When Iron Man became a smash hit in the summer of 2008, it caught plenty of people by surprise. Partly that was because the protagonist was one of the lesser stars of the Marvel Comics universe; partly it was because director Jon Favreau didn't have a track record with such high-profile fare. But mostly it was because it turned certain assumptions upside-down: Here was a comic-book adventure where the success was driven not by the action, but by the guy playing the hero.
For the sake of clarity, it's not as though a performance has never before increased the popularity of a comic-book movie. It's just that previously, it's always been the villain—most specifically, the bookend Joker performances by Jack Nicholson in 1989's Batman and Heath Ledger in 2008's The Dark Knight. But Robert Downey Jr.'s quicksilver line readings as billionaire-turned-hero Tony Stark fueled everything that was genuinely interesting and entertaining about the first Iron Man—to the extent that, when the finale turned into a brawl between two big hunks of metal, it felt like a let-down to be deprived of Downey's sly smirk. Tony Stark, not Iron Man, was the star.
For Iron Man 2, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux attempt to retain what worked the first time around, while simultaneously fixing what didn't—and that proves to be a tall order. They pick up the bulk of the action six months after the end of the first film, in which Stark announced to the world that he was in fact the armored super-hero. Now out of the closet as the world's one-man peacekeeping unit, he's facing a variety of challenges. The government wants to appropriate Stark's armored weaponry for national security; the arc reactor unit in Stark's chest that keeps him alive is also poisoning him. And, oh yeah, a Russian scientist named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke)—the vengeance-seeking son of Stark's dad's ex-partner—appears to create his own dangerous variation on the Iron Man technology.
If that sounds like the all-too-common problem of trying to crank a summer sequel's volume up to 11, you're pretty close to right. In addition to our new villain, the filmmakers add a new Stark employee named Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johanson) who has a few specialized skills, a weapons-manufacturing rival to Stark named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who teams up with Vanko, a beefed-up role for covert government agency boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and a more overtly heroic role for James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle, taking over the role from Terence Howard). That's a lot of content for the narrative to absorb—plus at least a few nudging scenes referencing future planned Marvel Comics-based movies—and there's no question that at times the whole thing starts to feel over-stuffed.
But thank heaven for Downey, who's still a delight even when the script has his psychology bouncing in a dozen different directions: meditating on his own mortality; brooding over daddy issues; basking egomaniacally in his role as the world's savior; etc. He's at his best when he gets to trade do-they-or-don't-they/will-they-or-won't-they banter with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) or preen his way through his congressional hearing, and you can feel Iron Man 2's energy rise every time Downey is given room to have fun with his role. Every time the narrative swerves away to focus on something or someone else—even the reliably wonderful Rockwell—you can feel what's missing.
There's not as much missing from the action sequences, however, and if Iron Man 2 ultimately feels fairly satisfying, it's because they're executed with a lot more style this time around. The racetrack confrontation between Stark and Vanko is a well-choreographed set piece, as is the final large-scale battle involving Iron Man, Rhodey's War Machine and dozens of dangerous robot drones. Even better is the showcase for Johanson as a cat suit-clad super-spy, which packs a sexy, funny wallop. When it sets out to be a bang-up action movie, Iron Man 2 delivers better than its predecessor.
But audiences didn't fall for Iron Man because it was just another spectacle. With just a bit more streamlining, Tony Stark could have been just as compelling, and Downey's performance even more effortlessly witty. Even as it's delivering its entertainment, this sequel leaves you wanting more of the guy who made the original fly.
Iron Man 2 continues at the Carmike 10 and Village 6.