Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Look at it this way: sequels are seldom expected to surpass their predecessors. The Empire Strikes Back, Spider-Man 2, Terminator 2 and even Toy Story 2 are exceptions to the norm.
So Iron Man 2 doesn’t quite match the horizon-broadening fun factor of the somewhat surprising mega-hit original – so what?
As a bridge to Iron Man 3, which leading man Robert Downey Jr is adamant will happen (echoing the view of most casual observers), this is a pretty decent effort from returning director Jon Favreau.
It picks up the story as billionaire playboy industrialist Tony Stark (Downey Jr) reveals to the world that he is, indeed, the metal-suited superhero known as Iron Man.
An eminent, and grimy, Russian physicist whose scientist father had been discredited by Stark’s inventor father, despite his contributions to the technological breakthrough that is the Arc Reactor – Iron Man’s power source – observers and plots his revenge.
Enter a post-Oscar-nomination Mickey Rourke, who plays the villain Vanko with smarmy aplomb, and manages to steal many a scene with his volatile presence. Rourke is the best thing in Iron Man 2, even though he says little, and when he does speak, he prefers to speak in untranslated Russian.
The main story arc for this film is Stark’s realisation that his power source, the device that is keeping him alive, is gradually killing him. His mortality forces him to reconsider his legacy, and his relationship with his distant father when he was alive.
Frustrated at his inability to develop a solution, and pressured by the government to hand over his Iron Man technology, he embarks on an embarrassing and dangerous self-destructive path, causing concern to and requiring intervention from his assistant Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his friend in the military, Rhodes (Don Cheadle).
Meanwhile, Vanko is enlisted by a jealous, nebbish weapons-maker named Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who gives him the resources to develop an army of drones capable of wreaking mayhem and possibly destroying Iron Man.
Visually, this film still contains many eye-popping moments, including Vanko’s memorable entrance – specially engineered electrified whips in both hands – as he interrupts a Grand Prix to attack Stark.
The special effects and sound design also impress during the many scenes where Iron Man and War Machine, another Stark-invented power suit that Rhodes dons after a bust-up with Stark, fly and fight.
With multiple characters being added to the mix, as well as having several antagonists instead of just one, the film seems to lack focus, and gets pulled in several different directions, not all interesting.
Stark’s flirtations with Pepper devolve into chatter-filled arguments that serve little purpose other than to distract and annoy, while Samuel L Jackson returns, after his cameo in the first film, as Nick Fury, the leader of a covert organisation known as SHIELD.
Much attention may centre on Scarlett Johansson’s transformation into a purported action star and introduction to this franchise, as the mysterious Stark employee from ‘legal’ who assists Pepper when Stark names her CEO.
She is, frankly, a colossal disappointment. Her performance is more dour than enigmatic, and she is forgettable despite having a few scenes to show off her butt-kicking chops. And no, she does not exude even an ounce of sex appeal here.
In fact, one could say that ‘sexiness’ is sorely lacking in the film on the whole. We’ve seen the Iron Man suits in action before – fans may ask: what’s more?
Downey Jr, as Stark, still possesses rugged charm, but Cheadle – in a role Terrence Howard originated – is somewhat insipid. However, comedian Garry Shandling, as a confrontational senator at odds with Stark, is a spit-in-your-eye delight.
The film, ultimately, belongs to Rourke. His motivations are easy to understand, his brilliance is convenient, but most of all, he looks and feels like a comic-book villain. When the bad guy’s more interesting than your hero, you know something’s not quite right.
But entering popcorn blockbuster season, this is a sequel that does the job, albeit serviceably.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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