Playboy superhero Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) looks like hes having the time of his life, but secretly hes starting to crack from the strain of a mysterious malady. Meanwhile, deranged Russian Ivan Vanko (Rourke) is plotting to annihilate Tony, in the guise
The first Iron Man arrived at cinemas an oddball underdog — it was, lest we forget, a minor-property superhero movie from the director of Zathura, starring Zodiac’s third lead — and blasted out a gold-and-red-plated megahit. Now, two years on, things have changed. Robert Downey Jr. is, for the first time in his 40-year career, a giant star, while Ol’ Shellhead’s steely visage is famous from Peru to Timbuktu. And here comes the sequel, hotly awaited as one of the year’s biggest releases, the second instalment of a metallurgy-based action franchise that’s sure to roll on and on. The Wrath Of Can, if you will.
Like the sequels to Stars Trek and Wars, Iron Man 2 is a tale of revenge. But, unlike those films, this is one of the breeziest blockbusters you’re likely to see. There’s potential for darkness here: when we meet Tony, he’s hiding from everyone the fact he’s being gradually poisoned by his suit; villain Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is hellbent on avenging perceived injustices done to his father; and Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is considering betraying his pal by teaming with rival arms dealer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). But Jon Favreau, it seems, didn’t want to make his Part Two a downer. He’s out to have fun, not only in front of the camera (his chauffeur character, Happy Hogan, has been bumped up from cameo to supporting role, helping out Tony in two action scenes and getting pinned between Scarlett Johansson’s legs) but behind it too, focusing on gyrating cheerleaders and gleaming tech over inner turmoil.
Not that there’s anything wrong with fun, of course, especially in a film about a millionaire with a magic flying suit. It’s just a shame it rarely feels there’s much to threaten Tony Stark’s perfect world. In the movie’s stand-out sequence, Vanko launches an assault on his nemesis at the Monaco Grand Prix, twirling twin whips that fizz with megavoltage electricity. As he effortlessly slices up oncoming cars and advances, cackling, on a suitless and scared Stark, it actually feels like there’s something at stake, that our hero has met his Waterloo. It’s a feeling that’s sadly absent from the rest of the runtime.
Maybe it’s the fact that two of cinema’s most charismatic, weathered actors perform their most dramatic moments with faces cloaked by metal. The climax is a particular disappointment, a beefed-up re-run of the last film’s final reel, in which featureless metal men thump each other until one falls over.
Little emotional heft, then; fortunately, there’s still plenty of charisma. When he’s out of the suit – and Favreau has the good sense to keep him out of the metal mankini for as long as is superhumanly possible – Downey Jr. continues to be unstoppably likeable (though Tony’s burgeoning romantic relationship with Pepper needed more screentime and snappier patter). Rourke squeezes every drop of weird out of his character, even aside from the copious body-ink and pet cockatoo (though he’s relegated to sitting in a lab for the whole second act). And Sam Rockwell just about steals the show as Hammer, the fast-talking weasel who wants to be Stark but falls short on every level (no complaints here).
As for Johansson, who gets to show off her gymnastic chops in a mêlée sequence with a great punchline, her character is not the villain some predicted, more a walking teaser trailer for The Avengers (due in 2012). That’s a Marvel mindset that dominates the movie, with numerous teasy references and in-jokes setting up Captain America and Thor; the uninitiated will be baffled, especially when a one-eyed Samuel L. Jackson turns up halfway through as Nick Fury and starts banging on about SHIELD, but still appreciate the sight of Johansson in a catsuit.
Rourke and Rockwell make satisfying, complementary villains, while Downey Jr. delivers again. Shame this sequel feels inessential, over-busy and a little, well, mechanical. Nothing they cant put right for Iron Man 3.