Seeing the original Iron Man remains one of my most purely exuberant moviegoing experiences of the last five years. I laughed, I cheered, I applauded at the end, and I still had an imbecilic grin plastered on my face hours later. In fact, I loved watching Iron Man in theaters so much that I intentionally haven't rewatched it in the two years since and have no plans to do so — I'm sure I'd still enjoy it, but I simply don't want to dilute that fond memory by noticing any deficiencies the movie may actually have. I don't have any immediate plans to rewatch Iron Man 2 either. But not for the same reasons.
When I first saw the full Iron Man 2 trailer, which featured multiple villains, Lt. Colonel Rhodes robot-suiting up, Tony Stark flirting with Pepper Potts, Nick Fury setting up the future Avengers movie, and Scarlett Johansson doing something inexplicable, I said to myself, "Holy shit! That looks like a goddamn mess!" And sometimes the trailer is honest: Iron Man 2 is a goddamn mess. A slick, polished, and reasonably entertaining mess to let wash over you with a tub of overbuttered popcorn in a big movie theater, mind you, with a predictably quirky and awesome leading performance from Robert Downey Jr., but still a mess. It's mystifying to me why so many of the same nerds who were enraged by Spider-Man 3 seem ready to die in defense of Iron Man 2, because, news flash (any obese comic book nerds reading this may want to stop here, lest they risk a heart attack), the two movies have damn near the exact same problems.
Of course, I was one of the few people who found Spider-Man 3 sort of fun, so that's not me shitting on Iron Man 2. Not exactly, anyway. But just as Spider-Man 3 fell short of its predecessors, Iron Man 2 isn't nearly as good as the original. It's all over the place, breathlessly trying to tell its own cluttered story while simultaneously shuffling pieces towards the future Avengers flick. To the movie's credit it doesn't pull a Matrix Reloaded or a Dead Man's Chest and end with "to be continued," it's self-contained and can be watched on its own, but in every other respect it's one of the messiest flicks I've seen in years, with nearly every scene seeming to pick up with a completely disparate storyline from the one preceding it.
The trailer actually left out one of the biggest plot threads: Tony Stark is dying, his blood poisoned by the power reactor in his chest. So he hands Stark Industries over to his assistant Pepper Potts and focuses on being Iron Man full-time, but holy shit, because after revealing his identity at the end of the first film the United States government is trying to get him to hand over the Iron Man weapon, an unscrupulous arms manufacturer named Justin Hammer plots to best Tony's designs, a crazy Russian named Ivan Vanko cuts even more to the chase by just planning to build a better suit and kill Tony to death with it, and Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson groom Stark for future opportunities on the superhero team they're putting together. Oh, and Tony feuds with his friend Rhodey. And has some alcohol problems, and copes with daddy issues, and of course has a romantic subplot. Holy overstuffed two hours,
"That's okay," you say to yourself. "It's a summer action flick, I ain't in this for grand storytelling, I'm in this for all the action!" Well, geez, this is awkward — I don't quite know how to tell you this — but there are only three action scenes in Iron Man 2's 124-minute runtime. Three, all of them robot suit-on-robot suit battles. The final one is admittedly a lengthy blow-out, but nothing in these fight scenes really begins to compare in vibrance, energy, or creativity with the train scene in Spider-Man 2, the Batmobile chase in the middle of The Dark Knight, or even Stark's escape from imprisonment in the original Iron Man. Robot suit men just punch and shoot at one another. Fun, sure, but nothing remotely spectacular.
But as I said above the movie is still deftly carried in spite of everything else by Robert Downey Jr. What else is there to say? Dude fuckin' rules. One of the best actors alive. Makes every line entertaining, makes silence captivating, generates chemistry with every other actor onscreen no matter how little they may offer him in return. Tony Stark is a more flamboyant and probably more purely entertaining figure than any other onscreen superhero we've seen, thanks much more to Downey Jr. than to the script, and I hate to even imagine what the movie would be like without him.
The rest of the cast doesn't fare as well outside of the also awesome Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer. Mickey Rourke seems bored as shit as Ivan Vanko, his dialogue agonizingly drawled in a goofball Russian accent, Scarlett Johansson is never good outside of Woody Allen movies, and as sincerely shocking as this is to me, Don Cheadle as Rhodey is a clear downgrade from Terrence Howard in the original film. The critics, confused by the fact that Don Cheadle is usually a wonderful actor, pretended like this wasn't the case, but it is. Howard brought a certain spark to the character; I still remember his reading of the line "Next time, baby" two years later. Don Cheadle just phones it in, dry, flat, and devoid of any personality. Can't remember any of his lines a week later.
So should you check out Iron Man 2? If you wanna see some dumb, pulpy fun with some laughs, some robot fights, and an immensely charming leading performance, sure, go for it. It's vastly inferior to the original (and, for that matter, Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes from a few months back), but harmless enough, and if you see it stay through the end credits, because like the original film there's a secret scene at the end setting up the Avengers. But please, if you're only going to see one superhero movie this season, make it the far superior Kick-Ass.
2 Stars out of 5