Iron Man 2 has to follow a tough act… Jon Favreau’s original film was the popcorn equivalent of The Dark Knight, a perfectly-constructed big-budget action movie that had the pacing and hooks of a comic book, and that managed to avoid the Hollywood trap of trying too hard to show off. The sequel does an admirable job, though it succumbs to the fate of many second installments, offering complications at the expense of personality and clarity. Nonetheless, it does what it’s supposed to do: it primes both the Iron Man and the larger Avengers mythos for bigger developments to come, and it offers a great ride along the way.
After establishing his own moral position in the original Iron Man, Tony Stark has continued to expand his global brand, and at the outset of Iron Man 2, he’s created a global innovation expo. However, the increasing pressure on Tony is starting to show… his artificial heart seems unsustainable, he’s jockeying with the government over control of his military-grade technology, and he’s buckling under the stress of managing his empire. His media presence has also attracted some undue attention: the son of his father’s old partner, galvanized into aggression, has created an electric whip power-suit that runs on the same ARC technology that powers the Iron Man suit. It seems like a bad time for the threats against Tony to be mounting so quickly, and as his enemies converge on his science expo, he will have to come to terms with his father’s legacy in order to make the right decisions about his own ethics and empire.
One of the saving graces of Iron Man 2 is that the central plotline is simple and effective. Whiplash, the primary adversary and hardened Russian criminal, empowered by Justin Hammer, Tony’s corporate arch-enemy, provides a full battery of villainy and betrayal that makes for a spirited main conflict. This foregrounds Tony Stark's “legacy” motif, which intensifies as Tony feels pressure building in his professional and personal life. If Favreau had wanted Iron Man 2 to have the same urgency as the original film, he would have cut out all the other complications and kept this single, central plot: Whiplash, empowered by a misguided Justin Hammer, forces Tony Stark to get his personal hang-ups under control in order to protect himself, his company, and the rest of the world.
However, this is a sequel, with all the attendant baggage of being positioned in a growing universe. The core plotline of Iron Man 2 is interwoven with a number of complications that were probably fun for fans and good for enriching the Marvel universe, but that caused some unfortunate narrative bloating. Tony’s management of his company, intertwined with his relationship with Pepper Pots, is a contextual development that serves little function except to give Tony some space to work out his personal problems. Tony’s struggle with government intervention, complicated by his friendship with General James Rhodes, is scarcely necessary to the central “legacy” plotline, but it engenders some plot developments that could prove interesting in future Iron Man / Avengers movies. The same can be said of Black Widow and the deus ex machina Sam Jackson intervention: though he opens up a wealth of future possibilities, Nick Fury does little for Iron Man 2 except add some extra two-dimensional characters to the mix. In fact, SHIELD’s intervention makes the “father’s legacy” plotline feel watered down, because the insight into Tony’s family seems to come predigested from an almost too-convenient outside influence.
Iron Man 2 is successful despite the narrative bloating, because director Favreau is so good at pacing these elements and placing emphasis on the right moments. The fight scenes are loud, explosive, and kept short enough that they don’t overpower the plot. Johansson’s Black Widow is mercifully under-emphasized, mostly acting as decorative trim on more significant scenes between Tony and his key supporting characters; thus, she’s a fun addition, rather than an exhausting over-complication. James Rhodes is also wisely kept to an occasional wing-man role. By keeping these characters incidental and two-dimensional, Favreau successfully centers the camera on Robert Downey Jr and Mickey Rourke, whose personalities are the unstoppable forces that keep us interested in the movie.