Every great actor has one iconic role that only they could play. Arnold Schwarzenegger was meant to be the Terminator, Bruce Willis is the only guy who could save the day as John McClane, Sylvester Stallone is the only one who could play Rocky Balboa and Will Ferrell is the only guy with enough gusto to make Ron Burgundy a classic character. Robert Downey Jr. is the only one who could play Tony Stark. After the original Iron Man went from projected sleeper hit and became a massive hit, even in the shadow of The Dark Knight that summer, Downey found himself full circle from a career that had been submarined by his substance abuse issues. He was back to where he should’ve been all along as an A-list star and with another action franchise in the works in Sherlock Holmes; now he comes back to the franchise that started it all with Iron Man 2.
After revealing his existence as the armored hero at the end of Iron Man, we pick up six months after as Iron Man is now the world’s super-cop. Having “privatized world peace” as he exclaims to a Senate committee, his super-powered battle armor is now a hot commodity. The device keeping Stark from dying is slowly poisoning him. Rogue nations like Iran and North Korea want to develop their own weapons and a slimy Senator (Garry Shandling) wants the U.S government to own it as an offensive weapon. Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a rival weapons dealer, wants to make his own version for the profit. Throw in Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) with a grudge against the Stark family and Tony has his hands full. And while it is an improvement in some areas from the first, Iron Man 2 has enough minor flaws to keep it from becoming a masterpiece.
The first film suffered from the lack of a true villain to counteract Tony Stark; there was no central evil presence for Tony to fight and it left the finale anti-climatic. The sequel seeks to rectify that with two villains, with Hammer being the mastermind and Rourke the heavy, but the film doesn’t give them nearly enough time to have a true screen presence. Part of the reason why Die Hard works is because we have enough time to see Hans Gruber be a vile human being we want to see dropped out of the Nakatomi Building by John McClane. We see why Vanko wants revenge, and we see Hammer’s jealously of Stark pushing him to illegal and unethical ends. But we never have enough time to see them either in action or give them enough character depth to form a solid opinion. For better or worse the Iron Man franchise revolves around Tony Stark and his inner turmoil. As such developing the villain is secondary and overlooked in the film and as such the film’s finale is less cathartic and more of a perfunctory spectacle. It’s a shame because when Rourke is in rare form. Vanko is almost justified in his actions against Stark and chews on scenery whenever he’s on screen; the fact that he disappears for long stretches is disappointing.
Stark is the main focus of the film; the first film had a story arc about him going from being a playboy indulging in the sorts of fantasy life a billionaire genius could have to having his eyes opened about his role in the world. The second is about him accepting it and trying to make the world around him a better place. And without Robert Downey Jr. in the role, this would be a mediocre franchise at best. Downey is in top form for the role. Iron Man 2 needs Downey in the same way Pirates of the Carribean needs Johnny Depp; without him the film’s flaws would be exposed. Downey is so charismatic and so perfect for the part that he elevates everything around him. This is not nearly as good a performance as the first film but that was so much higher than a genre performance normally receives that anything less feels like a letdown. It still elevates the material and makes the film continually interesting.
Every year there’s a film that marks the beginning of the summer movie season. Iron Man 2 was that for 2010 and if it’s any indication this is going to be a good one.
Director: Jon Favreau Notable Cast: Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Garry Shandling, Robert Downey Jr. Writer(s): Justin Theroux