"I've successfully privatized world peace," brags our hero, just before throwing up the double peace signs most recognizably attributable to the only President of the United States to resign his seat in disgrace. Iron Man 2 understands a key thing about Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.): Whether it is a defensive mechanism, brought about by the simultaneous deaths of his parents, or just pigheadedness, he is one smug individual. He isn't the only one. Screenwriter Justin Theroux has populated this movie with one smug character after another, until the point is blatantly obvious.
Here is a film, once again directed by Jon Favreau, that operates both as a sequel to its 2008 predecessor, in that it moves further into its own budding franchise and the wider one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and as a comedy about smug people constantly trying to out-smug each other. The bragging rights claimed in the statement that opens this review happen during a Senate hearing in which a smug senator (played by Garry Shandling) demands that Tony hand over the Iron Man suit, which he believes should be designated as a weapon belonging to the American people. Tony disagrees: He and his suit are one. The kicker, of course, is that the suit is also killing him.
The miniaturized arc reactor, fashioned in the first film to redirect shrapnel from his heart, is poisoning his bloodstream at an alarming rate. He needs to find a suitable replacement for the palladium element that charges the reactor, but after nearly every permutation of every element in every combination, nothing seems to be working. Fearing death, he places his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in charge of Stark Industries. The agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., under the purview of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), are putting together a team of super-powered individuals. The process is slow-going (Fury even places an agent named Natalie, played by Scarlett Johansson, in his inner circle), and much of the blame is being laid on Tony's shoulders.
It's a lot to bear, and then you have to add in the intrusion of a couple of villains trying to outwit Tony. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, whose sleepy performance betrays a pretty fascinating character on the page), the son of Tony's father's partner-turned-rival, arrives to exact retribution on his late dad's behalf when Tony, in a fit of misplaced gallantry, decides to race in the Grand Prix in France. This impresses Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), Tony's primary rival in the arms race and a cocky entrepreneur who wants to steal his glory. Hammer hires Vanko to build him a slew of weapons to match Tony's.
This, as expected, leads to a few action sequences, all of them worthy and each of them played with a wink and a chuckle, in particular a disagreement between Tony, who has drunkenly donned his suit at an after-party, and his friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing a foolishly M.I.A. Terrence Howard) and the final showdown with Vanko's robots, in which Hammer's pride in his entrepreneurial weaponry falls flat on its face. It's all a lot of fun, and though Iron Man 2 occasionally bogs itself down in unnecessary hints at what is coming in future installments of its franchise, the sense of mischievous fun is never lost.
Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Scarlett Johansson (Natalia Romanoff/Black Widow), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Sam Rockwell (Justin Hammer), Mickey Rourke (Ivan Vanko/Whiplash), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson), John Slattery (Howard Stark), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Garry Shandling (Senator Stern).
Directed by Jon Favreau and written by Justin Theroux.
Rated PG-13 (intense sci-fi action/violence, language).
Released on May 7, 2010.