For those who are familiar with all things comics, it probably was no surprise that when Iron Man came out in 2008 it made a lot of money at the box office (almost $600 million worldwide). But when you look at it from the general movie goer point of view – an audience that had barely heard of the character – it really was a surprise.
But looking back now it seems kind of obvious it would become a success. And now we have the sequel, again starring Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark a.k.a Iron Man, who is irresistibly charming as ever. This time the titular iron clad hero has to deal with a villain from his father's past, the Russian scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) who's seeking revenge for the death of his father (there's a lot more to it but it's never really explained all that well).
Back for another go around is Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony's faithful assistant Pepper Potts and his army friend Rhodey (being played by Don Cheadle this time instead of Terrence Howard). New to the fold is Sam Rockwell (a very welcome addition to the cast) as Tony's rival arms dealer who wants to make "Iron Man look like an antique," and Scarlett Johansson as the mysterious Natasha Romanoff who first appears on the sign to handle legal issues but soon becomes more involved.
The main question on people's mind going in to Iron Man 2 is if it's better than the first one. Well, if you come to it looking for an improvement on the action that, let's face it, was lacking in the first one, then you'll come away very satisfied. Director Jon Favreau has indeed learned from his first Iron Man outing when it comes to the action sequences as there's more to be found here that's done in a far more cohesive, imaginative fashion.
In particular a sequence on a Monaco race track involving the Russian villain (superbly and fascinatingly played by Rourke), a couple of electrically charged whips and a lot of metal carnage flying around the place. This is just one of many of stand-out action sequences that are peculiar and captivating to watch.
However, where the sequel surpasses its predecessor on the action side of things, it falls below with its story. The first one had more room to breathe, not being hindered by the pressures of setting up Marvel films to come. The sequel feels rather trapped in pointing to what's to come. Now that may work very well now when movies like Thor, Captain America (FYI, stay to the end of the credits for an extra scene that teases one of those two movies) and the big team-up movie The Avengers are still dots on the horizon. But looking at it on its own terms and the first one plays a lot better as its own entity than this.
A huge worry going into Iron Man 2 is that the roster of characters might threaten to have too much limelight all to their own and subsequently the movie will lack focus. Thankfully that's not the case for the most part, although that's not to say it doesn't happen at all. Like I said, there's too much focus on setting up The Avengers and other high anticipated Marvel movies, but there's also one too many characters. Johansson's Natasha Romanoff in particular sticks out as rather tacked on, with Johansson seemingly only there to be eye-candy for the males watching who most likely will make up the majority of the audience anyway.
Out with some character focus troubles (which, admittedly, are minor in the overall scheme of things), there's also some plot points and paths the film goes down, especially in the second half of the film, that take focus away from what the film should be about. A plot point involving Tony's father, although well played by Downey Jr. and others involved, feels a bit forced and contrived. Sometimes it even felt as if it weren't part of the same movie.
What was probably most disappointing about Iron Man 2 is the build-up towards the obligatory action showdown at the end not lasting anywhere near as long as it should. And not only that but just when most of the action up until then had been imaginative and unique (not just from the first movie but from others in the comic book movie genre) it falls back into almost an identical scenario to the end of the first film. One could argue that sequence lasted way too long with two Transformer-esque robots hitting each other relentlessly and thus the similar sequence this time around being shorter is a blessing and not a hindrance. However, I felt disappointing both that it didn't last long enough and that it too closely resembled the first film's final confrontation.
Overall, though, the positives outweigh the negatives. There may be a lack of focus in parts, more characters than there needs to be and an ending that doesn't satisfy the build-up to it. But there's plenty of quality action to be found here, a pace that whips along and, of course, there's always the charming presence of Downey Jr. to carry any scenes that may not work otherwise. The aim of any movie sequel, but especially a superhero one, should always be to improve on the first one. Unfortunately this sequel takes a step back but thankfully not too far.