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Iron Man 2 (Theatrical Review)

8 May, 2010 By: John Latchem

Rated 'PG-13' for Sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language.
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson.

There’s a lot of story going on in Iron Man 2, which turns out to be both good and bad.

Darker in tone, Iron Man 2 isn’t quite the romp the first movie was. On the flip side, the film actually treats some of its characters like people. We care about what happens to them, which gives us interested in their story even when the movie has to slow down to catch up with itself and set up the next sequence. 

Front and center of course is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who has carried out his self-imposed mandate from the first movie and privatized world peace. This has left Stark even more full of himself, but also comes with the price. The technology that keeps him alive is also slowly poisoning him, the knowledge of which only serves to amplify his self-destructive behavior. 

In the meantime, the possession of such powerful technology in private hands has frightened the U.S. government, which wants to weaponize it. Other countries are trying to follow Stark’s example and develop armor suits, without much success. Even in America, Stark’s corporate rivals, most notably Justin Hammer (played with snarky aplomb by Sam Rockwell) are attempting to develop their own weapon suits for the military. 

This subplot, driven by a weaselly senator played by Garry Shandling, gives the film a faint political flavor, covering not only the usual private vs. public dichotomy, but also crony capitalism, corporate excess and the nature of the second amendment. These themes are much more overt than, say, The Dark Knight, which was more allegorical with its philosophies. Iron Man 2 also seems a little murky about what it’s trying to say. While The Dark Knight seemed to have some thought behind its message, Iron Man 2 feels more like it’s raising some ideas in order to seem relevant. Contrast Stark’s gung-ho defense of property rights with the public safety concerns legitimately raised by his actions, and one could make a case either way. 

It might have been interesting to see Stark forced to actually consider his position, rather than be distracted by his health. Heroism versus safety is relatively common ground for superhero movies, but the script usually finds a way to side with the hero.

In this case, we have Hammer as something of a corrupt version of Stark. Eventually Hammer enlists the aid of a Russian physicist named Vanko (who is given just enough backstory to make Mickey Rourke believable enough in the role) whose father once worked with Stark’s father to develop the power source that powers the Iron Man suit. Vanko believes his father was betrayed, and thus wants revenge against the Stark legacy.

The driving motif of the film is the parallel relationship Stark and Vanko have with their fathers. For Stark, it is a chance to create a legacy. For Vanko, it is motivation to tear that legacy down.

Those are a lot of threads to tie together in a single movie, but director Jon Favreau manages to keep everything sorted out. That’s not to mention the activities of the mysterious SHIELD, headed by Nick Fury (again played by Sam Jackson), and you have enough subplots for several superhero movies. That, of course, is by design (like the first Iron Man, there is a bonus scene after the end credits that will drive the fanboys wild).

Along for the ride are Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow. Their performances are perfunctory but sufficient. Both have a chance to shine in a few scenes, but for the most part the guys get to have all the fun.

The centerpiece of any Iron Man movie inevitably is the hardware, and there’s plenty of that here. The action sequences aren’t very original (which isn’t surprising, given the setup), mostly involving escalating battles between men in armored suits. Then again, isn’t that what the audience wants from an Iron Man flick? Some of the special effects in the climactic battle are a bit too complex to soak in on one viewing, since the action flies by way too quickly. It’s not an exhausting thrill ride, but it should be enough to satisfy most viewers.

Ultimately, this isn’t a perfect film. It tries to tackle a bit too much, sacrificing some of the sense of fun from the first movie. But that’s OK, since these are characters we want to root for. It very much feels like a continuation of the original story. And there are still plenty of humorous moments to break the tension.

What this film does give us that most superhero films don’t is an examination of the superhero as a public figure. Most heroes assume a secret identity, allowing them some semblance of a normal life away from the spotlight. But Tony Stark lives his secret life in the open, and that’s pretty much what fuels him.

Downey brings a lot to the role of Stark, especially as the character’s demons begin to manifest. Even as Stark’s actions would be frowned upon, Downey keeps us rooting for him, maintaining our confidence that eventually he’ll get his act together and save the day. That’s what superheroes are for, right?

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