Old Shellhead is back in a mostly stellar follow-up to the 2008 Marvel Comics blockbuster. This time around, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is dealing with the fallout from his revelation to the world that he is, in fact, Iron Man. This announcement, which ends the first film and opens the new one, has brought Tony worldwide fame and intense government scrutiny. His notoriety even attracts the attention of a plucky young Russian boy whose father’s dying wish is to be avenged for being drop-kicked out of Stark Industries by Tony’s father. This enterprising young fellow is, of course, Mickey Rourke, who is the last person you want out for your blood. In many ways, the whole film centers around the sins of the fathers being visited upon their sons in one way or another. The only problem in this action-packed extravaganza is that those themes are never truly handled in a satisfying way.
Most of the original cast is back, including Downey, Gwynneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury and Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan (the body guard that none of these people actually need). New to the cast is Don Cheadle, who is taking over the Rhodey role from Terrence Howard. It’s rumored that Howard was fired because of the strong homoerotic overtones in his performance in the first film. I should know, because I started that rumor. The unrequited love subtext is gone now, and Cheadle plays the role of Tony’s BFF with your standard frat brother charm. When Rhodey finds himself at odds with Tony, his betrayal lacks the sort of nuanced pain and conflict that Howard could have delivered. Still, Cheadle does a safe and standard job and will likely please the powers that be with his unmistakably hetero performance.
Downey, it’s clear, was born to play Tony Stark, a man seemingly doomed by his own self-destruction as well as the destruction that rains down on him from outside forces. He plays both the rock star industrialist and the self-sacrificing hero with great charm, warmth and depth. It continues to be a knockout performance, and he’s lucky he has a seasoned actress like Gwyneth Paltrow to keep him on his toes. Her Pepper Potts is smart, sexy and full of wisdom and practicality. She gets the job done while the boys are bashing their toys together, and she does it in heels. Sadly, we don’t get as many fabulous shoe shots as we got in the first film, but then this is a more serious outing after all.
I was really looking forward to Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanov, and I’m still looking forward to it. Sadly, she’s relegated to little more than a minor character in this film, and I left the theater knowing nothing about her, except that she’s a bad ass. Her bad assery isn’t even revealed as a surprise. She reveals her fighting skills early in the film and her identity and purpose long before the final showdown. And yet, we learn absolutely nothing else about her. So, despite how great she looks and how well she fights, it still feels like she’s wasted in this film.
Rourke does an impressive job of being both menacing and sympathetic. His Ivan Vanko is driven for revenge, because it’s all he’s ever known. It’s what he was raised to do. A final throwdown between his Whiplash persona and Iron Man is inevitable, of course, and proceeds with lots of explosions and clanking metal against metal. What’s missing, though, is some sort of resolution between the son of the betrayer and the son of the betrayed. So, when all is said and done, the conflict, the fight and the whole theme of fathers passing down their crimes and their guilt to their sons feels unfinished and unsatisfying.
My only other complaint is that tired old Hollywood cliche where it takes way too long to trace a call. Am I supposed to believe that Tony Stark can create the Iron Man technology, produce 3-D holographic models instantaneously and commandeer satellites to spy on North Korea and Iran, but tracing a phone call in under five minutes is still beyond his reach? He should have let Pepper do it.
Finally, as a comic book geek, I appreciate the hints, winks and nods to the fans throughout the movie and after the credits. I won’t give anything away, but I can say I’m looking forward to an Avengers movie now more than ever.
On the FBOTU Scale of Fabulousness, I give Iron Man 2, 4 out of 5 bad-ass emoticons: