With Robert Downey, Jr., Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson. Directed by Jon Favreau. Rated [PG-13] for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language. 124 minutes.
The first “Iron Man” was a wonderful surprise. Not only did Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance as industrialist Tony Stark seem the role he had been born to play, but his bantering scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow as chief factotum Pepper Potts made it one of the best romantic comedies in ages. IRON MAN 2 has some of that, but in many ways this movie seems like the morning after.
The last film ended with Stark outing himself as the part-man, part-machine Iron Man. Now the government wants his superpowered suits, but he won’t cooperate. In one scene he testifies before a Senate committee (headed by Garry Shandling) and treats them with contempt. Privately, though, the energy source that’s keeping Stark alive is also killing him and, as a result, he’s essentially lost interest in life. He gives control of the company to Pepper and ends up fighting his one ally in the military, Lt. Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard).
To make matters worse, two rivals have joined forces against him. Sam Rockwell nearly steals the film as smarmy defense contractor Justin Hammer. Hammer has hired the unstable Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), whose father was betrayed by Stark’s father. Vanko, who has built his own superpower suit complete with electric whips, has a score to settle. You keep waiting for something to happen to justify casting Rourke in the role, but he’s just a one-note special effect.
There’s enough material here for one or two films, but “Iron Man 2” also has to continue the build-up to the film version of Marvel Comics “The Avengers,” currently scheduled for a 2012 release. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is there for a few scenes, possibly to recruit Stark, and also to put in place his watchdog Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who is undeniably luscious but whose significance will be lost on non-Marvel fans (full disclosure: this reviewer grew up on DC Comics). Die-hard fans will want to sit through the lengthy closing credits for a tease for a character who doesn’t appear in the film.
The film slogs through a dull middle section as Stark tries to figure out if he’s just going to die or whether there’s a solution to his dilemma. By the time the issue is resolved, it’s time for the climactic showdown with lots of explosions, a long overdue kiss, and more setting up for “The Avengers.” Director Jon Favreau (who appears as chauffeur Happy Hogan) does what he can with the material, but except for the set pieces in Monte Carlo and the Flushing, New York World’s Fair grounds, “Iron Man 2” seems mostly like Marvel, the Arads and Paramount priming the pump for the deep well of films to come. Fans will have a good time, but after the sugar rush passes, will realize that Iron Man the First was leaner and meaner.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.