I do like this sequel. I’ve never vocalized any criticism of it because it is fun and enjoyable, but yeah, it does have some problems that should be pointed out. Probably its biggest is a few too many plot threads running through it. They never make the film incomprehensible, just a little bloated, but there is the fact that the film constantly veers off track by following the wrong story after not too long. It had promise at the start, but let’s see how exactly they dash that.
Now that Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has revealed to the world that he is Iron Man, the entire world is now eager to get their hands on his hot technology – whether it’s the United States government, weapons contractors, or an unknown enemy. That enemy happens to be Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) – the son of now deceased Anton Vanko, Howard Stark’s former partner. Stark had Vanko banished to Russia for conspiring to commit treason against the US, and now Ivan wants revenge against Tony – and he’s willing to get it at any cost. But after being humiliated in front of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, rival weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) sees Ivan as the key to upping his status against Stark Industries after an attack on the Monaco 500. All the while, an ailing Tony has to figure out a way to save himself, stop Vanko, and get Hammer before the government shows up and takes his beloved suits away.
Simply said, I think Iron Man 2 could have been a better movie if it didn’t overload itself with so many plots. The story we get with Tony dealing with a self-destructive mentality has some great stuff in it. Instead of dealing with alcoholism, which has been a major issue for Stark in the comics, it deals with his failing health due to issues with his arc reactor. What’s saving his life is also killing him is a fine idea. I do like that this ties into Ivan Vanko and Howard Stark, creating something that appears cohesive in concept. Yet, adding in all the unneeded machinations of Justin Hammer and the S.H.I.E.L.D. plot elements convolutes things, taking away the focus and poignancy of the core story.
I feel that everything directly involving Tony dealing with his father’s legacy, and rebuilding himself is excellent. It creates the weight and gravity of the film, and it is what I love about Iron Man 2. While it does seem like the filmmakers kind of took Tony back a step from the more altruistic and compassionate guy he became in the last film, I can see how Tony’s deteriorating health could alter his personality and disposition. Once Tony’s health is on the upswing, and he becomes inspired by his father’s legacy, he rises back up to being that hero we knew. Still, that kicks in for the third act, and so, for the majority of the picture, we have the more self-absorbed, self-destructive Tony Stark. Downey continues to do a fantastic job in the role bringing his charm and charisma into the fold to maintain Tony as likeable even if he’s being a belligerent ass. You know there’s a better guy underneath and he just needs a kick in the back side to open his eyes and mind again.
Obviously, I really liked Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but after a disagreement over money, Marvel replaced him with the equally talented Don Cheadle. He does a fine job following up on what Howard did, but admittedly, I can’t help but constantly think how Howard might’ve played things a little differently. That’s not a knock on Cheadle, who I love, just the unfortunate fact of having to re-cast a role. Regardless, Don Cheadle is a strong fit for this role focusing more on a character of serious candor and conviction with a few touches of humor. We still get moments of compassion from Rhodey, but he’s forced into a more conflicted role of trying to help Tony, even went it turns adversarial, while maintaining loyalty to the U.S. military. Cheadle takes the role and runs with it adding his own vibe and depth to it while not betraying what was done previously.
Scarlet Johansen is amazingly sexy and killer as Black Widow. She’s got some sharp, alluring chemistry with Downey. Natasha Romanov is able to lead Stark on while also never giving into his advances, making her a very smart and assertive character. When it comes time to kick ass, she is immensely impressive handling all the agile fighting skills beautifully. She’s a wonderful and vibrant fit for this role.
On initial viewings, I found Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer to be nearly insufferable and obnoxious. He came off like the lame guy at the party trying to act like the coolest guy at the party and failing. I understand that this is sort of the intention with the character. Make him seem like a second rate Tony Stark who is more lame by trying to be cool, but annoying is sort of what I got out of the performance. The film sets him up as this inferior and incompetent competitor to Stark, and he never becomes anything but incompetent and egotistical. No one in the film is really buying any of the bull he’s selling, especially Vanko, and you can see that even he views Hammer as a foolish, abrasive joke. Rockwell is a highly talented actor with many various talents, but I think this character is too much. He eats up so much scenery and screentime while being one of the least consequential characters in the movie. At times, I can enjoy him more now, finding some humor in what Hammer is doing, especially during his weapons presentation to Rhodey, but the film really would have been far better off without this character.
