Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:
What would happen to the Iron Man franchise if you took out all the “iron”—the slit-eyed helmet and headlamp breastplate, ruby-red gauntlets and metal mukluks, repulsor rays and boot-jets–and left just the man, billionaire daredevil Tony Stark, armed with nothing more than his wicked goatee, dagger-sharp irony, and impenetrable aura of self-love? (Many superheroes have made do with less.)
The question may seem perverse, but surely I’m not the only person to have asked it. Even the director of the franchise’s two installments to date, Jon Favreau, seems to view the heavy clanking of mechanized men as a bit of a chore: the kind of well-prepared yet unremarkable meat course that must inevitably follow the delightful amuse bouche of Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Stark. The first Iron Man was at its very best in the early going, when pre-heroic arms-dealer/impresario Stark was putting on a show for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. (“Is it better to be feared or respected?” he asked rhetorically. “Is it too much to hope for both?”) The unforeseen denouement of his presentation, however, found Stark captured by militants and stashed away in a mountain cave, where he learned the somewhat equivocal lesson that it’s only okay to create unfathomably destructive weapons if you don’t allow anyone to use them but yourself. Stark doesn’t merely sing of arms and the man: Suited up, he is arms and the man. His campaign to remain unique in this respect (generous interpretation: counter-proliferator; less generous: monopolist) played a subsidiary role in the first film, in which he ultimately pummeled competing cyber-capitalist Jeff Bridges so badly that he turned him into a drunken, down-and-out country singer.
By Iron Man 2, however, the race to build a rival suit of armor is in full swing–like current corporate efforts to manufacture a viable fuel-cell car or another Megan Fox. Sam Rockwell shows up as sleazy Stark wannabe Justin Hammer, out to increase his share of the military cyborg market; Gary Shandling, his head as puffy as a microwaved tater tot, appears as a U.S. Senator eager to subject Iron Man to eminent domain; and Mickey Rourke arrives, fresh from the same tattoo-parlor-cum-Russian-accent-school recently popularized by Viggo Mortensen, with an Eastern promise of his own.
For the most part, director Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux keep the story moving forward, and they have the common decency (far too uncommon these days) to have the credits rolling by the two-hour mark. (This is not, praise God, another Transformers.) There are clear moments of slack, though, as when Stark has to build a cyclotron—sorry, “prismatic accelerator”—in order to synthesize a new element, whose properties were hidden by his father in a model of the 1974 Expo, so that he can replace the palladium battery in his chest that is slowly killing him, and—oh, never mind. At least there’s a cute joke about Captain America’s shield stuck in there somewhere.
The film ends, as it must, with a confrontation among roboticized men (Stark, Vanko, Rhodey) and Hammer’s cybernetic drones (which Stark coyly dubs “Hammeroids”). On the way to a surprisingly limp conclusion, there is much flying and shooting and exploding, and more metal on metal than you’re likely ever to find outside an Anvil concert. And then, of course, there is the de rigeur coda-promo for the planned 2012 Avengers movie, of which we are all likely to have grown tired long before principal photography begins, Joss Whedon or no Joss Whedon. There is a touch of uncertainty injected, however, regarding the extent of Downey’s participation in the super-group mega-movie. When, in a closing scene, Samuel L. Jackson’s Sgt. Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D.—did I fail to mention he shows up, too?—tells Stark that he might not be Avengers material after all, and might instead be retained as a “consultant,” Stark (or is it Downey?) laughs: “You can’t afford me.”
Which, if true, might be just as well. Iron Man 2 is a perfectly diverting action film—particularly following the extreme clunkers of last season—but it’s a reminder that Downey is at his best when given, as he was to a substantial degree last time out, a one-man show. I, for one, will keep my fingers crossed for … Man 3: Tony Stark Unplugged.
