5. Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 is an interesting sequel, one where I absolutely adore each individual component but find the film as a whole less than the sum of its parts. Returning director Jon Favreau brought a lot of tremendous ideas to the table this time around, expanding the Iron Man mythos, introducing intriguing new characters, and diving deeper into Tony Stark’s complex psychology, but the film lacks a sense of cohesive identity.
The film is awkwardly paced, evenly divided for the first two acts between Tony’s personal crisis and Justin Hammer’s power bid, and though each individual moment is entertaining, the disjointed, back-and-forth storytelling grows frustrating.
But if these problems are enough to place Iron Man 2 near the bottom of the list, they are not enough to prevent me from enjoying the film greatly. At the very least, Iron Man 2 makes full use of the ingenious set-up provided by its predecessor, exploring in depth what might happen to a superhero if their inflated ego drove them to publicly divulge their secret identity. Not only does that give Iron Man 2 a very different flavor than the original – or most comic-book films, for that matter – but it pushes Tony towards a fascinating journey of self-discovery.
Iron Man certainly had its fair share of introspection, as Tony decided to abandon his life of greed for a more selfless existence, but Iron Man 2 pushes further in that direction, forcing Tony to confront his demons and iron out some personality defects along the way. This allows Robert Downey Jr. to continue fleshing out his iconic performance, adding layers of well observed nuance to his entertaining, magnetic persona.
Favreau continues to make excellent use of Gwyneth Paltrow, further cementing Pepper Potts’ reputation as the best cinematic superhero love interest. Her chemistry with Downey Jr. is off the charts, and the film finds an organic path to unite them romantically. Don Cheadle, meanwhile, takes over for Terrence Howard as Colonel James Rhodes, and proves a more-than-suitable replacement. Rhodes gets some very interesting material to play as his friendship with Tony disintegrates, and Cheadle is excellent every step of the way.
But it’s Sam Rockwell who arguably steals the show as Justin Hammer, taking a part that could have easily been the movie’s downfall and instead turning it into one of the more unique, compelling antagonists in recent memory. Hammer is not a physical threat to Tony – nor, in all honesty, an intellectual one – but he’s just inept and petty enough to unleash a truly dangerous force in Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash, and I find that dynamic both funny and intriguing. A lot of viewers were thrown off by Whiplash’s relative unimportance in the film’s overall arc, but he’s really just a pawn, and I like how Favreau uses Hammer’s odd presence to shake up the superhero formula.
And one cannot forget Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, introduced in a small part here before teaming up with The Avengers. Johansson is probably my personal favorite part of Iron Man 2; she’s unexpectedly fantastic in the role, has a very amusing antagonistic chemistry with Downey Jr., and Favreau choreographs her fighting style spectacularly. I remember seeing her big, climactic smack-down scene in a crowded theatre on opening night; once it started, you could hear a pin drop, and when it was over, the crowd’s response was so deafening that I missed a few key lines.
Iron Man 2 is, again, less than the sum of its parts, but I really enjoy the film on the whole, and inevitably revisit it whenever I watch the original Iron Man. Not Marvel’s best film, but a very solid sequel.
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