Published at: April 28, 2010, 10:18 a.m. CST by merrick
In 2008, my favourite movie featuring a man who dressed up in an improbable suit in order to fight bad guys was IRON MAN. This heretical view was one I found myself defending on many occasions: what, had I not seen THE DARK KNIGHT?
I had, and I dug it, and it ended up in my top ten of that year. But IRON MAN placed higher. IRON MAN had, in my view, been more successful at what it had set out to accomplish, and it's the film I've been most keen to revisit later. So, naturally, my anticipation for the sequel was pretty high.
Superhero sequels have a habit of being either as-good-as or better-than the originals, eschewing basic Hollywood mathematics. (Think SUPERMAN II, BATMAN RETURNS, X-MEN 2, THE DARK KNIGHT, SPIDER-MAN 2... hell, even the second FANTASTIC FOUR film managed to improve on the first.) With the pesky origin story out of the way, Part Twos feel freer. They're in a better position to stretch their wings and tell the sort of story you can only tell once an audience is fully caught up on what the rules are and who everyone is. That's when superhero films can sit back and make a truly great film before the inevitable part three slump. (Think SUPERMAN III, BATMAN FOREVER, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, SPIDER-MAN 3...)
IRON MAN 2 does not break this tradition. In fact, what it does is give us more of the same. That phrase sounds like an insult, but here it is intended as high praise. The first IRON MAN was funny, the characters were well-developed, the action was really good. I know the final battle has its detractors, but given the visual ADHD that so-called action directors throw at us these days -- I have, on previous occasions, compared Michael Bay's action sequence to the sensation of having someone wave streamers in your face -- I'll take Jon Favreau's style any day of the week.
As with the first film, the story itself is secondary to the manner in which it is told. To simply recount the plot would remove the interpretations that make it great. Robert Downey Jnr remains the very definition of perfect casting, bringing both charm and myriad character faults to a role that is usually bland in its everyman-ness. Gwyneth Paltrow is spot-on as Pepper Potts, and her chemistry with Downey Jnr is better than any other seen in a film of this magnitude for many years. Don Cheadle makes for a worthy successor to Terrence Howard, and much as I'd like to stake a claim on who played the role better, I can't. Both were great, and neither makes me pine for the other. The real surprises come from the supporting characters. Mickey Rourke and Scarlett Johansson are unexpectedly understated in their parts; Rourke, in particular, avoids the obvious showboating choices that would have accelerated the proceedings squarely into farce.
But, in a film full of great performances, an award must surely go to Sam Rockwell for having the hardest job and pulling it off perfectly. Rockwell is not the main villain, nor is he a good guy. In fact, he's probably the most unlikable character of the bunch, behind Garry Shandling's beautifully smarmy Senator. If the film is about anything, it's about missed opportunities. Rourke's Ivan Vanko hates Tony Stark because Stark's father got all the success when his former partner -- Vanko's father -- did not. Rockwell's Justin Hammer hates Stark because Stark is smarter and more beloved than Hammer. But just as Hammer is desperate to beat Stark, he also wants to be Stark's friend. Rockwell plays this almost-pathetic duality so well, he's destined to be the unsung hero of the film. That clever desperation is actually echoed in Stark himself: when Tony Stark talks to Vanko for the first time, his innate desire to show off and impress everyone he comes into contact in serves as the seeds for his undoing later on. It's surprisingly clever stuff, and it's not often we see superhero films that have this much going on underneath.
Those concerned about how the film fits into the wider continuity that Marvel is so famously building will be very happy with this film. Samuel L Jackson gets proper screentime as Nick Fury, and his scenes actually feel important to the main plot, not just tacked-on pieces to set up a different film. (Oh, and stay in the cinema after the main credits. Unlike the situation with the first film, the press screening I was at actually included the post-credit scene, so I can assure you it's in there.)
I get the feeling that the initial reaction to IRON MAN 2 will be that it isn't quite as good as the first film, but I think that will largely be because the first film came out of nowhere. Robert Downey Jnr's Tony Stark was such an unlikely hero, such an unusually charismatic figure, that everybody seemed jolted out of their seats. Everything that was good about the first film is here in the second, only now we're expecting it. In time, when the dust has settled and both films are equally canonised, I suspect the general consensus will be that they are of equal quality. And though the phrasing may be limp, the conclusion is not: IRON MAN 2 is up there with the best.