The most memorable superhero sequels usually have memorable villains, and that is where Jon Favreau's Iron Man 2 makes its most critical mistake. The character of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) still puzzles me. Rourke is a physical specimen; Ivan is a supposed Russian physicist, perhaps even a genius. Is Mickey Rourke the first person that comes to mind when you think of an actor that can play a braniac? No offense to Rourke, who does a solid job with the role, but I just do not get where the casting directors or the filmmakers are coming from there.
Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is another juicy prospect, and the actor gives a delicious performance, but I think that if Favreau truly wanted to make a film about character, he would not have introduced a new villain at all. That is, because, the villain is already there, inside of the hero's body. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a man that, as Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) puts it, "runs on batteries." Those batteries happen to be called palladium, and this is a substance that is poisoning Tony to the point where he is about to die. Why is it that Favreau feels the need to introduce two new villains, not to mention the presence of a bitter senator (Garry Shandling), while Tony is already dying? It is the character's job to create a new element to save his own life. Is that not enough?
The screenplay was written by Justin Theroux, who also co-wrote another Downey film, Tropic Thunder. While some may see that as an odd choice, the results make it quite clear. Tropic Thunder was a funny film, and so is Iron Man 2. In fact, the best parts of this sequel are the witty ones, most notably a handful of scenes that provide rich comedic timing between Rockwell and Rourke. And Downey, of course, carries the same quick wit he carried in the slightly-overrated original.
And Favreau doesn't only disappoint in the over-casting of the villains; he does so with supporting characters as well. Don Cheadle (replacing Terrence Howard) plays Lt. Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes, which turns out to be a very thin character. Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson also appear in minor roles that only serve to foreshadow future installments; they do nothing to impact the here and now.
The motivation behind Rourke's Vanko is simple, and it could have been more effective if it wasn't played out in such a routine manner. At the start of the film, we see Ivan's father dying in front of the television as he watches Stark give his "I am Iron Man" speech. Apparently, Ivan's father worked with Howard Stark on a series of early experiments, but was unfairly deported to Russia before he could ever claim any credit for them. It is this desire for revenge that fuels Ivan Vanko, and in a jail cell scene with Downey Jr. - one of the film's highlights - Rourke delivers this information in a feast of a monologue. It is a shame that the actor does not get many more lines.
Downey Jr. gives another good performance as Stark, but this time around, his narcissism is much less enjoyable. He has a ridiculous fight with Pepper that, for some reason, takes the entire two hours to resolve itself, and there is a birthday party scene somewhere near the halfway mark that is the film's low point. Downey has no problem with the witty moments, but it is the more emotional ones that feel fabricated this time around.
One of my main issues with the Iron Man franchise is the idea of this figure as an action hero. I don't necessarily consider Favreau to be a great action director, but I think it is important to take the character's limitations into account. A man in a cast iron suit does not have much agility, and as a result, the fight sequences feel clunky when a lot of movement is called for. Things get even worse when most of the enemies are in robot suits, like they are in this film.
Yet for all of its glaring flaws - and there are many - Iron Man 2 manages to be a mostly entertaining film. The fact remains that, as a summer blockbuster, it delivers in comparison with many of its peers. I think that there is a good film somewhere in there, but I am not sure it was the intended target. When Favreau devotes three minutes of screen time to having his own meaningless character beaten to a pulp, it is really reasonable to assume that he was going for something profound?