Carl Kozlowski at Big Hollywood:
With “Iron Man 2,” Favreau returns with Downey and Paltrow (as his assistant and ever-pining friend Pepper Potts) and Don Cheadle taking Howard’s place as Stark’s best friend, Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes. The villain this time is played by Mickey Rourke in his first role since his Oscar-nominated comeback in ‘The Wrestler.” Here, Rourke’s still sporting a seemingly juiced-up physique, which brings an immediate sense of foreboding to his character, a disgruntled Russian physicist named Ivan Vanko.
Vanko wants to avenge his father, who developed Iron Man’s power source with Tony’s father, but died in squalor and was never credited for his work. However, it’s not long before Rourke’s Vanko becomes an oversized but poorly developed one-note monster.
Vanko’s goal is to invent his own version of Iron Man in order to fight and kill Stark. But when Stark’s defense-contractor competitor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) lures Vanko to work with him on developing a competing weapons-based suit for the Pentagon, Rourke opts instead to create an army of droids. At this point, the plot falls into a rather long and listless stretch in which the audience is left waiting for the film’s admittedly entertaining finale.
“Iron Man 2” amps up the special effects machinery in its key action sequences — including the jaw-dropping showdown between Vanko and Stark on a Monte Carlo race track. And Downey is once again solid, veering from a hilarious televised showdown against a slimy senator played by veteran comic Garry Shandling to effectively conveying Stark’s fear over the fact that the radioactive device that’s keeping him alive is also poisoning him.
Justin Theroux, who wrote this script solo after his co-writing debut with Ben Stiller on “Tropic Thunder,” seems an odd choice for inventing the movie’s plot. The first movie had four writers, yet possessed more of a cohesive feel than Theroux’s often-exhausting mishmash of plot devices and characters (including a new double agent named Black Widow portrayed by Scarlett Johannsen, who alternately has too little or too much to do). Worst of all is that Rourke isn’t given much to do beyond scowling and fighting in a distinctly less compelling way than Bridges’ Stane.
In the end, “Iron Man 2” is good enough. But following the first film, good enough is still a bit disappointing.
Dana Stevens at Slate:
Everything worth watching in Iron Man 2 happens when the characters doff the armor and hang out in their civvies. Though the dialogue (by the actor-turned-screenwriter Justin Theroux) is never as screwball-worthy as that of the first Iron Man, there’s some snappy interplay between Tony and his second-in-command, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), especially after the luscious Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) is hired as an executive assistant. Action-wise, Paltrow isn’t given a lot to do beyond dithering prettily and awaiting rescue, but ScarJo gets the opportunity to demolish a few villains in her Black Widow catsuit. Rockwell has a hilarious scene in which he lovingly demonstrates the uses of a suitcase full of James Bond-esque superweapons. And a mid-movie interlude explores Tony’s descent into drunken self-pity in scenes that can’t help but recall Downey’s own years as a privileged Hollywood wastrel.
The Iron Man franchise should trust Downey more, trust that we want to hang out with Tony Stark as he putters in his absurdly high-tech workshop or nurses a hangover in a giant plaster donut. The first movie got its reputation as the thinking man’s blockbuster for a reason: It relied on Downey’s winning, mercurial presence for its firepower. Succumbing to the temptation (or the industry pressure) to ramp up the clanky special effects for the second outing, Iron Man 2 throws away its most irreplaceable special effect.
Neil Miller at Film School Rejects:
Act two is also saved by charisma. Robert Downey Jr. has charisma oozing from every second of screen time, making even the most full banter engaging. Sam Rockwell is also on top of his game as Justin Hammer, a character that is as eccentric as Stark, and twice as twisted. He begins fun and quickly turns nasty as his rivalry with Stark intensifies. Also well cast is Scarlett Johansson, whose stoic nature is perfect as Natasha. Her usually flat delivery works well, as her character is tasked with blending into the background. And when she finally does get some action, she delivers an unexpected level of physicality that steals an entire sequence. Even as Iron Man is off battling like hell, we can’t take our eyes off of the tightly clad Natasha as she whoops a hallway full of goons. It’s just one example of where this film goes right.
