Here’s a paradox: Iron Man 2 undoubtedly features some good action, some funny moments, and solid performances. In fact, it’s a pretty enjoyable time at the cinema. But it still registers as a distinct disappointment, and I can’t bring myself to love it.
Iron Man 2 starts where the first film, 2008’s critical and box-office darling Iron Man, ended: Tony Stark (Robert Downey jr., as if you didn’t know) has just revealed to the world that he is the man in the metal suit. In Russia, a man called Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) watches the show and swears revenge for his dead father, Anton Vanko, who helped Stark’s father Howard develop the technology now powering Iron Man’s armour. He may look like the world’s angriest homeless man, but Vanko is in fact a scientific genius who before long builds his own suit to become the villainous Whiplash, in alliance with Stark’s jealous rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, back from 2009’s much-praised but little-seen Moon). Meanwhile, Tony Stark makes his aide/nanny Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) CEO of Stark Industries, aided by Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson). But the technology keeping Stark alive is also killing him and Stark, faced with his mortality, is beginning to act irresponsible.
I’d like to start out positive. Therefore, two words (one word?): War Machine. Yeah, like that’s a spoiler. Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard, who was apparently both greedy and ill-suited for the part) finally gets his own suit of power armour. I could praise Cheadle’s performance, which easily bests Howard’s – but that’s not what I paid to see. What I did pay to see: a heavy suit of metallic grey (no ‘hot rod red’ for War Machine) armed with dual submachine guns, energy repulsors, a missile launcher not-so-amusingly nicknamed ‘the ex-wife’, and a mini-gun on its shoulder. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) The War Machine design works exceptionally well not merely because it’s all kinds of cool in itself, but because it is different from Iron Man – where Iron Man is relatively nimble, War Machine is robust, making up in armour and firepower what he lacks in dexterity. This sounds like a great trade-off to me, really.
The other performances (yes, I know I just praised the designs more than Don Cheadle) range from the great to the solid. Sam Rockwell is particularly enjoyable: his Justin Hammer is desperate to impress, smarmy and not a little pathetic – but without ever becoming mere comic relief. By contrast, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow (replacing Emily Blunt, who had to drop out of the project due to scheduling conflicts) isn’t bad per se, she just has little screen time and feels terribly tacked on. After seeing the movie, undertake the following little exercise: go through the film and ask yourself which part of the plot wouldn’t have worked without her presence. Alas, the filmmakers forgot Mark Twain’s rule that ‘the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there’. (Miss Johansson’s looks do not constitute a ‘sufficient excuse’, but I’ve never found her all that attractive, so I may be biased.)
Black Widow is part of a larger problem: Iron Man 2 is not merely the second instalment in a franchise, but an introduction into the unfolding Marvel film universe. So a section in the middle of the film is given over to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson with an eye-patch – you may think this is automatically awesome, but zounds, you’d be wrong) narrating exposition about S.H.I.E.L.D. and all kinds of things that will be quite central when The Avengers comes out barely two winters hence, but not now. When it’s not spinning its wheels, Iron Man 2 recycles material from its predecessor. For this reason large parts of the film are, who thought I’d say this, boring, and you’d never guess it’s actually a little shorter than its predecessor, for it certainly feels a good half-hour longer. Where Iron Man was a taut, fun thrill-ride, the sequel is undeniably flabby.
In the process, much of what made Iron Man such a delight is sacrificed. Being a superhero sequel in the twenty-first century, the second film must of course be serious and dour (but must it also be dramatically inert?): Tony Stark’s former cheerful devil-may-care attitude is therefore replaced with grim foreboding. The delight of his banter with Pepper Potts, arguably the foundation of Iron Man’s success, is thus greatly reduced. Pepper, in fact, is barely in this film, and she’s far less fun, which is the writer’s fault, not Gwyneth Paltrow’s. As for Downey, he’s still exuding charisma, but I’m tiring of him. The humour mostly falls flat in this instalment, too. (The exception: there's a surprise cameo by Bill O'Reilly that I rather enjoyed.) Much of this is a case of diminishing returns; but one cannot but blame Justin Theroux’s script, which is in pretty much every way inferior to Iron Man’s, churned out by a larger team of writers.
If the script is sadly sub-par, Iron Man 2 also showcases Jon Favreau’s weaknesses as a director. In an early scene of Stark signing autographs, Favreau uses nonsensical POV shots. Later in the film, there is a brawl scene that is filmed poorly and edited worse, so that it utterly fails to register. Both script and direction deficiencies come together in a tremendously ill-judged party scene that should not have been written and, being written, should not have been filmed that way. It’s neither funny nor pathetic (in the Greek sense of the word), and it’s a microcosm of Iron Man 2’s inferiority to its predecessor. On the other hand, Favreau shows that he still knows how to make big hunks of metal punching each other interesting, which immediately makes him a better director than Michael Bay. And given that that’s what audiences will be there to see, no-one could claim Favreau doesn’t deliver.
Iron Man 2 is not as good as its predecessor. But neither is it a disaster. It does all the things Iron Man did, and all of them a little worse. Parts of it are dour and inert; others are a lot of fun. Bottom line: it’s just… okay. You won’t be angry you spent money on it, and in today’s world of summer blockbusters, that’s something to be grateful for.