Back in 2008, the hot ticket was "The Dark Knight", the wildly anticipated Batman reboot "Batman Begins". And rightfully so. Director Christopher Nolan's reboot of the franchise was a critical and commercial success, and pushed the director, and his star, Christian Bale, immediately into the A-list and in high demand. Now, the sequel was upon us, with an insane amount of hype and mystery surrounding not only the film itself, but the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker.
However, before Batman could reign supreme, there was another comic book film building up mystery and interest. Director Jon Favreau was bringing a screen adaptation of one of Marvel's slightly lesser known heroes (when compared to the iconic Spider-Man, Hulk, and X-Men); Iron Man. The film had no real expectations, people expected it to be moderately successful and just merely OK. But as the interest and anticipation of the film grew, it gained an audience. Robert Downey Jr. had been cast in the lead role, which was genuinely unheard of to cast such a risky actor in the lead of a summer blockbuster tent-pole film.
And then the film came, and boy did it make a splash. Breaking box office records for a non-sequel, the film was an unexpected critical and commercial hit. That was sooooo 2008.
2010 is upon us and we are now seeing the release of "Iron Man 2", the wildly anticipated sequel to 2008's surprise smash hit. In one of the opening scenes of the film, Tony Stark makes a grand entrance to the "Stark Expo" and asks the cheering audience "Oh it's good to be back! Did you miss me", as if asking the film's audience themselves. We sure did Tony. The question is, the film indeed shoots to thrill, but is it as good as the first film? The answer, yes and no.
First, the good. The acting is all around excellent. The film is a bit more of an ensemble piece than the first film, but that's not a bad thing. In some ways, it makes you wish that each character was given more screen-time, but overall, the more important ones are given plenty. Robert Downey Jr., of course, proves why he was so perfectly cast in the first place. What makes Robert Downey Jr. so brilliant in the role is that in some ways, it's a more extreme extension of his own personality, charming, suave, and full of dry wit, but when the going gets tough, so does he. You can really see the pain in his eyes as he realizes that the technology that he needs to keep himself alive is also slowly killing him. But just as well, when duty calls, he's there to kick some serious ass.
However, if there's one actor that threatens to steal the show and own the film all to himself, it's the great Mickey Rourke. Rourke takes a somewhat underwritten yet nonetheless potent role and turns it into something brilliant. Rourke's use of method acting really shows here, as he went to great lengths to avoid phoning it in, which, in the hands of a lesser actor, Whiplash/Ivan Vanko is the kind of role any other actor would have simply done a half-assed job and collected their paycheck. But not Rourke. He famously did research at Russian prisons to get a sense of what the character would be like, and how he would look. From the hundreds of Vory v Zakone (Russian Mafia) tattoos that evoke memories of Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises" to the glasses, to the black hair with white streaks, so his cockatoo, Rourke creates something out of nothing, which is sheer acting brilliance. He's intimidating, hulking, and at once, despite how scary he can be, you feel for him at times. He's not so much a villain as much as a guy simply rebelling against the military industrial complex and going after the biggest perpetrator of them all; the Stark family.
It really is Downey and Rourke that make the film worth the price of admission alone, but the rest of the cast is firing on all cylinders. They simply are just a bit underused and thus don't get to truly shine, but they leave their mark nonetheless. Clearly, Jon Favreau's experience as an actor really makes him an actor's director and promotes really top notch work from his cast, which is especially significant in a comic book film, where all too often talented actors simply phone it in and get paid. Speaking of Favreau, his breezy, fast and loose style of filmmaking returns from the first film, making the film easy to swallow and altogether fun. It can be a bit unfocused feeling at times, but just when the film feels like it's going to stay too far off, it gets back on track.
One way in which the sequel really outclasses it's predecessor is the action sequences, which are directed with far more assurance and boast some truly great visual effects. The Monaco race track sequence evokes some great tension in it's buildup, with Rourke striding confidently onto a high speed race track without batting an eye and just tearing cars apart with his whips. Stark is caught off guard and unprotected, and the tension used as Rourke slowly lumbers toward him, whips crackling with electricity, is so intense that one begins to fear for Stark and fear Whiplash. The suitcase suit itself is just so damn awesome when it finally gets used that it's hard to remember how lame that suit was in the comics. That Favreau and ILM could take something previously lame in the comics and make it badass in the film is just great.
Luckily, the final act of the film doesn't run out of steam and create an anti-climactic finale like the first film somewhat suffered from. The big action finale of "Iron Man 2" is every bit as jaw-dropping as one could hope. By the way, was anyone able to pay attention to Iron Man in the botanical gardens sequence? I didn't think so. I was too busy watching War Machine rip drones apart with his awesome artillery. However, not to be outshone, Iron Man busts out a move that can only be describe by the loud chorus of "HOLY SHIT!" heard throughout the theatre. Even I yelled it out at that point.
For all this talk about the great things of the film, it is in no way perfect. The main issue with the film is Justin Thoreaux's script. At it's best, it's funny and good, at it's worst, an unfocused mess of a screenplay. It's the very definition of a mixed bag. The film kind of struggles to gain solid footing in the first act, and there's a bit too much heavy handed exposition in the second act, but the second act is nonetheless where the film finds its legs and gets back on track. Also, there's a lot of clunky dialogue in the first act in particular, with a number of scenes that try to be cute little moments of comic relief, but evolve into noisy, unfocused scenes of people talking over each other, which takes away from the intended humor because one can't discern what anyone is saying. Lastly, the pacing is all over the place until the major turning point in the second act, which creates for an uneven experience.
Despite it's flaws with the script, "Iron Man 2" remains one hell of a ride, even if it doesn't quite reach the excellence of it's predecessor. It's still much better than most everything out there and is a worthy successor to 2008's smash hit. The performances from Robert Downet Jr. and Mickey Rourke alone make the film worth seeing, and it's still wildly entertaining and fun.