Iron Man 2

Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, oh, and Scarlett Johansson
Review: 3.5 stars (of five)

Like many a tech upgrade, Iron Man 2 is not entirely satisfying. As with each new iteration of any Windows product, most people know they’ll have to give in sooner or later, and a lot of us feel like we have to have it right now. Sure, the 2.0 (and how did they miss titling the sequel like that?) is bigger, with more new features than you have any use for, but it also slows down and has holes that should’ve been patched before release.

That was clever, wasn’t it? The unclever version is that writer Justin Theroux, who was not among the four credited screenwriters of the top-notch original installment, stumbles badly in the middle act. It’s hard to believe you’re watching the same movie that started so promisingly (and that will end, inevitably, like a video game, complete with tiresome heavy metal over all the power-punching, rocket-launching violence). In trying to lend more gravitas, more emotional urgency, to a film that’s rolling along just fine, Theroux (who didn’t have this problem when he wrote Tropic Thunder) brings the whole thing to a grinding halt. Jon Favreau, who continues to prove himself a top-notch action director (who knew?) lets the script just lay there on the screen, along with his actors, particularly a mopey Robert Downey Jr. and a slightly shrill Gwyneth Paltrow.

But the rest of the movie delivers. In the opening act, we see that the Iron Man tech that saved Tony Stark’s life in the first film is not entirely perfect, and the playboy hero must again face his own mortality. This is brilliant, because Tony Stark is a stunningly successful, charismatic billionaire living a Playboy Mansion fantasy life—remember the private jet in the first flick, with the flight attendants who turn into go-go dancers—but faced with what amounts to an amped-up health crisis, he becomes relatable. Fantasy figure and relatable Guy With Problems. Perfect combo. So in the middle when a half-assed daddy issue is introduced, perhaps to dovetail with the daddy-motivated Mickey Rourke, the film gets first stupid (from the moment Don Cheadle starts dressing in silver) then boring.

The start is so promising, like they boil down the entire first film and give it to you in concentrated form for forty-five minutes or an hour, and the ending is bigger, faster and feistier (though kind of clinical and uninvolving) than the original’s climax, so that’s some good work. Too bad the middle drags, and some oversized plot holes remain.

The strength of the franchise is Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark (rather than as Iron Man), a fairly complex hero who has a classic sub rosa screwball romance vibe working with Gwyneth Paltrow. The film only needs to give us more of those elements, done properly, and lots of cool Iron Man action. Instead, it layers on a multiplicity of villains (three, if you count the U.S. government’s attempts to commandeer the Iron Man tech), a multiplicity of heroes (Sam Jackson is Lame Exposition Man, Scarlett Johansson’s character is criminally underused), and underdeveloped issues, such as the battle between Stark and the government, or Stark’s tacked-on father issues.

The first Iron Man was shockingly good. It was a promise of the next generation of superhero movies, and since there’s gonna be something like ten of them in the Marvel wave Downey and Favreau kicked off, it was really exciting. This film harkens back to the earlier model of superhero movie: good casting, some great action bits, but enough mediocrity leavened in kill a significant portion of the buzz.


Sidebar: Great Cast, Slightly Misused

Scarlett Johansson is cast as Natasha Romanova, known in the comics as Russian spy-turned-superhero the Black Widow. She’s mostly that here, but she only gets one scene in which to be anything particularly heroic, and the stunts look particularly digitized and unconvincing. I’m pretty sure she’s never even called “Black Widow,” and it’s a shame, because she’s a longtime Marvel character who, in the right hands, is very cool. It was a chance to introduce a female superheroine into the multifranchise Avengers project in a compelling way, and instead she mostly shuffles around in tight skirts and high heels and makes you doubt she’s really the type for high-action espionage.

Johansson is a weird actress. She’s beautiful, of course, but hit-or-miss as a performer. She’s really beholden to the kind of role she takes and the type of director she has. Downey can deliver both star power and depth in virtually any project, and Cheadle is one of Hollywood’s very best actors, no matter how thin the role (and it’s pretty thin here, kids). Mickey Rourke … that guy brings a depth of experience and pain to any role, from his minor but touching turn in Once Upon a Time in Mexico to his Oscar-nominated work in The Wrestler. Johansson, though, is best in quiet, intimate movies with quirky, actor-focused directors—she’s never been better than in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (or Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, for that matter). Underwritten superheroine who spends most of her time being a vaguely sexy secretary? Not the kind of part anyone can make very interesting, and definitely one not suited to her gifts.

Similarly, I don’t know what the original plans for the James Rhodes character was in this sequel, but damn it, once you get Don goddamn Cheadle as a late substitution, you don’t keep it an underdeveloped supporting role. Don Cheadle could play a bicycle and you’d give him the Oscar. Should’ve done more with him.

Mickey Rourke doesn’t get enough to do in this film. Like too many sequels (Spider-Man 3, every Batman movie since the Burton original), the movie overloads on villains. The first Iron Man had the Middle Eastern warlord guy for the first half, and Jeff Bridges for the second, one at a time. Here, we have Sam Rockwell as a corporate weasel badguy and Mickey Rourke as a grimy Russian tech genius to do the actual ass-kicking. The film balances the two wrongly, with Rourke underplayed.

Sam Rockwell? He’s great, doing that corporate weasel thing that Gary Oldman often does (think of the shifty, nebbishy senator in The Contender), but it’s not what the film needed. It’s a variation on the corporate weasel Jeff Bridges played in the first installment, and it’s admirably different, but every minute that Rockwell spends as a bad guy who doesn’t, ultimately, measure up to Downey is another minute we could’ve spent with Rourke, who does.

Downey delivers, and he and Gwyneth Paltrow have a fantastic chemistry on-screen. This film tones down Stark’s lecherous ways (such that possibilities with the Black Widow are lightly teased and quickly abandoned), but plays up his respectful, unrequited crush on Paltrow. Would that the writer had given this even more thought, but what we get of it is mostly stellar.

Comic geek Samuel L. Jackson has a lot more to do this time as Nick Fury, a character expected to be pivotal across the Avengers network of films (Captain America, Thor, the Avengers, Ant Man), but dressing him like the version of the character in Marvel’s “Ultimates” comic (visually based on Jackson from the start) turns out to be a lot—a lot—dorkier in live action than on a comics page, and mostly Jackson is Leaden Exposition Guy. Sigh. This film has a hundred-dollar cast in a fifty-buck script, you know?