In IRON MAN, there was the inestimable delight in discovering the giddy elan and surprising depth that Robert Downy, Jr. brought to the titular role and his alter ego, Tony Stark. In IRON MAN 2, there is an equal delight in discovering that far from a retread, Downey has discovered even more subtle nuances to the character while still evincing a palpable glee in the part. This is good, because Tony is again coping with father issues, as well as dealing with the dilemma that the very device that is keeping him alive, and powering the Iron Man suit, is slowly but surely killing him.
Iron Man has become an institution since the last installment, capturing the popular imagination while keeping the world safe and conflict-free. No one, it seems, wants to tick off the super hero. No one, that is, except a Senate committee, and in particular its chairman (a superbly slimy Gary Shandling), who has decided that Iron Man technology in private hands, even ones proven to be trustworthy, is not in the countrys best interest. With the government pushing for nationalization of the suit, Starks professional rival, the vastly wealthy and even more vastly unethical, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) jockeying for the government contract to produce his version of the suit for general military applications, and a Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke) out for vengeance for what Starks father did to his father decades ago, Stark himself is running out of options. Throw in a luscious and martially dangerous notary (Scarlett Johanssen) from Stark Industries legal department, loyal assistant Pepper Potts coming to the end of her tether trying to keep things together as her boss takes less and less interest in anything but partying, and loyal pal Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) being forced to choose between friendship and duty, and the plot unfolds with all the right elements for a cracking good tale of good, evil, large egos, small mercies, and the fate of the world. Of course.
While Rourke has a fine sense of dark slavic menace, hooded lids, dangling toothpick and all, he is no match in pure energy for Downey, rendering Whiplash, for all the writhing tendrils of high-voltage death at his command that make him a visually dynamic opponent, no match for Downey in pure charisma. Sure, Whiplash is quirky, devoted to his cockatoo and his deep black humor, but hes just not having a good time. Neither is Hammer, despite being played with impishly low self-esteem by Rockwell. By contrast, there is not a moment when Stark, even in the moments of deepest despair, isnt relishing his very existence, so assured is the performance that he makes a less-is-more approach the logical one for someone who is larger than life in the suit and out of it. Downey, with co-star Jon Favreaus acute direction, can make Starks annoyance with the perpetual-motion machine on Peppers desk palpable, emitting distinct waves of irritation without looking at it directly. His banter with Pepper, the most honest conversations he has despite them being arch and ironic, is pitch perfect, working on levels light and dark, as Downey does throughout the film, a bon vivant man of iron with cracks, literal and metaphorical, in his armor.
There is no stinting on the action, from the suitcase version of the Iron Man suit building itself with quaint cacophony of whirring sounds, to race cars being sliced to ribbons while competing, to the inevitable yet still smashingly well done final face-off between Iron Man and Whiplash that drags most of New York into the clash. The script could have used another edit to make the action as a whole zip along more sharply, but there is no way to avoid surrendering to a film in which the hero builds his own particle accelerator in his basement in a bid to save himself, the planet, and win daddys posthumous approval. It just works.
IRON MAN 2 is big, its bold, and it probably made a killing in the product placement department of both the Oracle name and the Oracle CEO. Never mind. Its a great time at the movies that doesnt insult the intelligence and brings back the mysterious Avengers Initiative run by Samuel L. Jackson, which delivers its own one-two punch to Stark for his own good. With Downey, Jr., Stark is the best sort of hero, flawed, complicated, funny, driven. The kind that makes the journey compelling for more than just the fireworks. NB: Stay through the credits. Theres a payoff worth waiting for.