In 2005, after years of watching other film studios make millions with their characters, Marvel Studios decided to do something about it by self-financing and producing their own films. They began in 2008 with the absolutely terrific and exciting film "Iron Man" directed by Jon Favreau. In a stroke of brilliance the director cast often-troubled actor Robert Downey Jr. as often-troubled billionaire Tony Stark. The result was a reinvention of Downey's career, the invigoration of Marvel Studios and possibly one of the best super-hero movies ever made. Two years later the studio returns, with a longer, bigger and louder version that unfortunately is not better than the first but is still a fun, thrill-packed, summer blockbuster that features great characters and terrific acting from the cast. Downey and Paltrow are excellent again in their roles as Stark and his "girl-Friday" Pepper Potts. But it is the film's villains, Ivan Vanko/Whiplash played by Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke in a raw and powerful performance, and the always excellent Sam Rockwell as the hilariously evil Justin Hammer, a contemporary and rival to Tony Stark, that makes the movie special.
One of the fantastic and revolutionary things that the first film did was to begin to set up the "Marvel Film World." In a scene that takes place at the end of the first movie after the credits, Tony Stark meets S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury played by Samuel L. Jackson, who begins to talk to Stark about an organization called the Avengers. Later that summer, Downey reprised his role as Stark with a brief cameo in "The Incredible Hulk," beginning to create the "Marvel Film Universe" where all these heroes exist. As any fan of Marvel comics knows, the Avengers is the name of the super-hero team that homes the "Earth's mightiest heroes" and includes members like Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, the Hulk and it's leader, Captain America. The addition of Fury in the first film was a stroke of genius, and Jackson returns as the cool super-spy once again, this time with fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natalia Romanova/Black Widow played by Scarlett Johansson. Johansson injects a degree of sexiness in to the film and she is a good fit with the dynamic between Downey and Paltrow. Fans looking for lots of Marvel Easter Eggs will not be disappointed and should keep a special eye peeled for the return of a certain heroes' weapon that also made a cameo in the first film.
The film picks up six months after the events of the first movie, which ended with Tony Stark telling the world that he is in fact, Iron Man. Stark is living his life to the fullest, both as Iron Man and as the CEO of Stark enterprises, which is about to launch the Stark Expo, a "World's Fair" type exhibition that was a pet-project of his father's. As always, Tony loves the spotlight and being Iron Man has given him an extra dose of celebrity that he is indulging in. Meanwhile, we are introduced to Ivan Vanko, brilliantly played by Mickey Rourke. Vanko is the son of Anton Vanko, a Russian sciencetist who helped Howard Stark invent some of the technology that Tony based the Iron Man suit on. Vanko believes that the elder Stark, who had him banished to Siberia where Ivan has grown up, betrayed him. The younger Vanko swears revenge on Tony and uses his father's old plans to build him a suit equipped with electric whips, making him Whip Lash.
The U.S. Government is upset that one man has as much power as Stark does and subpoenas the millionaire to a hearing to debate whether he should relinquish the Iron Man suit to the government or not. In a very funny scene, comedian Garry Shandling plays the Senator out to get Stark. After Stark refuses to agree to the government's demands, he soon realizes that he is sick. The piece of hardware that he invented, which powers the Iron Man suit and keeps the shrapnel from destroying his heart is corroding it and if he doesn't stop wearing the suit ... he could die. Also causing problems for Tony is Justin Hammer, portrayed with a wonderful and hilarious playfulness by Sam Rockwell. Hammer is a "poor man's" Tony Stark, not quite as rich and not quite as smart as Stark. Hammer also desperately wants the Iron Man technology so he can sell it to the government and finally get the best of Tony.
