all that impressed with 2008's first big-screen adventure of the classic Marvel Comics character Iron Man, but was looking forward somewhat to its just-released sequel due to the cast additions of Mickey Rourke and Scarlett Johansson (Don Cheadle is also new, replacing the reportedly too expensive Terrence Howard).
I was pleased to find Iron Man 2 an improvement in almost every way, most notably in a better screenplay (by Justin Theroux) that takes things more seriously and not as jokingly as I felt the first movie did to its detriment. While Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man is still able to slip in plenty of one-liners and double entendres, his character also has to confront his through-the-roof narcissism, worsening dependence on alcohol, and the increasingly short life expectancy of his super-powered heart.
Cue Rourke as the villainous Ivan Vanko, the vengeful son of a Russian physicist who was discredited and died in squalor thanks to Tony's late father, Howard. The elder Stark is shown in Super 8 flashbacks as a Disney-esque designer planning a "City of the Future" not unlike Epcot (to drive home the allegory, one half of Uncle Walt's songwriting Sherman Brothers wrote the project's theme song, which is played in full over the movie's end credits). With the aid of energized whips that can slice through anything, Vanko first crashes a Monaco auto race in which Tony is driving and later, with the assistance of smarmy weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (a gleeful Sam Rockwell) and an army of destructive drones, the massive Stark Expo that Tony has built largely as a tribute to his dad.
It's a nice, recovery-oriented touch that Vanko wears a helmet that reads "Intervention" as he makes mincemeat of Tony's car during the race. He indeed serves as a rude wake-up call to Tony to start getting his life together. There is some largely unnecessary, heavy-handed dialogue between the two about fathers and legacies scattered throughout the screenplay; these powerful nemeses have enough internal demons to contend with after all.
Rourke is great and seems to be having fun in his big-budget bad guy turn. Also fine is Johansson (who is knockout gorgeous to boot as a personal assistant/secret agent keeping tabs on Stark) as well as his former assistant — and new Stark Industries CEO — Pepper Potts. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper, and was presumably happy to find her character better developed this time around and her interactions with Tony more intelligent. Paltrow is also more beautiful here than she's ever been.
The larger-scale special effects also seem an improvement over the first Iron Man and, while there is no shortage of explosions and mayhem during the sequel's climax, our hero comes across here as less violent and more truly devoted to peace.
While fanboys and kids may be disappointed by the more complex, somewhat cerebral goings-on in Iron Man 2, I have only words of appreciation for the filmmakers. They've achieved what ought to be the hallmark of all sequels: a deepening of the characters and their relationships rather than an audience-pleasing "more of the same."
UPDATE: Iron Man 2 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.