Make no mistake, act three of this film is some of the best action you’re going to see on screen all year. Favreau raises the stakes with some impressive high-flying action. And once again, his restraint and dedication to mixing practical effects with CGI gives the final action set piece a strong base. And for the first time in a movie that tries so hard to put its hero in peril and never quite achieves it, we believe that Iron Man might be over-matched. It’s a final run of adrenaline-fueled explosiveness that makes it all worthwhile. It’s a final act that gives purpose to a bloated middle act and a few extraneous story-elements. It’s also a technically impressive movie. The soundtrack — filled with AC/DC — moves the story along nicely and John Debney’s score puts much of the film (especially the introduction of Vanko) on a grand stage.
In the end, Favreau accomplishes something quite special with Iron Man 2. Avoiding the pratfalls of sequelitis and simultaneously building a bridge for Marvel to cross over to The Avengers. Some of the building blocks of that bridge do feel as if they were forced in there, but Favreau’s ability to tie it all together in the end makes all the difference. When Iron Man 2 doesn’t work, it is still enjoyable. And when it is working — which is more often than not — it works on a level that far exceeds that of the first film. It is an intense ride, full of fun performances, that works hard through its problems to earn the ‘must-see’ tag. But in the end, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of those films that you absolutely must see.
Scott Weinberg at Cinematical:
Downey deserves much of the credit for keeping Iron Man 2 so much fun, even when it’s mired in its frequent chatty bits. The actor’s trademark sardonic charm is, again, in full effect — and while much of the Iron Man 2 praise will go to the effects and action crews, one feels a large sense of gratitude for the casting directors. Mr. Downey would probably be amusing just talking to himself for two hours, but his frequent and fast-paced bicker sessions with Gwyneth Paltrow (as Ms. Potts) are really quite entertaining. It’s tough to get annoyed by a lack of action scenes when the banter frequently reminds you of old-fashioned screwball comedies.
Replacing Jeff Bridges in the head baddie department is Mickey Rourke, who certainly strikes an imposing figure and has no problem conveying a comic-book villain, but is given little to work with aside from an intellect and technological know-how that’s pretty tough to swallow, all things considered. Faring much better as “boss villain” Justin Hammer is Sam Rockwell, who is asked to play sort of a sleazy mirror image of Tony Stark, and has a whole lot of fun doing it. Don Cheadle takes over the Rhodey role from Terrence Howard, and delivers a character who’s both a potential sidekick and an interesting guy in his own right.
Sam Jackson pops up in a few scenes, if only to remind Tony (and the audience) that we’ll one day see a big, crazy flick in which Iron Man, Nick Fury, Captain America, and a bunch of other costumed crusaders team up! One can only hope that Iron Man 2 newcomer Scarlett Johansson stays with the franchise, because she adds a great little touch of playful sexiness to this flick — and of course she gets to kick some serious ass in one crazy scene. Hell, even director Favreau (reprising his role as bodyguard Happy Hogan) throws himself a funny little action scene. Also back: Leslie Bibb (in one funny sequence) as a Vanity Fair reporter, Clark Gregg as a mysterious “S.H.I.E.L.D.” agent, and Paul Bettany as the voice of Stark’s long-suffering computer. Hey, it’s the little touches that the fans appreciate.
Simple answer? Nope, it’s not better than the first flick. But while I didn’t really expect it to be, any film (even one with a “2″ in the title) deserves to be judged on its own merits. As such, I have no problem recommending Iron Man 2 to anyone looking for a (mostly) mindless comic book sequel that comes from a team of filmmakers intent on keeping the fans happy — while trying to avoid doling out the exact same popcorn flick fodder. So while Iron Man 2 doesn’t break any fresh ground (like its predecessor did), it’s still impressive enough for a flick to be called “a worthwhile sequel to a superior film,” and Iron Man 2 is certainly that.
UPDATE: Peter Suderman at Reason