Note: This review is STUFFED with spoilers. If you haven’t yet seen the film and don’t want to know anything about it, go and read Simon Brew’s spoiler-lite Iron Man 2 review instead. As the author, I strongly recommend reading this review only AFTER you’ve seen the film if you intend to watch it at all. There are no more spoiler warnings after this point!
Everyone knows the rule. The better a comicbook movie, the better its sequel. It was true of Spider-Man. It was true of X-Men. It was true of Batman (twice). And given that some of us count Iron Man as one of the best comicbook movies yet committed to film, there was no reason to think that a reunion of the same director and cast would break that universal law.
And yet, somehow, it did.
There’s no escaping that Iron Man 2, while a decent film in its own right, sits inescapably in the shadow of the original – and if you go into it armed with that knowledge, the experience will be all the more enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, this film is good, and sometimes even great. At no point is it ever any worse than your typical summer action blockbuster. But ultimately, it lacks the magic ingredient that made the original so memorable, and frustratingly there’s no one failure you can point to as explanation – it is, as they say, all a rich tapestry.
Perhaps it’s simply that after Kick Ass, the benchmark has been reset. Right now, we believe that all it takes to be a superhero is the will and a wetsuit – so seeing Stark as a rather reluctant do-gooder with billions of dollars’ worth of technology subject to his every whim isn’t quite as inspirational as it was the first time around. Or maybe it’s that as the second part of a likely trilogy, it’s all gone a bit Empire Strikes Back. Whatever the reason, as Den of Geek’s resident Marvel nerd, I wanted to like this film a lot more than I did.
A big part of the reason it falls slightly short of the mark is that Iron Man 2 simply isn’t as much fun as its predecessor. Sure, Sam Rockwell is having fun as Justin Hammer, a sleazy, uncool, straight-out-of-the-80s businessman villain who so badly wishes he was Tony Stark that you can taste it, but everyone else, from Tony Stark to Pepper Potts to James Rhodes, is having a difficult personal slog. And once the plot gets going, there’s little reason for the audience to crack a smile.
Stark’s life-saving technology starts to kill him; Potts becomes CEO of Stark Industries as it lurches from one PR disaster to another, and Rhodey ends up torn between his friend and government. It’s heavy stuff. Well-written and well-acted, but sorely lacking those moments of reckless, invincible excitement that defined the first movie.
The comedy, too, has been muted a little. There were a few moments in Iron Man 2 that had me laughing out loud, but nothing quite as good as the millisecond-perfect timing of the fire-extinguisher in Iron Man. Scenes where a drunk Stark dons the Iron Man armour for his birthday party come close, but there’s an (intentionally) uncomfortable undercurrent that means when Stark accidentally blows a hole in his wall, it’s only funny for a moment before the chain of your conscience yanks you back to reality. Elsewhere, a rather blatant Captain America reference starts off amusing, but my laughs quickly turned to groans as I saw quite how knowingly it was being played.
Pacing, too, is a concern. Personally, I don’t agree with those reviews which say Stark spends too much time out of the suit – Stark has always been most interesting when wrestling with issues in his civilian identity, rather than blowing them up in his armoured one, while Downey Jr. is at his most charismatic when allowed the full range of expression and movement that being Stark (rather than Iron Man) allows. If you like Iron Man more than Stark, well, you’re in the wrong movie anyway.
But even though the film’s slow middle section didn’t bother me in general, there were, however, a couple of scenes that staggered on far too long for my tastes.
In Iron Man, Favreau demonstrated an incredible economy of direction, trimming scenes to their barest bones, wasting not a single second. Here, he’s much looser – the opening parts of the movie, which should be easing us back into the cast’s routine and relationships, are a little dawdling and flabby, and aren’t helped by the naturalistic delivery that sees characters talking over one another at the very point where we should be hanging on every word.
Thankfully, things improve dramatically following the first major action set piece. Rourke’s initial introduction left me with concerns, but his first appearance as ‘Whiplash’ at the Monaco Grand Prix eliminated any doubt, prompting the first, best example of an armoured action scene, in which Stark dons the red-and-silver suitcase version (nerd heaven!) and gets to work. Whiplash makes for a fantastic visual, and is far more fun than another generic goon-in-a-suit would have been.
In fact, it’s with great pleasure that I can describe the action scenes in this film as mercifully strong. Superhero movies which involve extensive CGI often end up resembling a somewhat yawnsome computer-game cutscene (The Incredible Hulk, we’re looking at you) but Iron Man 2 manages to keep each fight engaging, with inventive uses of Iron Man’s powers and an unusual catalogue of locations and opponents to prevent déjà vu. It’s a shame that the final action sequence isn’t quite as good as those that precede it, but the reward of seeing Iron Man and War Machine fighting back to back is just about enough to make you forget those flaws.