Tony's feelings for his assistant Pepper Potts are growing and while he is keeping his sickness a secret he does decide to step down as CEO of Stark Industries and puts her in charge. Pepper hires a new assistant, Natalia Romanova, beautifully played by Scarlett Johansson. With his sickness getting worse and all the pressure from the government, Tony's ego begins to get out of control. Tony decides to drive his own car in an auto race and is nearly killed when Whip Lash appears. In what is another very cool scene, Happy Hogan (Tony's chauffeur played by Favreau) and Pepper drive on to the racetrack in a limousine and throw Tony a red and gold metal case that turns into the Iron Man suit. After defeating Whip Lash he is imprisoned and Stark return's home. Now completely out of control and no longer listening to the pleas from him loved ones that being Iron Man is too dangerous, Tony begins to hit the bottle.
He throws a party and shows up as Iron Man. Fed up with his behavior; Tony's best friend Lt. Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle who replaces actor Terrence Howard from the first film) takes one of Tony's extra suits to stop a drunk and out of control Stark. Dubbed "War Machine" by Tony, the two have a great all-out fight that pretty much destroys Tony's home. Now all alone in the world and depressed about his future Tony is once again visited by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury. Fury reveals that Potts' assistant Natalia is actually an undercover agent named Black Widow who has been keeping an eye on Tony. Fury also reveals secrets about Stark's father that could lead to a cure for his disease. However, unbeknownst to anyone, Hammer has broken Vanko out of prison and the two are working together to make a line of iron soldiers to unveil to the government at the Stark Expo, except Vanko may have other plans for the drones. After Rhodey left Tony's he brought the War Machine armor to the government and they hired Hammer to add some heavier artillery to the suit, which will also be revealed at the Expo. Now Tony must delve into his father's secrets and cure himself if he has a chance of stopping Vanko and Hammer, saving his loved ones like Pepper, Happy and Rhodey, and saving the world.
While I don't want to give too much away about the end, fans that have been clamoring to see Iron Man and War Machine fight together, as well as each other, will not be disappointed. All of the acting in the film is superb and I especially liked the relationship between Pepper and Tony. Paltrow, who was very good in the first film had more room to grow in this one and it shows. Downey, who was practically born to play this role, also excels in this latest chapter. Don Cheadle who is new to the franchise fits right in and looks great in the silver armor. But it is the film's villains that really steal the show. Rourke is ridiculously good in this role and I loved the elements of his own personality that he injected into the role making it his own. Also fantastic is Sam Rockwell who balanced the right levels of humor, self-deprecation and dishonesty for the role. Johansson gives a strong performance and is a pleasant addition to the cast while Jackson is great again as Fury, even if I would have like to seen more use of the character. In a nice bit of perfect casting, actor John Slattery (TV's "Mad Men") appears as a "Mad Men" era Howard Stark in old film footage that Tony watches. I also found it unintentionally funny that the elder Stark was portrayed like Walt Disney, walking around his office and talking directly to the camera about the "world of tomorrow."
Actor turned writer Justin Theroux turns in a good script that may have just suffered a bit from trying to bite off more than they could chew by cramming so much story into one film. As a long time comics fan I love all the Easter Eggs and connective tissue to the other films but it can't be served at the risk of the initial story and I do feel like things got messy near the middle, however recovered nicely by the end. What made "Iron Man" so great was that it felt like a tight, fun and fast paced film, where the sequel doesn't feel quite as perfect. One of the most famous storylines that the character ever had in the comics was called "Demon in a Bottle." While this film is not a direct adaptation of that story you can certainly see how they tried to integrate it in to this story. As much as I'm glad to see the alcohol element injected into the film, it seems a bit too forced and doesn't quite fit with the rest of the movie.
As much as I liked everything that the filmmakers tried to do, I just feel like they may have tried to cram in too much and could have saved a few elements for future installments. If you lifted a plot line or two, I think the film would have been a tighter and more enjoyable film like it's predecessor. However, that being said, as far as summer super-hero films and certainly sequels go, this was pretty close to the mark and still makes for a satisfying two hours. The characters are undeniably interesting and all the actors are at the top of their game. I give credit to Favreau for even attempting to orchestrate such a complicated film and he succeeds pretty well. In the end, while it might not be quite as perfect a film pound for pound as the first one was, it is still definitely an action packed, fun and exciting thrill-ride that you will not want to miss this summer.
Iron Man 2 is out April 28, 2010.