Talk about a hardware upgrade. Iron Man 2, unencumbered by the obligation to tell a clunky origin story, soars as a flashy, exciting trip through the Marvel Universe’s newest superstar superhero.
What we have here is a sort of anti-Avatar; utilizing the awesome spectacle of contemporary technology, Iron Man 2 makes every bit the usage of American technological prowess for explosive mainstream entertainment, but instead of limp hectoring about the evils of force and business, this film celebrates both as catalysts for progress and world peace. In an era when films distributed by gigantic corporations are likely to contain whiny asides about consumerism and peace, it’s bold to see one that actually treats those ideas with some modicum of intellectual maturity, at least before things start blowing up.
Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark, the billionaire weapons manufacturer who designed himself a suit that rendered him a demigod, as long as the battery lasts. There’s a caveat; that same battery is lodged in his chest, keeping him alive after a mortal wound sustained in the first film. Though he’s now basking in near-universal adulation after revealing his superhero identity to the public, his private thoughts are burdened by declining health and the looming confirmation of his mortality.
Stark comes under fire from villains both foreign and domestic. Quite domestic, in one case, as the U.S. government, in a movement spearheaded by a slimy senator (Garry Shandling), demands that Stark turn over his Iron Man suits. Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), his pathetic but effectively corrupt corporate competitor, has effectively bribed the pols into cooperation. And on the super villain front, genius Russian criminal Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) has crafted his own killer technology out of trash in a rundown Moscow apartment, intent on embarrassing Stark by kicking his ass in front of TV cameras.
Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, who admittedly has the absolute minimum amount of chemistry with Downey), Stark’s long serving assistant, gets promoted to CEO of his company, a decision that probably doesn’t satisfy stockholders as much as it does him. Friend and Air Force liaison James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, taking over a role played by Terrence Howard in the first installment) steals his own suit to become the War Machine, which is essentially the same thing as Iron Man, only with a giant machine gun mounted on the shoulder. Spy boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) drops in to lecture Stark on responsibility, while femme fatale Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) does double duty as both his new assistant and handler.
Director Jon Favreau (who also plays Stark’s driver/bodyguard) weaves quite the plotty web between all these characters, and many of the threads run too long (an initially amusing drunken brawl between Stark and Rhodes wears out its welcome) or taper off into irrelevance (notes from Stark’s father, Fury’s involvement in events). What’s great here is its fantastic leading and supporting performances, the smart, lightly political issues, witty humor, and the kinetic, explosive action, beautifully designed to thrill instead of overwhelm or nauseate. It doesn’t share the utter brilliance of The Dark Knight or Spider-Man 2, but it’s sort of impeccable in its own context, as a rocking, fun superhero pic that brings the source material into vibrant mainstream life.
Downey is sort of analogous to Iron Man, both having been around for years, but neither received with enthusiasm by the mainstream until they became the focus of a gigantic summer blockbuster. Downey, after years of substance abuse that initially appeared to have ruined a promising career, has rocketed from cautionary tale to success story in just a flash. Between Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes, and an Oscar-nominated turn in Tropic Thunder, it’s inspiring to see such a fine actor pull off a stunning career turnaround, and in this case, making a good movie to do it.