not bad it does fail to capitalize on the very good origin story of the first. The dialogue was pretty average with some lines bordering on uninspired. The adage of great actors making even the worst script sound great definitely stands with the one for this film.
Robert Downey, Jr. returns to elevate the script and dialogue with his very presence and personality. RDJ is Tony Stark and once again proves that he was born for to play the character and personify it on-screen. Every screentime he has with the rest of the film’s actors pop and sizzle especially those with the two female support of Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Scarlett Johannson as the Black Widow. The chemistry between RDJ and Paltrow has improved even though it was already one of the strongest positives of the first film. We see their relationship evolve beyond the mutual attraction from the first film to something much stronger this second time around. Paltrow’s performance was more defined as she goes from being just Stark’s gal Friday to one in a position of power. She becomes the everyman/woman who bears witness to the fantastic going-ons of a world suddenly becoming full of superheroes and the subsequent villains and enemies.
While the two leads in RDJ and Paltrow continue to do a great job in their roles, and the rest of those returning and even the newest faces keeping up with their own performances, the one actor who almost steals the film has to be Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer. Some have called his performance as being too campy and over-the-top. I think his work as Justin Hammer was actually one of the best in the whole film. It’s right up there with RDJ’s work as Tony Stark. Where people saw a character that seemed over-the-top was actually an actor playing the role exactly how it should be played. Hammer was a character always in the shadow of the more popular, charismatic and confident Tony Stark. Hammer thought himself equal to Stark in every way when in truth his mannerisms and affectations only made him seem more the loser each and every time he was on-screen.
One thing which the film improved on over the first was the staging of it’s action sequences and the length with which they lasted. In the first film, the action was quite minimum to say the least as the film really focused on Iron Man’s origin. While the action in the first film wasn’t bad in any way the fact that they didn’t last long was a sore point for even the ardest fan of that film. This time around the action had better staging and a much improved choreography. The visual effects work by Legacy Effects Studio (formerly known as Stan Winston Studios) improved on the original with the different Marks of Iron Man suits looking distinct whether it was the newest Mark VI worn by Stark in the climactic battle or the “pimped-out” War Machine worn by Rhodes.
One thing which should excite comic book fans, and especially those who fanatically follow the Marvel line of titles, is the many little references to future Marvel Studios titles. While the script itself could be seen as average with some above-average moments it still was coherent enough that all the little easter eggs about Thor, Captain America and The Avengers didn’t seem out of place. This sequel played less like a sequel to a stand-alone franchise, but more like another piece to the world Marvel was building and adding to with each new film. It is for this very reason that I’m more than willing to give some of the deficiencies in the story and dearth of new characters a break.
I think it would be difficult to look at any Marvel Studio film as a stand-alone or even for a franchise to be self-contained. Both Iron Man films belong in a world where other characters with their own films will inhabit and interact with each other. Thus we get all these little references even though it may bloat up the particular film they appear in. The final judgement will come once all the films planned have been released and the overall effect and payoff has been met or not.
In the end, Iron Man 2 was a sequel which more than matched it’s predecessor but still had problems in its screenplay work to keep it from being great. The performances were excellent from everyone involved with some even elevating their roles to higher levels. The action was better than the original with some great work from the visual effects studios whose task was to keep the action coherent and easy to follow (unlike Michael Bay’s action work). For those who follow the comics this film should definitely be a must-see and shouldn’t disappoint. For the casual viewer the film should be a fun and action-filled two-hours that also happens to have some very great actors doing good to great work. I must also recommend that people not leave the theater once the end credits begin to roll. Like the previous film in the franchise there is a suprise scene at the very end of the credits which should be seen as it hints at a future Marvel superhero film and one that will tie in with this particular franchise.