The passes for this preview screening were once again supplied by our good friends at b.
It’s hard to believe now, but when Iron Man was released in May 2008, it was anything but a safe bet. You had a b-list Marvel hero in Iron Man, a comic company overseeing and funding a film of their own creation for the first time, a star who while admired for his acting prowess was considered a risk at best, and a director who’s biggest film involved Will Farrell screaming in an elf costume. It was set to fail. And yet once the theater went dark and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark took the screen, his charismatic performance and the well paced, well plotted film both stole our hearts and blew audiences away.
So here we are, 2 years later, 2 years older and with 2 years of additional Marvel film continuity (with 3 more films to come) and Iron Man 2 is taking flight. Building off of the first film’s surprise endings, we’re now seeing how Tony Stark deals with the reality of being Iron Man (ending #1) and the genesis of the Avengers project, which will achieve culmination in a Joss Whedon-helmed adaptation in 2012 (ending #2, which was after the credits, a trick employed here again…so stay in your seats!).
Set six months after the first Shellhead adventure, we’re thrust into the celebration to end all celebrations, as Tony Stark has relaunched the Stark Expo, a sort of world’s fair last put together by his father Howard Stark in 1974. A look towards the future of technology, it’s little more than a coming out party for Tony as Iron Man, who is celebrating his establishment of supposed world peace.
Peaceful, however, is NOT how to describe Tony’s life at this time. The US Government, or more particularly Senator Stern (Gary Shandling at his prickish best), wants him to hand over the Iron Man “weapon”; Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is trying to keep Stark Industries afloat while Tony galavants as a superhero; James “Rhodey” Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle) is being made to testify against Tony in the government trials; and the arc reactor in Tony’s chest, the one thing keeping him alive, is slowly poisoning him. If that wasn’t enough, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of a colleague of Howard Stark is aiming to murder Tony as the villanous Whiplash, and Stark Industries is dealing with a competitor in the weapons game – Hammer Industries – ran by a rather inept, fake tanned counterpart to Tony Stark, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). And if that all wasn’t enough, S.H.I.E.L.D., lead by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), is keeping tabs on Tony to decide if he’s the right man to head the Avengers.
Sound like a lot going on at once? Well, yeah, it really is. But some way, some how, Favreau is able to balance it all. The movie retains the proper amount of human interest in this superheroic tale, keeping you intrigued in the people behind the masks, in the suits or under the eyepatch (depending on the character). The movie drags slightly towards the middle with some strange pacing, but the performances from each actor is enough to keep you enthralled while the water gets a bit choppy.
And oh, how the performances rule! RDJ remains his quippy best as Stark and ads solid gravitas to the scenes where he deals with his own mortality and the memories of his father. The supporting cast steps up as well. Favreau absolutely rules with extended scenes as Happy Hogan, Scarlett Johannson is equal parts sultry siren and bad-ass secret agent as Black Widow, Samuel L. Jackson is absolutely loving being Nick Fury (and it shows), and Don Cheadle does a nice job replacing Terrance Howard as Rhodes. Mad Men’s John Slattery even does some great work as Howard Stark, even though he only appears in archival footage. The absolute peak of the cast, however, is Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer. He literally steals every scene he’s in, and I could watch he and Downey go back and forth arguing for hours. There are some chinks in the armor, however, as Rourke is somewhat of a lame duck villain as Whiplash, and Paltrow doesn’t quite have the same chemistry with Downey as she did in the first.
The true highlight of the film has to be the stunning action sequences. While there are only 3 major set pieces within the film, they are absolutely stunning. The first appearance of Whiplash is a great mix of out of control violence and frantic humor, as Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts get thrown into the mix, and a party time brawl between Tony and Rhodes (in suits) is quite the spectacle…even if the soundtrack to it bothered me slightly. The true highlight is the final battle, mixing Iron Man, War Machine, dozens of drones and Whiplash. With action sequences storyboarded by Samurai Jack’s Genndy Tartakofsky, this is the one which feels the most anime-centric, and is 20 minutes of pure robot on robot violence. Stunning work.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note one point. The film does do some major legwork to setup The Avengers, and while I could see non-fans rolling their eyes at points, the chemistry between Downey and Sam Jackson is fantastic, and I look forward to them bickering on the battlefield.
At the end of the day, you could pick apart the flaws of the film and argue how a tighter edit would improve the film, and yes, the first might be the superior film…but Iron Man 2 is a great continuation of the world created in the first film. Leaving the cinema, I couldn’t wait to watch it again…and if that isn’t a high compliment, I’m not sure what is. Color me ready for a third.