It is commonly accepted these days that when it comes to superhero movies, the second in a series is generally superior to the first. The first has to deal with the origin story and setting up the world and the characters. The second one can just let rip with its four-color comic book action. Examples of this trend include Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Superman 2, and X-Men 2.
Iron Man 2, one of the most eagerly awaited of the superhero sequels, manages to buck this trend. What John Favreau and company have produced is a fine, fun movie, but one that fails to improve upon the original.
Don’t get me wrong, Iron Man 2 is a very fun movie, and it does improve upon the action of the first movie. But despite the fancy suit and the pyrotechnics and aerial derring-do, Robert Downey Jr. has always been the star of the show and it’s his Tony Stark that carries both movies. And while he is on fine display in this film, there are moments of missed opportunity.
The plot of the film is simple. Russian Ivan Vanko, played by a grimy-looking Mickey Rourke, is the son of a man who worked with Tony Stark’s father on the arc reactor, the device which powers the Iron Man armor. Because of past history, Vanko feels that Stark stole the technology and (rightly) that he was responsible for elder Vanko being shipped off to Siberia. When Vanko Senior dies, Ivan sets out making his own arc reactor which he uses to power a set of steel whips.
This turns out to be well-timed since Tony Stark, who publicly revealed that he was Iron Man at the end of the first movie, is currently fending off the US government, who wants the Iron Man suit (or “weapon” as they call it) turned over to them. One of Tony’s main defenses is that no one else is even close to reaching that technology. A claim that is shown false when Vanko shows up, in public, and attacks Stark.
Tony, as Iron Man, manages to fight off Vanko who is sent to jail only to be sprung by Justin Hammer (played by the wonderful Sam Rockwell) who is a competitor to Stark and realizes that Vanko can help him create something equal to the Iron Man suit. Vanko, of course, uses this access to Hammer’s equipment to continue his vendetta against Stark.
During all of this, Tony finds out that he is dying. The core that keeps him alive is poisoning his blood. Rather than share this information with anyone, he goes on a self-destructive, indulgent drunken binge that culminates in him battling it out with Jim Rhodes (played by Don Cheadle in this movie) who is wearing a backup suit. In the end Rhodey takes the suit and turns it over to the military.
All of this culminates in the end with a massive battle between Tony in the Iron Man suit against Rhodey and a fleet of drones piloted buy Vanko. It’s a big, freewheeling battle—much more exciting and larger in scope than the climax of the first movie.
The problem is that while the film is enjoyable, it lacks any kind of real depth and it squanders what opportunities it has for that depth. The father-son relationship between Tony and Howard Stark, for example, is only cursorily examined. There’s a stereotypical “my Dad didn’t love me” thing that is handily resolved. And any parallels between the Starks and Vankos is quickly passed over.
Then there’s Stark’s self-destructive streak which I thought was going to lead into the alcoholism storyline that was a big part of the comic books. Tony’s meltdown occurs in a single night, with the only casualty being a suit of his armor. Then the key to his salvation is handed to him by the entrance of Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) who conveniently gives him some information that resolves that storyline rather nicely.
One of the biggest surprises in the film was Scarlett Johansson, who I was convinced would be a bad fit for the Black Widow. Not only was she convincing in the role, but her action sequence was one of the best in the movie. Sadly, she has little else to do, which leaves me in the uncomfortable position of wanting to see more of her in future movies (either in Iron Man 3 or possibly the Avengers movie).
Finally, one of the biggest disappointments was the lack of threat and tension in the fight scenes. The last battle happens in the midst of a crowded convention area. Guns are firing, glass is breaking, and yet you get the sense that no one is getting hurt. Even the two heroes, Iron Man and War Machine, never really experience any significant damage to their suits and ultimately are able to handle any threat with minimal difficulty. I kept expecting the tension to ratchet up another notch, and yet it never did. An earlier sequence (which uses the infamous briefcase armor) handles this much better.
Still, it is a fun movie to watch. I think the most telling aspect of the film is that Downey is much more engaging as Tony Stark without the suit than he is as Iron Man. What future films should do is find a way to bring the two different aspects closer together. Ironically, using him as a foil in the Avengers movie might be the best way to do this, using Stark’s personality to help drive the character.
Here’s hoping that Iron Man 3 manages to also avoid the trend established in superhero movies so far by not sucking.
Rajan Khanna is a graduate of the 2008 Clarion West Writers Workshop and his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Shimmer, GUD, and Steampunk Tales. He lives in Brooklyn with his two cats, Chloe and Muppet.