At its best moments, Iron Man 2 is a thrillingly convincing argument for how much goddamn fun it would be to hop into that suit and be Iron Man.
At its best moments, Iron Man 2 is a depressingly convincing argument for why Ryan Reynolds is the luckiest sonofabitch on the planet.
But more on that in a minute. Let’s kick this off with a question:
What do you want from your summer movies? I’m asking because if you want laughs, solid action scenes, likable characters, pretty girls, robots, explosions, a few things you’ve not exactly seen before, and just enough smart ideas that you don’t have to feel like you just ingested a Happy Meal brain-first, then you don’t have to read any further: Iron Man 2 is your movie. This is a double-decker bacon cheeseburger grilled up with particular care. This is a good ol’ American summer movie. It’s fun with a chocolate shake and a side order of fries, and anything critical I have to say about it would be a quibble. Robert Downey Jr., as Tony Stark/Iron Man, rules the court as a manic, anarchic presence who, along with returning director Jon Favreau, sets the freewheeling tone – and how welcome a tone that is, for a genre that is usually either too serious or not nearly serious enough.
Iron Man 2 kicks off on the far side of the world, where news of Tony Stark’s dramatic secret-identity revelation from the last second of the first movie is starting to reach the unfriendly ears of arguably the best character in the movie, Mickey Rourke as the Russian criminal genius Ivan Vanko. It’s part of the crazy fun of these movies that everyone is not only in superlative physical shape, but most of them are technological geniuses or martial arts masters or spies or, in Vanko’s case, brilliant physicists. Yes, Mickey Rourke plays a tatted-up muscle mass with a silver grille who is also a brilliant physicist. That, more than anything, is true to the everything-goes pop creativity of Stan Lee and his world-changing stable of early Marvel artists. Also, I’m a huge Mickey Rourke fan, and I’m not sure why anyone who appreciates eccentric charisma in feature films wouldn’t be. Here he’s a monstrous cross between Gene Simmons of KISS and Ivan Drago of Rocky 4, but all he really wants to do is to kill Iron Man and be with his bird. (That’s not a euphemism for “girlfriend” – it’s literally the pet cockatoo who kept him company in his Siberian prison. I haven’t seen a villain/bird friendship this touching since Jack Palance in the semi-obscure Spaghetti western Compañeros. You may not have seen it, but I bet Mickey Rourke has.)
We then move to Washington, where Tony Stark is up against a Senate committee led by one Senator Stern, who is played by Garry Shandling of all people. As a huge Larry Sanders fan, I loved seeing Garry Shandling play a villainous role, and if I was running the world, we’d be seeing him as MODOK in a future Iron Man adventure. (This is arguably a valid reason why I might not be the most suitable candidate for world dominance.) These politicians see the Iron Man suit as a potential weapon of mass destruction, and they want Stark to turn it over, which of course he refuses to do. This is the scene that reintroduces Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s longtime personal assistant, recasts Stark’s best friend James Rhodes (played in the first movie by Terrence Howard) with Don Cheadle, and introduces Stark’s hated rival, weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell. That character is apparently a crusty old white dude in the comics, but with Rockwell in the role, Hammer is a hyperactive, hyper-arrogant, smarmy, entitled, and ridiculously quotable bad guy, who also happens to have some Hammer-esque dance moves in his arsenal. (And now I’m talking about MC Hammer.)
Rockwell would run away with the movie if Mickey Rourke wasn’t already charging forward with it, and with the movie’s last new major character, it becomes a three-way duel for the best kind of upstaging. Scarlett Johansson plays the assistant to the assistant (she’s helping out Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, which gives Downey twice as much opportunity for flirtacious banter), although as the posters and trailers already show, she’s also a super-character in disguise, called The Black Widow. The Black Widow is in turn assisting Sam Jackson’s character, appearing here occasionally in an expanded role from his original cameo as super-spy Nick Fury. That’s a lot of assisting. Scarlett really doesn’t get much to do except to stand around and to look unbelievable (and to get ogled by most of the characters in the movie), although she does get one terrific fight scene – where she teams up with director Jon Favreau, himself appearing in an expanded role from the first movie as Stark’s bodyguard.
Am I making it sound like there’s a whole lot going on in this movie? Probably am. That’s because there is. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like too much, except maybe for the scenes where future Iron Man (and Captain America and Thor and Hulk and Avengers) movies are being set up. If you wanted to hear my quibble, that’s the big one. All the stuff about Nick Fury’s “Avengers Initiative” feels somewhat separate from the main Hammer/Vanko storyline, and I don’t know that I believe that Tony Stark would be as interested in joining as he temporarily appears to be. Personally, I’d be perfectly happy to focus on the movie I’m currently watching – it seems like a fun idea to cross over the superhero franchises the way that Marvel is famously intending to do, but I don’t know that I go to movies to see big-screen versions of comic books. I like movies that tell a self-contained story – too much laying groundwork for the future and you lose sight of the already-busy movie at hand. I’m not saying that Iron Man 2 does that – Favreau keeps too sure a hand on the accelerator for the movie to ever slow down too much – but it does come dangerously close.
My other quibble is that I don’t totally buy the Tony Stark/Pepper Potts love story. I didn’t quite understand their relationship in the first movie, the way that they’re both obviously attracted to each other but choose to keep it professional (when and why did he hire her in the first place?), and it’s not fully explored to my satisfaction here. I think that’s where the emotional connection should be. Compare Iron Man 2 to hallmark sequels like Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight and you’ll see what I mean. The Iron Man movies are a total blast, but they don’t resonate with me the way that the other pair do. The Iron Man movies are about the fizzy kick of putting on a flying suit, going faster than fighter planes, and beating the bad guys – they don’t dwell in contemplation for long, if at all. You get the sense that a one-woman relationship would be cool with Tony Stark but not necessary for him – it’s not a priority, not a source of longing or wholeness as it is for Peter Parker, and not an added source of heartache and damage for Bruce Wayne. Then again, in my opinion Gwyneth Paltrow has been allowed to be way more appealing than either Kirsten Dunst or Maggie Gyllenhaal were, so maybe I need to give it another look.
But there’s a boatload to love in Iron Man 2: Mickey Rourke’s glorious insanity. Mickey Rourke’s bird. Scarlett Johansson’s jumbly curvitude. Sam Rockwell’s psycho-geek half-steppin’. Coming off a hangover with Sam Jackson at Randy’s Donuts. Cheadle’s War Machine suit. (Whether you’re a comic book freak or not, that’s gonna do you right if you dig action-movie excess.) Robert Downey Jr. using words the way War Machine uses bullets. Kate Mara showing up in a way-too-brief scene as the sexiest subpoena-server since Seth Rogen in Pineapple Express. Seriously folks, I’m way too amped over that Kate Mara scene. In a movie already blessed with a surplus of redhead, she shows up and turns the situation critical. I may be a tiny bit smitten there.
Really, it all comes down to the fact that this is a movie about a guy who puts on a metal suit and flies around fighting robots and Mickey Rourke. Iron Man 2 is smart enough to make something like that look not only thoroughly believable, but also totally enviable. Like the suit worn by the title character, this is a solidly-constructed piece of machinery. It’s an entertainment engine, and it runs like a dream. It won’t change your life or touch your heart, but for two hours, it takes you flying, and that, after all, is exactly what a summer movie is built to do.