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It may sound like it, but to call Iron Man 2 the Matrix Reloaded of superhero movies is not meant to be an insult. Like that highly-anticipated follow-up to the Wachowskis' runaway blockbuster, Jon Favreau's sequel essentially offers more of what at least superficially made the first successful, although rather than dubious philosophy and bullet-time cinematography, Iron Man 2 features a wealth of Robert Downey Jr., a general off-the-cuff sense of humor, and high-tech showdowns between dudes in robot suits.
At the same time, of course, the line is seldom well-defined between fans wanting more of a good thing and getting too much. Interestingly, albeit disappointingly, Favreau's film tests the tensile strength of the threshold between the two, crafting a chockablock actioner that manages to deliver what's asked while still somehow falling short of expectations.
Picking up where the last film left off, Iron Man 2 opens with Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) acknowledging that he is in fact the man behind that metal mask. While the announcement makes Tony a celebrity ten times as recognizable as before, it also exposes him to Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of a Russian inventor who co-created much of the technology upon which the Stark family made its name. Meanwhile, a variety of organizations within the U.S. government, including a mysterious organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D., demand that Tony turn over the Iron Man technology for military use, even as an ambitious but considerably less-talented competitor named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) unscrupulously attempts to secure part of Stark's market share for himself.
Then of course there's Tony's best friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle), who's torn between his loyalty to Tony and his responsibilities as a soldier; Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark's former secretary, whom Tony makes CEO of Stark Industries; Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), a comely personal assistant whose resume is filled with some surprising qualifications; and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a government operative trying to keep Iron Man's career as a superhero on the straight and narrow by offering a few insights about Tony's estranged father.
The most interesting thing about Iron Man 2 is that when it's over, it feels mostly satisfying. Predictably, there's a massive battle that wraps up the story, and it provides suitable closure (if not necessarily cohesiveness) to what came before. But almost everything that leads up to that battle feels as if the filmmakers threw money and talent at each scene, but no ideas of what would go with them: sets look great and scenarios are elegantly conceived, but it's almost as if driving the plot forward was an afterthought to all of the comedy and chummy dialogue. While it's understandable that Favreau and co. would elect to expand the shaggy, improvisational tone of the first film, the end result in its sequel is a goofy, unfocused narrative that technically ties together its disparate story strands but provides no sense of dramatic momentum.
For example, there's a scene halfway through the film in which Tony drunkenly dons the Iron Man suit and proceeds to terrorize guests at his birthday party as Pepper and Rhodey look on in horror. The reasons for the scene are plainly clear – to publicly reveal the inherent dangers of the Iron Man suit, get Rhodey into one of his own, and one supposes, hint at a possible future storyline dealing with Tony's alcoholism. But the way events play out, the scene feels less like a high-tech version of a "drunk with a loaded gun" scenario than a goofy gag that only intermittently suggests genuine purposefulness. Is discovering how Tony relieves himself in the Iron Man suit funny? Sure. But what that has to do with anything else except for this sequel's self-indulgence remains unclear.
That the finale works as well as it does appears to be a testament to the fact that the film was designed with that ending in mind, and the rest was reverse-engineered to lead up to it. But sometimes the movie plays like a travelogue, sometimes like a political debate, and most often like a showcase of Downey, whose comeback after the first one has since achieved legendary (if admittedly deserved) proportions. In all honesty, however, Sherlock Holmes actually plays as a better sequel to Iron Man since like that film, Guy Ritchie's period adventure possesses a wily banter and irresistible bromance chemistry between Downey and his co-star, but keeps its plot on course; this feels like a series of sequences assembled around predetermined sets and strung together by a combination of money, unstructured improvisation, and eleventh-hour script rewrites that occurred on those same sets.
That said, there is still much to enjoy in the film, starting with Rourke and Rockwell as the film's would-be villains. Harnessing the considerable impact of his own intimidating on and off-screen presence, Rourke makes Vanko a chilling, uncompromising adversary for Tony, one quicker with his homemade, electrified whips than Tony is with his tongue. Meanwhile, Rockwell makes Hammer into an ankle-biting wannabe rather than a real competitor for Tony, brimming with desperate cockiness as he tries to seal deals with handshakes stained orange from self-tanner, but the actor gives the role enough gravitas to make him a compelling figure even if he isn't a formidable opponent. Their Faustian bargain is one of the film's most fascinating (and funny) elements, and both actors are gifted and committed enough to expand what could otherwise be a conventional b-story into something more substantive, at least in the context of a movie about guys flying around in robotic suits.
In fact, there's no denying overall that the film contains consistent and engaging performances from all of its cast members, from Downey, Paltrow and Cheadle all of the way through Clark Gregg and Garry Shandling and even Favreau himself. (It deserves to be mentioned that Johansson has probably never looked better in a film, and not just because she kicks the living tar out of anyone who gets in her way.) And the truth is that unlike so many other sequels, this movie never overwhelms its hero with too many villains or other new characters. But it also doesn't quite seem to know what to do with all of them, until it remembers at the end of each scene that it's a movie, rather than something more like its source material, a comic book, where future issues will actually address – much less wrap up - all of the unresolved storylines.
Ultimately, Iron Man 2 can really only be faulted for being okay, rather than really great. No expense or effort was spared in recreating the look, sound, and feel of the first film, and as expected, expanding it to proportions befitting a no-brainer sequel. But given the fact that the original was certainly not perfect, I would have preferred if they did it better than last time, regardless of how much bigger. In which case, Iron Man 2 sustains the pedigree of the franchise and almost undeniably guarantees enjoyment from both core fans and newcomers alike, but it's too bad that in the service of reloading the series, Favreau, Downey and co. didn't change their choice of ammunition, even slightly, since it was pretty obvious they would otherwise stick to the exact same guns.