There are superhero movies and then there’s Iron Man. The original movie, when it was released back in 2008, was about as fun as anybody possibly could have hoped for. My reluctance going into it stemming from my lack of faith in the character—a hero I considered a B-lister—and doubt in Robert Downey Jr.’s ability to pull off the role set me up for amazement. And amazed I was. Iron Man was a comic book adaptation done right and it blew me away. It suffered from mild problems here and there, but was otherwise a fantastic summer action flick with a solid structure and substance to back it up. Its sequel, unfortunately, fails to elicit that same excitement. While still fun in its own right, the whole of the film runs into some large setbacks that keep it from reaching that rare “better than the original” status.
Iron Man 2 begins six months after the events of the first movie. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has outed himself to the world as Iron Man and is now reveling in the glory that comes with such a title. He’s a celebrity, but the government considers his suit to be a weapon and demands its handover, a demand he easily refuses. Meanwhile, a Russian man named Ivan (better known as Whiplash, played by Mickey Rourke), has set out to destroy him. After an early encounter, Ivan winds up in jail, but is busted out by a powerful weapons mogul competing with Tony’s “Stark Industries” company named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).
That seems to be the least of Tony’s problems, however, because it turns out that the energy source he uses to keep him alive is poisoning his blood and slowly killing him. He has been keeping this news to himself and hasn't yet told his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his new secretary Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) or his friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle taking over the role from Terrence Howard), the latter of whom steals Tony’s Iron Man technology and hands it over to the government for testing. But things don’t slow down yet, because Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is visiting him to find out if he is a suitable candidate for S.H.I.E.L.D., some type of agency that Tony knows little about but hopes to get to the bottom of soon.
If not already evident, Iron Man 2 suffers from Spider-Man 3 syndrome. It tries to pack too much into one movie. On top of the new character introductions, including a reintroduction of an already established character in the form of Rhodes as War Machine, this movie tries to incorporate the story at hand, the mystery of S.H.I.E.L.D., the romantic relationship between Tony and Pepper and the unknown past of Tony Stark, delving into the relationship he had with his father and the significance it holds in present day, into one cohesive whole.
Its hands are certainly full, but Iron Man 2 doesn’t stop there. It tries to juggle comedy and drama while still being a fun action flick and keels over because of it. Its tone is all over the place. Much like the other recent superhero movie, Kick Ass, no single tone is ever established and the abrupt and sudden turns it takes are unpleasant and amateurish.
Due to this, some characters don’t get their required screen time. Whiplash, for instance, is mostly relegated to engineer work, tinkering inside of giant robots and sitting in front of computers. His first big action scene is a blast and, though short, the concluding fight with him is fun to watch, but everything in the middle is a bore. He goes missing for a good chunk of the movie despite being the prominent evildoer and this is where the film starts to go awry by trying to pack in its laundry list of to-dos.
The one thing Iron Man 2 has going for it that outshines its predecessor are its action scenes. Many, including me, complained about the mediocre brawls in the first movie, including an anti-climactic final battle that finished out the picture with a whimper. That downfall is rectified here and the action scenes are a thrill to watch, even if some do come about arbitrarily.
But the substance from that first film is missing. The villain, played by Jeff Bridges, was more compelling because as we learned about Tony Stark, we also learned about him. We got to see both evolve over the course of the movie, one using his technological prowess for good while the other spiraled out of control into pure hate and rage.
Iron Man 2 misses all of that. It’s a shadow of its former self and is a rather substantial step backwards for the franchise. If the first was truly great, this sequel is merely okay. It has some positive characteristics, like a great sense of humor (though isolated by its poor mix of drama), and the performances, especially from Downey Jr., are terrific, but it’s too cluttered for its own good. It's worth seeing, but don’t be surprised when you’re primary feeling walking out is underwhelmed.
Iron Man 2 receives 3/5