In the opening act of Iron Man 2, our hero is on top of the world -- literally, as he leaps from a plane, rockets around exploding fireworks, and lands on stage at the Stark Expo amidst dancing cheerleaders and a roaring, adoring crowd of thousands. With his characteristic arrogance, Tony Stark takes credit for world peace, both before his fans and the Senate, and the scary part is, he may be right. In his quiet moments alone, though, either backstage or at the bathroom mirror, Stark is still a man divided between his roots and his destiny, and more so than any battle between armored avengers, this is the driving conflict behind the fun, cinematic masterpiece that is Iron Man 2.
Of course, I use the term "masterpiece" loosely. This isn't Hamlet, or Pride & Prejudice or even (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) -- it's a movie based on a comic book about a guy in a cool robot suit, but like the first Iron Man film, Jon Favereau puts some heart in this summer blockbuster . . . by having his lead character take out and put in his own fake heart, over and over again. Apparently, the ARC technology Tony utilized to save his life is now also a techno-cancer, killing him slowly unless he finds an alternative power source. Meanwhile, the son of his father's former, dishonored partner has recreated the ARC tech and aims to dethrone Stark, first on his own then with the resources of competitive corporate tycoon Justin Hammer. It's a multi-layered plot incorporating espionage, legacy, and redemption, not to mention good old fashioned comic book good guys versus bad guys stuff.
However, I dare say the movie drags in the middle, exploiting the subtleties that made the first Iron Man film a truly stirring character piece. Stark's morality is still in question, jeopardized now by his fledgling mortality. Couple that with the omnipresence of S.H.I.E.L.D., an inside joke turned full fledged subplot here, with the Black Widow only so much window dressing until the end . . . like anyone's gonna complain about that. Pepper Potts becomes both an icon of the modern woman and the subject of bipartisan ridicule, and James Rhodes rides the line between confidant and Judas so delicately, he may be the film's only truly uncompromised hero, standing up for absolutely everything he represents. Even Favereau gives himself a bit more screen time, thankfully as well paced comic relief, but since all of these players need their fair share of our attention, the space between explosions threatens to drag.
Fortunately, the explosions are loud and really cool, culminating to an action scene that should please fans of Iron Man's frequent "armor wars" and casual popcorn munchers alike. I was afraid Don Cheadle would look too diminutive in his War Machine armor, and in the shadow of Terrence Howard's understated performance as Rhodey in the first film. In fact, I think Cheadle's doing his best Howard impression until the middle of the film, when the character truly goes out on his own. Mickey Rourke's Russian accent is impressive, too, and his stone-faced Whiplash/Crimson Dynamo foe is one obviously at peace with his tragic lot in life, which is ironically a life of constant war. He's actually a well-centered contrast to Downey's desperate Stark, who we only really root for because we want to be him, flaws and all if it means hanging with those women, wearing that suit. Downey is simply the best casting in comic book movie history. 'Nuff said.
And, Garry Shandling steals the show. His bloated face should win Best Supporting Actor, and I mean that in the best way possible
If this sequel exploiting its original's subtleties, it also totally subdued a few of its predecessor's strengths, namely the international subplot that made Iron Man a hero with global roots. In the first film, Iron Man is born in the Middle East and returns there when he sees terrorism at its worst. This film is very Stark-centric, including the secret to his father's legacy, which is slated to change the future -- for right now, anyway, it's just changing him. We almost need one more film to put it all together -- so, okay, maybe this isn't a masterpiece. It's definitely the brush stroke of some master storytellers -- with a masterpiece in the making.
Ah, but that's the point of these Marvel movies now, isn't it? The Iron Man franchise, the Hulk, Thor, Captain America (all of whom appear ever so briefly one way or another here) -- the if the side-by-side fight with Iron Man and War Machine are any indication, a capable director should be able to handle multiple heroes on the same battlefield, each with their own strengths and talents in play. Tony Stark may be a may divided, but something tells me all of the pieces of his puzzle will come together . . . when the Avengers assemble!