Donning the red and gold plated i-armour of Marvel’s most recognisable hero for a second time, Robert Downey Jr delivers another unstoppably likeable performance as the whip-smart Tony Stark; unfortunately, all the movie star charisma in the world can’t liven up this lightweight sequel that’s perhaps guilty of having too much fun.
The first Iron Man film was a breath of fresh air, introducing the wider world to a snarky underdog hero who not only refused to agonise over his super-gifts, but actively got a kick out of showing them off. And while Iron Man 2 is another breezy, high-octane affair, director Jon Favreau often neglects the opportunity to raise the stakes, focusing more on gyrating cheerleaders than inner turmoil.
The story picks up six months after the events of the first film and finds Tony Stark seemingly having the time of his life as America’s first openly super-powered protector. But behind the steely visage, the restless inventor is starting to crack from the strain of resisting attempts to nap his technology as the arc reactor in his chest starts to slowly pollute his bloodstream.
Meanwhile, deranged Russian scientist Ivan Vanko (Micky Rourke) has recreated a primitive version of the Iron Man technology and used it to build weapons perfectly suited to annihilating the Stark legacy – a vendetta with which Tony’s business rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is only to happy to assist.
A classic tale of revenge, there’s plenty of scope for drama here. With his suit gradually damaging his health, Stark is recklessly alienating himself from those he loves most; Rhodey is contemplating betraying his close friend by turning over the Iron Man suit to his Military superiors; and Vanko is relentless in his desire to avenge a perceived injustice against his father. Yet Favreau all too often eschews exploring these darker avenues in favour of padding the plot with cheap gags and half-baked skits that rarely come with a satisfying pay-off.
There’s nothing wrong with having fun, of course – especially in a movie about a playboy millionaire flying around in a magic tin can – but not when it comes at the expense of building tension.
It doesn’t help that the two villains who are ostensibly expected to challenge Stark’s perfect world are spectacularly dull. Rourke tries to eke every drop of villainy from his character, but, aside from a menacing introduction, whereby he slices a path towards a helpless Stark using twirling whips that crackle with electricity, Vanko doesn’t present much of a threat, bizarrely spending the second act trapped in a lab talking to his pet cockatoo.
Likewise, Rockwell’s Hammer, whilst pleasingly eccentric as a fast-talking Stark wannabe, is simply too goofy to appear as a formidable opponent and his hair-brained scheme to usurp Stark as America’s foremost tech-mogul is muddled and lacks a clear motivation.
It’s a similar story for the film’s supporting cast too, with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Scarlett Johansson’s enigmatic assistant Natasha Rushman frustratingly sidelined while the boys have most of the fun. This is especially grating when viewed alongside the film’s tendency towards misogynistic punchlines – Paltrow and Johansson serve primarily as objects to be either ogled or patronised, and both actresses have talents deserving of so much more.
All of this would be forgivable, however, if the action was entertaining in the slightest. The set-pieces are as slick and well-choreographed as you’d expect of a big budget blockbuster, but Favreau fails to significantly up the ante from the heavy metal thrills of the first film. The climax is a particular disappointment, playing out like a pound-for-pound rehash of the last film’s showdown, which essentially amounts to two featureless lumps of metal pummeling each other until one of them falls over.
Though it proved to be a yet another triumph for the studio, going on to score a healthy box office return, Iron Man 2 is far from Marvel’s best work. Trivial, unimaginative and lacking in intent, the film just about gets by on the back of Downey Jr’s considerable bonhomie, but it also serves as an important warning shot to Marvel about the dangers of complacency.
Iron Man 2 will be shown on 4Seven tonight at 9pm