[We first posted this review on April 29 and are re-posting now because the movie opens today.]
We've all seen the superhero origin story before, but we never quite saw it like we did in 2008's Iron Man. The movie made the familiar paces feel somehow fresh again, thanks in no small part to Robert Downey Jr.'s blazing, mischievous star turn as Tony Stark/Iron Man and, to a lesser extent, director Jon Favreau's bullet-train pacing and effortless tonal control.
With more than $300 million in the bank and the launch of not just an Iron Man franchise but the entire Marvel Studios business behind it, Iron Man 2 doesn't quite reach the levels of awesomeness established by other super sequels like X2 and The Dark Knight. But the movie kind of succeeds in spite of itself and a choppy, cut-and-paste script from Justin Theroux that does too little with too much and takes too much time doing it.
Starting right where its predecessor left off, the film begins when Tony has revealed himself to the world as Iron Man, while a Russian physicist named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) watches on TV from his tiny, decrepit Moscow apartment, his father dying beside him and a device that bears a resemblance to the Iron Man arc reactor on his work table. Six months later, we see Tony and the world enjoying the benefits of his seemingly successful campaign to "privatize world peace," with Tony and Iron Man more popular than ever.
But things are not well in Stark-land. Tony's own arc reactor is leaking palladium into his blood and turning it toxic. The U.S. government wants to get its hands on the Iron Man tech, while an unscrupulous weapons manufacturer and would-be competitor named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) wants to bring Stark Industries to its knees. After Vanko attacks Tony at the Grand Prix with a deadly new weapon based on Stark designs (a masterful action sequence), it's only a matter of time before Vanko and Hammer combine forces to take down an increasingly vulnerable Iron Man.
That's a hell of a plot, actually, chock-full of subtexts about weapon-making gone wild and rogue states (in the form of Vanko). If Favreau had applied the same laser-like focus to that narrative, Iron Man 2 might be as powerful and sleek as the first movie. But Iron Man 2, oddly, suffers from the problem that often plagues the often-cursed third entry in a series like this: too much going on.
Part of the difficulty lies with Marvel itself: Iron Man 2 has to not only advance the Tony Stark story but plant little seeds that will bloom in Thor, The First Avenger: Captain America and The Avengers. So we have more screen time with S.H.I.E.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the evolution of Tony's pal Rhodey (Don Cheadle, capably stepping in for Terrence Howard) as War Machine, and the arrival of spy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), also known as the Black Widow. Throw in another subplot involving Tony's father and his contentious/flirtatious relationship with right-hand girl Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and it all starts to bog down like an L.A. highway at 4:30 in the afternoon.
It's a credit to the performers — most of whom are solid, with Rourke and Rockwell in particular outstanding — that the movie's first act still more or less sucks you right in. But the long middle section sags, with a lot of talking and dithering and very little forward motion. But Favreau and company somehow yank it all together for a final half hour that knocks your socks off in terms of action, epic comic-book imagery, visual effects and sheer kinetic energy. The only complaint is that the final confrontation with the badass Vanko seems a little abrupt after what has come before it.
Rourke, as mentioned before, makes a terrific supervillain, and it's a shame we don't see as much of him as we should. Rockwell also gives the movie a nice kick in the pants, and his exchanges with Downey are among the best scenes in the film. As for the main man himself, he's clearly comfortable with the role and confident in his own take on it, making him always watchable even when Tony is literally just sitting around in several scenes. Johansson makes up for her standard flat line readings with some nice action chops, although Paltrow can't seem to decide whether Pepper is an efficient businesswoman or a hysteric.
While you'll have a good time with Iron Man 2 and even get a real jolt from chunks of it, you'll also feel a strange boredom setting in here and there. Whether that can be rectified in Iron Man 3 depends a lot, we suspect, on what happens two years from now with The Avengers (and yes, stick around, because there's another little surprise after the end credits here). For now, it's safe to say that Iron Man 2 operates at a power level of about 75 percent ... not optimum, but not dangerous. Yet.