If You Liked the First One…

Confession:  I loved the first Iron Man film.  In my mind, Jon Favreau crafted a pitch-perfect superhero film that didn’t take itself too seriously, but contained serious themes.  Of course, his success was due in great part to a memorable performance by Robert Downey, Jr.  The reason that I am simultaneously pleased with and disappointed in their sequel is that it is simply more of the same.

Iron Man 2 opens with Ivan Vank0 (Mickey Rourke) fashioning a dirty version of Tony Stark’s arc-reactor technology in the slums of Russia.  State-side, Tony has learned that the very technology that has kept him alive, the arc-reactor, is slowly killing him.  To combat that, he must also contend with a competing arms dealer, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who is desperately trying to, along with the U.S. military, get his hands on Stark’s Iron Man suit.  Throughout the film, Stark searches for a remedy to his slowly-progressing illness and eventually battles the unified Hammer/Ivan front.

Cheadle as Rhodes with Rockwell's Hammer in the background.

The two-hour film moves along at a fairly brisk pace with all the humor, special effects, and explosions one would expect.  Moreover, everyone in the cast gives a solid performances.  Downey Jr.’s cock-sure posturing is once again entertaining and thankfully matched stride for stride by Rockwell’s presence.  Don Cheadle takes over for Terrence Howard as Lt. Col. James Rhodes/War Machine, and viewers who are aware of the casting drama behind that change will get a chuckle from his first encounter with Stark.  Rourke gives a convincing performance as a jilted Russian physicist turned villain; however, he simply broods far more than he helps drive the plot along.  The supporting cast (Rockwell, Rourke, and Gwyneth Paltrow reprising her role as Pepper Potts aside) leaves much to be desired.  Scarlett Johansson “stars” as Black Widow, a completely unnecessary character with only one significant action sequence.  She’s a poor attempt to advance or expand the Avengers element of the story.  We see far too much of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and far too little of his “subjects.”  Stick around after the credits for a cheeky teaser for the newest character.  On the other hand, don’t…it disappoints far more than it entertains.

Rourke as Ivan Vanko/Whiplash.

Thematically, Iron Man 2 follows some of its predecessor’s familiar territory.  There is the recognition that that which “defends” or “saves” us will also ultimately destroy us both from within (as both films assert) and without (as the sequel emphasizes).  There’s a clear mirror here between America (Stark/Iron Man) and other more “eastern” violent extremists (Ivan/Whiplash/terrorists).  At one point Ivan tells Stark, “You lose.”  When Stark counters that Ivan is in fact the one who lost and is in jail, Ivan responds by asserting that he doesn’t have to defeat Stark/Iron Man, he just has to “make God bleed” and people will begin to doubt him.  Ivan mumbles, “There will be blood in the water and the sharks will circle.”  All of this is well and good…the kind of seriousness that a superhero film can attain without becoming too self-absorbed; however it’s not much different than, as I have suggested, what came before it.  On another level, Hammer is simply a stand-in for the deceased Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) who sought to use the Iron Man technology for his own selfish motives.

All-in-all, Iron Man 2 is still an entertaining super-hero film.  Just don’t expect anything substantially new.

Iron Man 2 (124 mins.) is rated PG-13 for violence and is in theaters everywhere starting today.