Two years ago, Iron Man hit the scene and delivered new life to a flagging genre. Part of the movie's immediate appeal for me rested on how it was so diametrically opposed to The Dark Knight. While both were excellent additions to the genre, and The Dark Knight was in every way a more serious, dramatic and nuanced film, Iron Man's campy and cocky sense of fun was a much-needed change from the brooding Bruce Wayne style superhero.
Iron Man didn’t try to bog us down with heavy emotions or complex plotlines -- its primary objective was being a fun popcorn film, and it delivered. Even with Tony Stark’s dead parents and his time as a prisoner of war, he still walked around swilling liquor, cracking wise and bedding women. You had characters named Obediah Stane played by Jeff “The Dude” Bridges, Gwynneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, and a sassy computer system voiced by Paul Bettany. Even with all that talent, some of the best scenes are when Robert Downey Jr. is bantering with a robot arm in his lab. Simply put, Iron Man was a breath of fresh air for a genre that has been working so hard at being taken seriously that it forgot that its primary objective was to be entertaining (I’m looking at you, Watchmen). In short, Iron Man’s biggest strength was its characters – not the CGI or the fight scenes, and certainly not the bare-bones plot.
For better or for worse, the screenwriters also realized that character was where the heart of the first film lay, and so with Iron Man 2, we’re served an even lighter plot with an even bigger cast. In one sense, the screenwriters handle all of the new characters well enough – when the film jumps from any of its half-dozen storylines, you’re never confused about who is who or what’s going on. And though Downey Jr. lost a little of the gusto that made Tony such a joy the first time around, he still ably carries the film.
The trouble is that as well-managed as the characters are, they’re still spread a little too thin. Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson just wind up being walking advertisements for the upcoming Avengers movie, and so neither is given anything particularly interesting to do. Then director Jon Favreau gives himself a very long and very pointless cameo as Tony Stark’s bodyguard, which looks as ridiculous as it sounds. John Slattery should be genius casting as Tony’s dad, since Slattery’s performance as Mr. Sterling on Mad Men is undeniably similar to Downey Jr.’s cocky and dismissive Tony Stark, but weirdly Slattery isn’t given much opportunity to draw that connection here, appearing largely in old Stark Industries promotional videos with Just For Men’d brown hair that makes him nearly unrecognizable.
The movie’s biggest problem, though, is that Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash, who by all accounts should have come off as the lead bad guy with his over-the-top Russian accent and taste for destruction, is dwarfed by the giddy sleaziness of rising star Sam Rockwell who plays Stark Industries’ rival weapons developer Justin Hammer.
Sam Rockwell is quickly becoming a Steve Buscemi type of scene stealer – someone whose presence on screen is so absorbing that he renders nearly any nearly any other actor in the vicinity invisible, except of course for the equally electric Robert Downey Jr. with whom he shares a few small but fantastic scenes. Rockwell comes off so oily and unlikeable that it’s hard to believe that only a year ago I found him sympathetic and loveable as Moon’s Sam Bell. But Rockwell sells this role: Justin Hammer is gleefully despicable, and easily one of the movie’s highlights, right down to his white man disco dancing and orange fake bake palms.
A smaller but significant issue is in the switch from Terrence Howard to Don Cheadle as Tony Stark’s best buddy Lt. Col. Rhodes. Part of the fun of Howard’s version of Rhodes was that as much as he nagged Tony Stark, in the end, “Rhodey” was going to roll over and let Tony do whatever he wanted. Howard’s sweet face and resigned expression conveyed this perfectly. Cheadle's Rhodes is a little too cold and he seems both capable and willing to put Tony firmly in place -- and does. You don't get the same kind of admiration, or even friendship, from Cheadle's character, and so all of the bickering between Stark and Rhodes comes off as genuine, rather than friendly, and isn't nearly as charming or fun.
I would talk about the plot, but for the most part there really isn’t one and the trailer gives you pretty much everything you need to know. Tony needs to defeat some bad guys and kiss Pepper, and he checks off all of the boxes. While the sequel doesn’t capture the same fever-pitch fun as the original, it’s a worthy follow-up, a solid action movie and a good way to kick off the summer blockbuster season.