A Thigh-Quaking Toe Curler (In an Uncomfortable Place)
In the last two years, Iron Man has supplanted Spider-Man as the number two in the comic-book movie world. Iron Man 2 in no way displaces Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise. But they're different breeds. Nolan works the dark complexity, while Jon Favreau infuses his Iron Man series with wit, sex appeal, and simple bad-assery. And there are more than a few bad ass moments in Iron Man 2, while Robert Downey, Jr. continues to be a burning beacon of raw sexuality. The man exudes more charisma snapping away a holographic computer image than 96 percent of Hollywood's leading men can in their strongest scenes. Tony Stark's got a bed partner this time around, in the form of Sam Rockwell's villainous weapons mogul Justin Hammer, who can play second to only RDJ in the planetary panty moistening department. Justin and RDJ's Tony Stark are pitted against each other early on: Hammer's developing his own Iron Man suits and wants the Stark Technology. After a failed attempt to secure it through Congressional means (via Garry Shandling's delightfully sleazy Senator Stern), Hammer calls up Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) from prison, where he's laid up after engineering a suit from scrap parts that drew some Iron Man blood. Vanko harbors some ill will toward Tony Stark on account of the way Stark's father treated Vanko's father, who was a leading physicist in the Stark Empire before Daddy Stark (John Slattery) deported him for getting too greedy.
That's the major set up: Hammer is bankrolling Vanko's efforts to not only take out Iron Man, but to ruin the Stark legacy. Hammer's got friends in the government, too, so he manages to turn Colonel James Rhodes against Tony, as well (at least temporarily). Meanwhile, Tony's got some issues with his suit, namely that it's poisoning his blood and slowly killing him, and he can't figure out the technology to save himself. Planning the future of Stark Industries means promoting Pepper Potts to CEO and bringing in Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) as his new assistant. Without spoiling too much, that's how the Avengers and Nick Fury (Sam Jackson) get involved in Iron Man 2, which also represents most of the film's bloat. It's not that the subplot setting up The Avengers movie isn't entertaining, it's that it's excessive and slows the momentum of the main plot line. I might note, too, that besides a rear end you could set a plate upon and a few bad ass moves that her stunt double performs, Johansson and her thick tongue may be the film's weakest element. Although I'd also concede that Mickey Rourke goes too method with Vanko and saps some of the joy out of his character, who is too self-serious in comparison with the rest of the more free-wheeling, crackling characters.
The first movie also lacked much of anything resembling a script going in, which paradoxically worked to Favreau and RDJ's advantage: They were able, on the fly, to create dialog that sounded more organic. Here, Justin Theroux's script is clunky at times, approximating comic-book bubble dialog, though credit Downey for his ability to somewhat convincingly sell a few bad lines in the first act. Moreover, with Johansson aboard, Gwyneth Paltrow's character doesn't get the screen time she deserves. Say what you want about Paltrow, but her Pepper Potts is perfect for this movie: shrewish, demanding, controlling and sophisticatedly sexual. Fortunately, too, while Rourke's Vanko is pitchy at times, Rockwell hits all the high notes and more than balances out the criminal equation. To my relief, Favreau and Company also listened to the feedback cards after the first movie and didn't overcook the finale with big speeches or an overindulgent 27-scene fight sequence.
All of which is to say: Yes, there are flaws in Iron Man 2 and an overly meticulous critic with a buzzkill boner could get stuck in the morass and fail to see the forest for the mushmouth. My biggest fear about the movie was quelled, too, which was that all of the extra characters would take the focus off the movie's biggest asset: Robert Downey, Jr. But there's never any doubt that it's still Iron Man's show. Don Cheadle's War Machine effectively swoops in and obliterates the occasional steel goon, but Robert Downey, Jr. is the man casually kicking away a car and creating a sexual charge with every finger snap. Iron Man 2 is one hell of an entertaining and often exhilarating film, a slam fuck that doesn't exactly break your pelvis, but you may walk away with a limp.