The first Iron Man was a good film. It revived Robert Downey Jr’s career and showcased a changing in the way the superhero film could be done. The first one was not a battle of good and evil. It was a battle of ideologies and, ultimately, a film about redemption. Tony Stark was not a good man but slowly became one. Does the sequel match the original?
Well, yes and no. It is a good film, but not as good as the first. The first had its philosophies very clearly defined. The second is muddled. It also does not explore new territory. It does retain many of the elements that made the first one so memorable, so I guess I cannot fault the film too much.
The sequel follows the first film pretty directly. Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) has outed himself as the superhero known as Iron Man. He makes all sorts of public appearances in the suit, and openly challenges those who demand he hand it over to the military. A rival businessman named Justin Hammer (the always reliable Sam Rockwell) wishes to steal the technology to gain an enormous contract with the Pentagon. He teams up with Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) who appears to be able to replicate the technology in order to build his own suit. Meanwhile, Stark worries that he is dying and so attempts to reorganize his company, handing reigns over to Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) and hiring Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson). He slowly loses control of himself, as old friends turn on him and Vanko plans a fearsome revenge for what he believes Stark’s father did to his father.
First, the good. This film manages to replicate the chemistry Downey and Paltrow had in the first film. Their word play and conversation feels effortless. It left me wondering how much of the material was simply improvised. Such an item feels natural. Don Cheadle is also a welcome addition. He feels effortlessly integrated into the film. By the end, his characterization simply felt more natural. I know Cheadle is a better actor than Terrance Howard, but usually such cast changes are distracting.
In addition, the philosophy present in the film is still well founded. Whereas the first one was about how the military industrial complex was more industrial than military. This one addresses how the military wants to take some of the role back and the industry may not be the most willing participant in such a bargain. Stark openly flaunts the fact that he has done more for the world than the U.S. military ever has. It invites some debate over the private enterprise versus the public sphere and which is ultimately better for society.
However, even if the film does not fail, it still gains many problems that were not present in the first film. What is bizarre is that they are not the usual problems with sequels. They find something for the character to do and do not merely rehash the first plot (although the third act is, sadly, virtually identical to its predecessor’s). Basically, the film never decides for itself which role IS better for society. Now, it is good to invite the debate. What is not good is when the film tries to play both sides. Hammer is ultimately the real villain here – but unlike Stane, his motives are never clear. From Shane’s point of view, it is possible for Stark to do a lot of damage to him. Hammer never has that. He tries to compete with Stark but goes so far over the top it must be comical. And Ivan does absolutely nothing – I know the trailers made it appear as though he would be a super human with access to amazing technology. Not so – that bit at the race track ends fairly quickly. Mostly he speaks with an incomprehensible accent and tries to rationalize what he does. The main villain is actually Stark himself.
And Tony Stark simply feels unbelievable in this. Yes, he is dying from the very device that is keeping him alive. This plot point is solved when he discovers a new element (seriously). Until then, it never truly feels like he is dying. His personal behavior merely becomes an inconvenience rather than some big dramatic plot point. I know in the comics there is a story in which Stark recovers from alcoholism. That is implied here but never comes to fruition. Stark appears to beat his own non existent problems through sheer force of will – which in this case does not come across as believable. The whole idea just feels half baked. It is only the performance of Downey Jr that makes it work on any level.
Well, overall, it is a sequel. That implies more of the same. I suppose it could have been a lot worse; what works in the first one still manages to work here. What is new is not explained or examined thoroughly enough to work. But it appears that they have much larger things in store for this franchise. Stay after the credits to see what I mean.