It’s almost sad that Hammer has so much screentime compared to Mickey Rourke. While Ivan Vanko’s story is simply revenge, it has more potential substance than Hammer’s purely ego-driven scheme. It would’ve pushed the more internal conflicts with Tony into the foreground, and have Vanko represent everything wrong and twisted with his family’s legacy. Rourke can be a fantastic actor, or in the least, a very entertaining one. There are scenes here where Rourke does very solid dramatic work, especially when Vanko and Stark meet after the Monaco incident. Rourke makes this a great, intimidating, and menacing villain that should have been the main threat throughout the movie. Yet, he quickly becomes relegated to be a minor character after he joins up with Hammer, and even the conclusion to his part of the film is very dismissive as a generic “villain in a suit” throwaway action sequence. With so many plot threads weaving through this film, it seems the filmmakers lost sight partway through of what was pertinent to the core story and what was just entertaining fluff.
The scene between Vanko and Stark after the race track incident is the best scene of the film, and it is terribly wasted. The thematic material Vanko brings up in it and the questions about the Stark family legacy are barely followed through on in the remainder of the film. This scene establishes a serious, dramatic tone that is not really revisited. Even in the trailers, this was the dramatic hook for me. If this set the tone for the remainder of the film, it would have been a tremendously solid film, but alas, that was not to be.
Again, the film is a little over bloated and a bit indulgent. Stuff about Vanko obsessing over his bird is entirely frivolous, but thankfully, doesn’t take up more than a few minutes of screentime. Yet, the film has little moments like this where it indulges in extraneous junk, such as in the Senate Committee meeting. The film gets cluttered with too much junk that it can’t see the track to stay on it. The main plot of this film deals with Tony Stark falling apart and having to rebuild himself by rediscovering his father’s legacy. That’s apparent right from the beginning, and it would have flowed very well if the film dealt mainly with Ivan Vanko’s intentions of revenge. It would all thematically tie in solidly, but again, it is the Justin Hammer aspect that disrupts that plotline of the film. The first part of the film through Vanko’s incarceration is great to me. It felt like the film was on-track, for the most part, towards a meaty story filled with emotional resonance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t maintain that because the filmmakers felt it was necessary to add a second, frivolous villain who overshadows the more superior and relevant villain. This really is my main gripe with the movie, and it is why I keep harping on it. Vanko has strong motivations based in bitter emotions that make him a formidable adversary. Hammer just has ego going for him, and that is just not very interesting. Beyond that, he’s just a lame character good merely for small jokes, not a forefront storyline.
Now, people say that this film being a setup for The Avengers is its biggest problem. Frankly, that is barely part of the movie. Yes, there are ways you could have written Nick Fury and Black Widow out of this for a tighter, less crowded movie, but let’s look at what they contribute to the film. They provide Tony with an injection that curbs the symptoms of his ailment, provide him with further knowledge into his father which leads to Tony discovering the new element to power his Arc reactor, and Black Widow helps to stop Vanko’s assault with the Hammer Drones. They don’t actually impede upon the plot, or wedge their own plot into the film, they are part of the on-going plot of the movie. They assist Stark with various aspects of it, and while they are there in order for there to be a segue into The Avengers and more concretely establish S.H.I.E.L.D., they don’t hijack the movie from Iron Man. It’s still his movie, and they just happen to be in it.
On the upside, Iron Man 2 does feature some excellent action sequences. They are all different and exciting from Vanko’s attack on the race track, which creates a sense of grave peril, to the fast-paced finale teaming Iron Man and War Machine together against the Hammer Drones. It does have less action than the first film, but what Jon Favreau and his creative team of filmmakers achieved with these sequences is still excellent. There’s enough plot going on to maintain a rhythm and pace in the film for it to survive and mostly thrive without the aid of additional action sequences. I do feel that the Hammer Drone attack is far more satisfying than when Vanko shows up in his Whiplash suit. This is mainly because the Hammer Drone segment is just an action scene with the sole intent of delivering excitement in a smart and slick fashion. Vanko’s conclusion, again, feels flat and secondary, at best.
Regardless of its problems, I still do find Iron Man 2 quite an enjoyable film with plenty of excitement, charisma, mostly great performances, and some very smart ideas for evolving Tony’s character. I do think that Marvel Studios had all the right talent and elements, but weren’t able to either trim them down for a leaner story or arrange them in the most effective order. You could have Justin Hammer be in the film without him dominating so much of the plot. He could easily be a more minor character enabling Vanko, who remains in the forefront enhancing the thematic elements of the story. In any case, many do see this film as a stumbling block in just the Iron Man franchise, but I’m far from thinking it’s terrible. I know others disagree. It’s a film that still had substance and evident talent behind it which still manages to be entertaining, in my view.