Plot-wise, the film has a couple of nice twists in it, though little in the way of genuine surprises. When Rhodes gets hold of the Mk. 2 armour to take down Stark, you could easily believe that the two are on the outs, even though a feint has been quite obviously set up. Similarly, the mystery of Howard Stark’s hidden message to Tony is brilliantly seeded right from movie’s the opening scene before you even know it’s coming, and the shadow of Stark’s father plays a major part in the film throughout, both in Whiplash’s motivations and Tony’s eventual salvation. On that level, Iron Man 2 is certainly smarter than the average action movie.
But at the same time, it’s prey to the kind of excruciatingly bad science that action movies seem to think they can get away with. At one point, Stark has to save his own life by creating a “new” element. This is, frankly, complete nonsense, and it seems unwise to make the film turn on such a plot development. I understand that the intention was to put Stark back in the kind of desperate, invent-or-die situation that led him to create Iron Man in the first place, but in that case, why not have him actually invent something, rather than simply defy the laws of physics with a laser and a wrench? Star Trek was almost killed by this kind of technobabble plot solution. You only get one major break from reality per movie, and Iron Man uses its get-out-of-science-free card up on the armour itself.
Still, that’s a pet peeve. Many in the audience will let it wash past them without blinking. Not so with the only part of the film where it feels like the plotting has gone completely awry – a climactic scene between Potts and Stark, where a rooftop kiss signals start of an ongoing romance. There’s nothing in the hours before it that makes this feel like the logical end to either character’s emotional arc, and what’s more, Iron Man already dealt with their relationship in precisely the right way: almost, but not quite. Throughout the film, Paltrow is spectacular. Independent, organised and intelligent. It feels like a betrayal of her character to take her down this road (though admittedly, not Stark’s). Even though Downey Jr. and Paltrow inhabit their roles perfectly, you simply can’t believe this development when it happens.
The geeks in the audience will, of course, want to know how Iron Man 2 fights its corner in terms of the emerging Marvel Movie-verse. You might be pleased to know that it doesn’t back down from dealing with this – but undeniably, it’s to the film’s detriment. Samuel L. Jackson is, of course, note-perfect in his role as Nick Fury, but at the same time, attempts to integrate him into the plot are far from seamless. It erodes the reality of Iron Man 2 to have Fury telling Stark he’s not the most important thing in the world, because we, the audience, need to believe that he is in order to make the stakes matter.
Furthermore, even as it starts to set up Avengers, the film side-steps it, concluding with Fury suggesting that Iron Man is invited onto the team – but Stark isn’t. Since this is the film’s penultimate scene, you can’t help feeling like it exists solely to explain why Robert Downey Jr. isn’t going to be piloting the suit in Avengers, which in turn makes you wonder why the hell they’re wasting screentime on what amounts to little more than contract wrangling for a film that won’t be out for another 2 years.
On the plus side, the introduction of Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow is, on every level, a success – save for the fact that she’s never actually called “the Black Widow” (and doesn’t do the accent). Johansson gets what is hands down the film’s best action scene, where she fights her way through a corridor of bad guys in a manner so simultaneously swift and deadly that it’d make Hit-Girl herself jealous. Undercover as Potts’ replacement, Johansson drips with silent confidence befitting a Russian super-spy. If Daniel Craig tried to put the moves on her, she’d probably rip his balls off without flinching. If you don’t come out of this movie loving the Black Widow, you didn’t watch it correctly.
And yet somehow, even that feels like a concession to Avengers, as Iron Man 2 once again finds itself deferring to a sequel, the shape of which is far from determined. I left the cinema wanting to see more of Natasha Romanov (and indeed, she is tipped as the female lead in Avengers) – but this was an Iron Man film. Shouldn’t I have left wanting to see more Iron Man?
Ultimately, all Iron Man 2 serves to do, in terms of a shared universe, is demonstrate how difficult it’ll be to create a film that works within one. It is unexpectedly disappointing, and as a Marvel Universe fanatic, that’s not what I want to be saying. Worst of all is that there’s no post-credits Easter Egg. Admittedly, it’s tough to think what would fit in one, but to have nothing at all – especially after the literally air-punch inducing post-credits scene of Iron Man – that’s either a brave or stupid risk to take with the audience’s expectations (this may just be the press screening print, however. There are rumours and reports that a post-credits sequence will be adding to the wide release of the film).
Overall, Iron Man 2 is a fun and worthy sequel, but it’s hard not to feel a little let down that it wasn’t all it could have been. Maybe the goalposts shifted. Maybe the execution wasn’t up to scratch. Maybe it was simply destined not to meet impossibly high expectations set by the first movie. Still, in spite of all the criticism the film can attract, it’s worth remembering that it still operates in a different league to most. This isn’t a Fantastic Four, or a Daredevil, or a Ghost Rider – it’s a Batman Begins, or a Watchmen, or a Superman Returns. Flawed but enjoyable, weakened largely by what it failed to be, rather than what it was. When the time comes, you’ll still be ready for Iron Man 3 – but as a result of this film, you might just be a little more cautious about your expectations.