“Contrary to popular belief, I know exactly what I’m doing.”
The often unpredictable tech genius Tony Stark, well played by Robert Downey Jr., is at the top of the business elite and now the world thanks to his superhero alter ego Iron Man. Jon Favreau continues directing this Marvel comic adaptation film series and expands his role as Stark’s driver/bodyguard. The magnetic Gwyneth Paltrow also returns as Stark’s main confidante, Virginia “Pepper“ Potts and Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Stark’s best friend in the military, Lt. Col. James 'Rhodey' Rhodes while two new characters expand the battlefield to a new level.
In the great tradition of the “build it, then smash it” set design, producers ensure most sets eventually turn into battlegrounds full of special effects and thrilling chases. In this installment, the main set consists of the large Stark Expo grounds where Tony continues his father’s proud legacy of technological innovations that improve society. Tony expands this expo into a yearlong event, which presses Pepper into some considerable budget challenges. The antagonistic Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) presents another dual father-son pair as this muscle-bound Russian physicist works with a vengeance as Stark did in the first film. Vanko has been referred to as “Whiplash” because of the whip, but he also resembles powers of Crimson Dynamo with his armor.
The film opens with audio narration from the previous installment’s ending press conference, which leads into new Stark Industry challenges including huge exposure levels. Of course, Tony does not complain and equates his super hero status to a phoenix rising from the ashes, but Pepper finds herself under increasing stress. This relationship bonds even more with one key sequence as Tony suggests a getaway to Venice with her. Stark proclaims his achievement of world peace during a government hearing, but it would have been better to see it, though he does save some innocent bystanders in the last amazing half hour. A roaring montage of heroic worldwide exploits as Iron Man would have been better than concentrating on the business side, but it reflects the unique perspective of Tony’s completely public, ego boosting high life.
No secret superhero identity cover up here, which also concerns S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who was introduced after the ending credits in the first Iron Man. Fury provides some key help to Stark who begins to spiral out of control due to his growing physical condition. The mysterious Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a. Black Widow), played by Scarlett Johansson also plays a key role in Tony’s new challenges. Stark wants to discover more about her and so does the audience, yet audiences don’t get very much to go on, which is a prime set-up for a spin off movie that Johansson could definitely handle based on her acting and new physical fighting talents.
Downey’s acting talents, fast dialogue delivery, and believable physical abilities match the extraordinary Tony Stark perfectly. Stark still has his guard up against power-hungry mongers from leeching off his talents, which now includes the U.S. government, namely the Senate Arms Service Committee, represented by Senator Stern (Garry Shandling).
Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is a posturing arms “expert” who never seems to get it right. This functional role was important in the plot, but the performance itself was largely forgettable. Unfortunately, his character role looks like it will continue in the next sequel. Returning supporting cast roles include Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb), a Vanity Fair reporter and agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Everhart stays in the background while Coulson establishes his seemingly repeatable role in future Marvel films. Paul Bettany also returns as Jarvis, the voice of Stark’s computer while Stan Lee gets his now standard cameo near the beginning.
Favreau directs some great action sequences incorporating special effects from Industrial Light & Magic with several, subtle references including Captain America, another Marvel film hitting theaters next year. Screenwriter Justin Theroux mixes the comedy and action well especially at the end, which includes Black Widow’s key fighting sequence and a computer screen communication sequence – the best of the rapid-fire character banter. Tony and Rhodey continue their “friendship by fire” relationship including the great “killbox” action sequence where Iron Man and War Machine team up.