The first Iron Man was considered something of a risk. The character is not quite a top tier hero, at least not with the likes of Spider-Man and Batman, but there is still something quite cinematic about the character, his costume, and his history. Fortunately, Jon Favreau and his writing team had a good idea of how to bring the character to life. Combine that with the potential risk of signing Robert Downey Jr. to star and you had a film that may have been heading in the right direction but was hardly a sure thing. Well, we all see the movie proved to be a big hit back in 2008, both with fans and critics. I personally consider it to be in the upper echelon of comic adaptations. Because of this success, the sequel had a lot riding on it and I have to admit it was difficult to keep my own hype machine in check as the release approached.
As the sequel's opening approached, the excitement built and built. It was slightly tempered by the early buzz that ran the gamut from great down to terrible. However, like Olympic scoring, the high and low ratings are discounted with the true score coming from those in the middle. You almost have to write off the early reviews that praise and those that rip the movie because they are more than likely fanboy-types blinded by their love of the material or by their desire to dislike whatever they are given. In any case, I went in hoping for north of good and expecting less than the first.
Iron Man 2 picks up just where the first one left off. We see the big reveal at the climactic news conference from the other side, on a television. This also introduces us to Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, a tattooed Russian who has no love for Tony Stark. It is revealed that Vanko's father had worked with Tony's father on the original arc reactor (the thing that keeps Tony alive and powers the Iron Man suit). With this new knowledge, Ivan sets about plotting his revenge on Tony and the Stark family for what happened to his father. It helps that he too knows the power held by the arc reactor.
Back stateside, we have Tony, as cocky as ever. He has to face off with the US Government over the ownership of the Iron Man "weapon." Of course Stark would never let the government take the suit from him, although that stance doesn't make the government disappear either. Besides having to face his own government with the threat of Vanko in the background, there is also Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who heads a rival weapons tech firm that would like to replicate the Iron Man tech.
What is pretty amazing is how all of these threads fit together to form a complete film. Plus, there is the ongoing Avengers thread, complete with Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, the relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the new addition of Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson). However, what is most interesting, and what helps take this film to the next level, is the portrayal of Tony Stark. While he is always consistent in terms of his gigantic ego, there is a lot more to it and Robert Downey Jr. does a great job of bringing together the different layers of the character.
Stark is revealed to at least partially be using his ego as a defense mechanism to keep everyone at a distance and hide the truth of his own situation. We also get to see the effects of his relationship with his father as a young boy and how it has affected his present and future Interestingly, this is mirrored in the Vanko character and his relationship to his father.
What I really like about the film is that while it is ostensibly an action film, there is a lot less action than you would think. Now this would not seem to be ideal for the genre, but when action is used both sparingly and effectively it can certainly make an action film better. Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) are able to inject a lot of character into the whiz bang of the action and effects.
On the surface, we get the big action of Iron Man fighting a guy with energized whips while the government tries to weaponize the suit. Below that you get the father/son relationship issues, the dangers of using the Iron Man suit, the Tony/Pepper relationship, the business implications of who runs Stark Industries, and conflict between best friends. There is all manner of interesting stuff going on.
If there is any single big issue with the film, it is that they do not have enough time to flesh everything out. Some of the elements felt rushed or cut short. Still, what is here works marvelously.
I cannot say that Iron Man 2 outdoes the first film, but it comes quite close. It is a quality film with strong performances that stands on its own while building on the groundwork of the first and planting seeds for the future. I found it to be an exhilarating ride that has more to offer than you would think.