The first Iron Man, from 2008, was the first big superhero movie powered entirely on pure, stupid joy. Unlike the same summer’s The Dark Knight – sinister, twisted, brilliant, and the best comic-book movie ever made – or Fantastic Four (just plain stupid), Iron Man slapped a bam!-pow! aesthetic on top of a dumb-ass story and stumbled on a compromise between dim-witted and terrific.
The Spider-Man series flirted with the concept, but too often director Sam Raimi strived for psychological insight or character redemption (or a suck-ass story). Iron Man steered clear of such lofty idealism. Its star, Robert Downey Jr., isn’t a great or even a very likable actor. And its hero – super-rich arms industrialist Tony Stark who unreluctantly becomes the metal-encased crimefighter – isn’t a great or very likable guy.
But the compromise paid off big. You can shut your brain down for two hours and enjoy Iron Man as an action-packed popcorn flick and one of the best movies the genre has to offer.
Iron Man 2 – made by the same director as the first, Jon Favreau, and once again starring Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow as his faithful gal pal Pepper Potts – is more of the same. A lot more. With so much running through its 125-minute length, it’s hard to keep it all straight.
The sequel picks up six months later, and Iron Man is a global hero. There’s finally peace on Earth (which Stark takes credit for), but the military wants Stark to hand over his plans to the Iron Man suit so it can make weapons based on its revolutionary technology. On the other side of the world (Moscow, to be precise), enraged Russian Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, in a typically batshit performance) also has his eyes on Stark’s metal suit.
It isn’t long before Ivan shows up at the Grand Prix (where Stark is racing for some reason), decked out with electronic whips and a bad attitude. After a brief prison stay, he’s recruited by an oily weapons industrialist (Sam Rockwell) who also wants a piece of Iron Man.
Don Cheadle (as Stark’s best pal Rhodey/fellow superhero War Machine), Scarlett Johansson (as a Stark Industries employee with a secret), Samuel L. Jackson (as Marvel Universe hero wrangler Nick Fury), and Garry Shandling (as a ball-busting senator) show up too. There’s also a matter of Stark slowly dying. And that’s Iron Man 2’s main problem: Nobody here is given much attention since the movie is too busy bouncing between the many subplots.
There are some knockout sequences – the Grand Prix one is a stunning mix of action and malice – but so much of the movie tries to outdo its predecessor that it ends up bigger and dumber. Not that the first film had a whole lot of heart, but Iron Man 2 is all about the big bang. If all of the commercials -- pushing soda, candy bars, hamburgers, and cars -- showing up on TV dozens of times per hour over the past few weeks hasn’t beaten it into your head already, the movie is mostly concerned with blasting everything around you, including your senses and intelligence.