As they say in music, it’s not the first album that’s the hardest, it’s the second. The movie industry is not immune from this kind of anxiety over sequels; more often than not, anything with a ‘2’ attached to the title turns out to be inferior to the original, and this is especially true of the superhero genre.
For most superhero movies benefit from having first outings tailor-made for potentially good movies. They almost always take up an origin story, and the solid, exhilarating three-act structure that goes with them. From boy to man, ordinary to extraordinary — super-nomal to Superhero.
Of late, however, we’ve been having pretty good luck with movie superhero sequels. Both Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight were well-received, and in many ways considered better than their previous outings (though, personally speaking, I’m not a fan of The Dark Knight). Both sequels took the route of looking inward to their heroes, putting them up against insurmountable foes, or systems, and making them question their choices to become heroes in the first place. Just what goes on behind that mask, that cowl, and what can be done to mess with it?
But Iron Man, in 2008, took a much different track than the angst-heavy Spider-Man and Batman franchises. Tony Stark’s super-suit may have been born out of the ashes of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism, but with tongue firmly in cheek, it irreverently went on a romp of immensely satisfying proportions, ending by shrugging off the heavy burden of the superhero’s secret identity itself.
So now, in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is both the head of one-time weapons powerhouse Stark Industries, and openly the man in the red and gold suit.
And he’s loving every minute of it.
Flashing a peace sign ‘V’ at both fans and detractors, he’s single-handedly ushered in an era of peace like the world has never seen.
There are obviously people gunning for him, and quite literally. The US Government wants the Iron Man ‘weapon’ for themselves, and Stark’s rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) hasn’t been able to provide them with a substitute. And then there is the mysterious Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a genius himself, with a personal vendetta against Stark — and the means to exact his revenge. It’s a plot filled with many interweaving threads, and when you sit back and try to pull them apart it becomes clear how much of a wonder it is that writer Justin Theroux and director Favreau have managed to make it all work, all the while preserving the lighthearted and irreverent spirit of the Iron Man universe.
Downey, as always, turns in a delightful performance (really, between this and Sherlock Holmes they might as well officially declare him God of the Geeks). Tony Stark is cocky and brilliant, funny and endearing, scatterbrained and driven all at the same time. His arc in this lacks some of the pathos that tinged the first one, but there’s still a lot of dimensions left to explore.
It is still first and foremost Downey’s movie, and while the supporting cast is around and does well, one gets the feeling that a lot of the movie was left on the cutting room floor. It doesn’t affect the proceedings to such an extent as to be a truly negative point, but if you’ve seen the trailers be prepared for some of the sequences to be absent from the final cut.
I would have welcomed another hour of banter between the characters. What is there sometimes reaches Swingers levels of rapid-fire, multi-layered talk, and reminds you of why Favreau is the perfect man for this gig. I would have liked more of Rourke, because while he’s there throughout the movie (and does look more menacing than he did in the trailers) it’s a shame he isn’t given more to do. Ditto Johansson and Cheadle. I hope they bring both back for either The Avengers or an Iron Man 3, and that they’re given more than a couple of scenes and a fight. But if there’s a standout among the new cast, it’s Sam Rockwell — his Justin Hammer is a hoot.
Iron Man 2 does not fall into the trap of trying to replicate exactly the formula of the first; nor does it attempt to cram in more gimmicks and subplots to seem important and fresh. It does — successfully — mix things up, giving us a glimpse into something that hasn’t really been explored in this genre (superhero fatigue), and still does so with the deft touch that sets it apart from its peers.
There’s plenty of eye candy, tons of gorgeous machines both imagined and real (if you never wanted an Audi R8 Spyder, trust me, after seeing this you will), and enough glamour, action, and just plain fun for your money’s worth. There is also, however, the sneaking suspicion that you aren’t getting everything the makers planned to give. It may be that this is for the best (deleted scenes often stay deleted for a reason), but in a franchise as enjoyable as Iron Man, I for one would not say no to more.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to zoom around my room pretending to be a superhero.