As the wise Yahtzee once said of sequelitis, "A good sequel is one that uses the original as a jumping off point for a whole new story...while a bad sequel merely wallows in the original like a hippo." Iron Man 2 isn't a bad movie, but Iron Man set the bar so high that even if Robert Downey Jr. appeared naked in every scene, the sequel wouldn't vault past my expectations. It's not you, Iron Man, baby, it's me.
Read on, if you will, as I explore, dissect, applaud, nitpick, and otherwise discuss Iron Man 2. The following contains more spoilers than the Monaco Grand Prix. (Cut me some slack, I'm a little rusty.)
Arcs: For reactors only, no characters allowed
My biggest beef is that every character emerges the same person in the same situation as they were at the close of the first film; the sequel focuses on fluff and slick effects, leaving its characters to stagnate. Tony Stark is publicly Iron Man. Iron Man is (mostly) lauded as a hero. Pepper is Tony's assistant, again. Rhodey remains Tony's straight-laced friend. S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to vet Tony for the Avengers team. It's a series, not a campsite, we don't have to leave it how we found it.
The exploration of Tony's character is largely what endeared Iron Man to me and helped the original establish itself as a comic film a breed apart. Tony was an arrogant man humbled by a traumatic situation. He faced a crossroads, forced to humanize and personalize the consequences of his work, and strove to do right for perhaps the first time in his life. In Iron Man 2, Tony's progression is a flatline. Even faced with impending death, his personality scarcely changes in the long run. He does use his ego as a facade to hide his fears, which is an interesting, albeit brief, deviation for the cocksure hero.
As always, RDJ's performance as Tony Stark is the highlight of the film, delivered with verve and smarmy panache. Downey's Tony is quirky and completely endearing. Particularly enjoyable is his rapid-fire banter, especially opposite Gwyneth Paltrow and Sam Rockwell (though the talking-over-each-other shtick does grow a bit tiresome).
It's my party and I'll pee in my suit if I want to
Besides "Robot Rock" and Paltrow's delivery of, "You just peed the suit," the birthday party scene really gets my goat. First, how does Rhodey even put on the Mark II armor? His access to the lab is established, OK, but anyone who strolls in can don a suit? Why would Tony build arc reactors to independently power each set of armor when he didn't intend for (and was adamantly against) others using his technology? How is Rhodey so expert at maneuvering the suit when it's his first time wearing it? Iron Man devoted a good chunk of time to Tony learning how to pilot the armor; Rhodey's ease flies in the face of the film's own canon. Is Jarvis assisting Rhodey too? Why do the repulsor beams look like a move straight out of Dragon Ball Z? How many questions can I fit in this segment?
Iron Man's a Man's Man
I'm not among Marvel's target demographic, I get that, but I'm convinced Jon Favreau sat down with a twelve-pack and "the guys" to compose a list of "Stuff Dudes Love," then included absolutely every item in the film: expensive cars, racing, cheerleaders, big guns, fighting robots, explosions, Jon Favreau, boxing, Scarlett Johansson's boobs. I don't know where I'm going with this except to say the testosterone baiting was a little excessive.
Who's afraid of the Big Bad Rourke?
Perhaps the Iron Man series' greatest weakness is its lack of a good arch-nemesis. When the comics give you Fin Fang Foom - an alien dragon from the planet Maklu IV - and this guy to choose from...well, they ain't exactly the Joker.
That being said, Mickey Rourke is entertaining as Ivan Vanko; he's imposing, slightly deranged, and majorly creepy. Vanko's clearly a cool guy too, as evidenced by the many explosions he did not look at. Despite Rourke's impressive presence, the narrative fails to maintain tension between the hero and the villain, especially considering Tony believes Vanko to be dead for the majority of the film. Iron Man 2 doesn't learn from its past mistakes and wraps up with another rushed and anti-climatic boss battle; even the lead-up to Justin Hammer's Expo reveal was meandering.
I must tip my hat to Rockwell's hilarious performance as Justin Hammer. Hammer's rivalry with Stark, his poorly received speeches, his pitch for the "Ex-Wife" - what's not to love?
Still, Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane reigns supreme in the realm of awesome Iron Man baddies.
The spy who didn't do much
I was trepidatious about the addition of Scarlett Johansson as Natasha/Black Widow; there are few tropes I've grown more tired of than the ol' love triangle. Sometime mid-movie I realized Natasha's role wasn't as love rival and thought happily to myself, "ScarJo's not so bad. In fact, she's barely said a thing!..Wait, this is something to be happy about?" Truth is, Natasha doesn't play much of a part at all beyond eye candy. Her personality and contribution to the plot is so marginal, why include her in the first place?
Enough complaining, I've saved the best for last. I love Tony Stark. I love Pepper Potts. I love 'em together. Honestly, I probably would've been happy if the entire movie was these two locked in a room bickering. Every scene with Tony and Pepper is sharp and delightful, both jockeying for the upper hand with their verbal sparring. Nothing made this fangirl quite as happy as them finally snogging...except maybe the omelette scene. Hey, where's my "You complete me" line from the trailer? Shenanigans!
Iron Man 2 may have fallen a little short of my lofty expectations, but far be it from me to turn my nose up at a perfectly good piece of pie simply because I was hoping for cake. No doubt I will want to see the film again (and again) and allow myself to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.
(Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures, Marvel, and www.webweaver.nu)