Despite having helped maintain world peace since ‘outing’ himself as Iron Man, playboy superhero Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) has been asked by the government to hand over his suit to the military. On the surface, Tony is enjoying his enhanced celebrity status, yet underneath he’s starting to crack as his blood is being slowly poisoned by the suit’s life-sustaining core. Meanwhile, rival weapons designer Justin Hammer (Rockwell) recruits bitter Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Rourke) to developed similar technology…
When it comes to comic book adaptations, the second instalment is typically where the series peaks. X2, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight all being prime examples. As such, the prospect of a follow-up to Iron Man was particularly tantalising, given how smart, sassy and satisfying the original was. Frustratingly though, whilst returning director John Favreau maintains a consistent tone and takes largely the same approach, Iron Man 2 is undeniably disappointing by comparison. Certainly, it’s not bad, but Favreau misses the opportunity for greatness as his sequel could (and should) have been so much more.
That said, it starts strongly enough with a very promising opening 45 minutes. AC/DC are rocking the soundtrack, Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash offers a dangerous showdown at the Monaco Grand Prix, Justin Theroux’s script is delivering plenty of zinging one-liners and Robert Downey Jr. is nailing every one of them. But while there’s plenty of dark potential as Stark prepares to depart this world (with RDJ selling the introspective soul-searching just as well as his snarky wisecracks), the movie veers off-course midway – quite literally – and never fully recovers.
Judging by the rather terrific trailer which promised gold, it would seem that certain material was also cut (such as the brilliant “You complete me!” jumping-out-the-plane moment). But whilst the Tony-Pepper romance feels like it’s taken a few steps back (which it has), more problematic is the bloated middle act which struggles to deftly balance all the competing plot-threads. Indeed, Mickey Rourke’s threatening villain all but disappears during this section. Furthermore, there’s more logic niggles than before (Rhodey can operate his suit straight away with zero training), some scenes are handled poorly (a drunk-dancing Iron Man asking for a “phat beat” to accompany an unnecessary scrap) and the solution to Tony’s poisoning is hugely contrived (plus, the triangle chest symbol is rubbish).
It really doesn’t help Favreau that he’s also been saddled with more build-up for The Avengers than any of Marvel’s other pictures. Individually, there’s nothing wrong with the Captain America nod, the post-credits Thor tease or the inclusion of Scarlett Johansson’s absurdly sexy Black Widow (Just. Wow.). But in addition to Samuel L. Jackson’s extended cameo as Nick Fury, there’s just too many distractions to the story at hand, while elsewhere the movie feels like it’s trying to out-do last time. Before, Farvreau’s Happy Hogan was a blink-and-you’ll-miss him part, but here he’s getting in on the fights. Previously, the climactic scrap was against one big robot, but here it’s against lots of big flying robots.
Still, for all the complaints about the talk-heavy middle section, Favreau is wise to keep the note-perfect Robert Downey Jr. out of the suit for as long as he can. Elsewhere, while Gwyneth Paltrow is wasted and Don Cheadle is arguably miscast (replacing Terrence Howard), Mad Men’s John Slattery is great casting as Tony’s Dad Howard (seen in flashback clips) and the immaculately-tailored Sam Rockwell is goofy fun as tactical villain Justin Hammer.
Given how smart, sassy and satisfying the original was, Iron Man 2 is frustratingly disappointing by comparison. It’s decent and Downey Jr. is flawless again in the role he was born to play, but we could have had so much more.