Upgrades and Downgrades in IRON MAN 2

Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer

As you’ve probably heard, Iron Man 2 is totally overstuffed. In the course of the film, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) attempts to reverse the damage the Iron Man technology has done to his body; defeat crazed Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) and scheming weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell); figure out whether he and Pepper Potts (Gweneth Paltrow), still in a ‘will-they-or-won’t they’ scenario, will or won’t; repair his friendship with Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle); come to terms with his late father’s lack of approval; keep the Iron Man suit out of the U.S. government’s reach; and reach an understanding with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) about his role in the ‘Avengers Initiative.’ This a lot for anyone to accomplish in two hours, man or Iron Man, but regardless of the movie’s tangled plotlines, there’s an awful lot to like about it.

The first Iron Man film is the rare summer action film with dialogue that’s genuinely funny, and the same holds for number two. But Sam Rockwell is responsible for many of the laughs this time around, owning nearly every scene he’s in. His Hammer is a sort of flamboyant loser, and an oddity among superhero sequel villains: we understand from the start that he’s a wanna-be, not a bigger, badder version of the hero. It falls to Rourke, as Ivan Vanko (or “Whiplash,” though I’m not sure anyone ever actually calls him that), to bring the menace, and Rourke likewise delivers. He wisely plays Vanko with limited theatrics—it’s all brooding and snarling, pure presence.

Of all the elements at play in Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff is maybe the least necessary addition, so much so that I wasn’t sure how to include her in the list at top. Nothing is at stake for her character, or because of her character, and while the film attempts for a while to keep Romanov’s allegiances a secret, the big reveal happens so offhandedly that one wonders why anyone bothered. It’s a shame, because Johansson’s rare moments of action are well choreographed and frame for frame more entertaining than most of the armored fighting. Don Cheadle, meanwhile, is also new to the cast (having replaced Terrance Howard as Rhodey), and despite his distinguished pedigree, Cheadle’s performance is one of the film’s weakest spots. Both Iron Man films were apparently shot without much of a script, and some scenes in the second are more obviously improvised. Sam Rockwell, as mentioned, thrives, but Cheadle seems alternately uncomfortable and bored.

Midway through Iron Man 2, in a moment that threatens to take the film into Spider-Man 3 territory, Cheadle and Downey Jr. spar, semi-seriously, after a suited-up Tony gets out of control at his birthday party. The armored play-fight is a momentum killer, and while Cheadle’s partly to blame, it must also be noted that Iron Man 2’s (main) MacGuffin, Tony’s search for a solution to his failing health, is maybe the least-engaging aspect of the film. (We have to sit through a flurry of technobabble from Downey Jr. before he inevitably discovers a cure.) But Iron Man 2’s flaws, though they exist, mostly become obvious upon reflection (I sat in the theater with a big grin). Downey Jr., technobabbling aside, is once again super charming, and he and director Jon Favreau stay true to the first film, and to the comics, by keeping Tony Stark a cad; in the end, Tony saves his own ass without learning any lessons.

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