The best thing I can say about Iron Man 2 is also the worst thing I can say about it: it’s a sequel. Kids will probably like it fine; there’s plenty of action and it’s easy to follow. But big-league comic-book movies want to appeal to adults as well as kids these days, and it’s not easy to serve both constituencies.
There’s also no reason a sequel can’t be good. The Godfather Part II and Toy Story 2 remain the pinnacle of such achievements—the exceptions to the rule. In the comic-book movie realm, X2 built upon the success of X-Men, and Spider-Man 2 improved upon—
—the original in so many ways that it made the disappointment of Spider-Man 3 all the more profound.
A big factor in Iron Man’s success was bringing a fresh face to the world of superheroes: not only the unusual character of Tony Stark—a celebrity billionaire who makes money manufacturing high-tech weapons—but the offbeat choice of Robert Downey, Jr. to play him. The actor’s restless energy and self-deprecating sense of humor gave the movie a unique vibe, along with that great high-tech suit.
Given that, the sequel has several strikes against it right from the start: we’ve seen Downey play this guy before. What’s more, Iron Man’s identity is no longer a secret, so the always-intriguing plot device of an ordinary man with a superhero alter ego is gone.
To make up for those debits, a sequel needs a great screenplay, and that’s just what Iron Man 2 lacks. (The first film’s writing team was supplanted by Justin Theroux, an actor-turned-writer whose principal credit to date is Tropic Thunder, which he shared with Ben Stiller.) Oh, there are plenty of new characters, played by an array of fine actors including Mickey Rourke (as a Russian bad guy), Scarlett Johansson (as a sexy Stark aide), Sam Rockwell (as an oily rival to Tony Stark), and Samuel L. Jackson as Marvel character Nick Fury. The estimable Don Cheadle steps into Terrence Howard’s shoes as Lt. Col. “Rhodey” Rhodes, while the film’s director, Jon Favreau, again gives himself an amusing supporting role.
The combined appeal of these actors gives Iron Man 2 most of its entertainment value. But the story is just so-so, an excuse for a series of action scenes that lack credibility and the emotional connection that makes a superhero movie soar.
One of my complaints about the first Iron Man was that it wasted Gwyneth Paltrow in a clichéd role as the hero’s Girl Friday who harbors a secret crush on him. This time around the filmmakers go to the opposite extreme, creating a love story that seems utterly fabricated, though it’s not the actors’ fault.
Iron Man 2 is not a bad movie; far from it. But it is an example of Hollywood “product,” made to satisfy a commercial demand and a release-date deadline, as opposed to a movie born out of passion to tell a good story.