Iron Man 2 * * * 1/2

Genre: Action

Director:  Jon Favreau

Writer: Justin Theroux

Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson

Running Length: 124 minutes

Synopsis: Set 6 months after the incidents that unfolded in the first Iron Man, the world now knows that billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is the seemingly invincible Iron Man. However, beneath that brash exterior, Stark is beginning to crack from the strain of being Iron Man, and the technology that is keeping him alive is also slowly poisoning him. Meanwhile, a deranged Russian man, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is plotting to annihilate Stark, and with access to similar technology, has become a super-villain named Whiplash. Stark has to figure out how to overcome the restrictions of his suit, rescue his relationships with girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and best friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard), and survive Whiplash’s vicious onslaught…

Review:  What a great way to kick off the summer blockbuster season! If we look back to 2008 when the first Iron Man was released, Robert Downey Jr was a middling star, Iron Man was a minor Marvel property that nobody really cared about,  and Jon Favreau was known more as an actor than a director (Elf, anyone?). However, Iron Man became a stellar box office performer and garnered praise across the board, and as a result all eyes are now on Iron Man 2 to repeat this feat. Has it managed to do so? On most counts, I would have to say yes it did.

Superhero movies aren’t exactly known to have strong plots, but even then Iron Man 2’s plot does tend to feel very thin at times. It doesn’t help that the sequel is also a little lazier, depending on prior knowledge of the first movie to fill in some of the narrative gaps. Having gotten that out of the way, the rest of Iron Man 2 is supremely entertaining, and shows exactly how a successful blockbuster is created – an extremely charismatic lead, a bunch of reasonably decent supporting performances, good action set pieces that don’t take up the bulk of the film’s running time, and a generous peppering of humour to make everything go down that much easier.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Robert Downey Jr is largely responsible for making this film a success – his performance is so compelling, charismatic and eminently likeable that one can’t help but root for him, warts and all. In fact, Favreau is so aware of his lead actor’s charisma that he practically keeps Downey Jr out of the metal suit for the entire movie, save for a few action sequences. The same goes for Don Cheadle, who is a more than capable replacement for Terrence Howard but unfortunately really isn’t given that much to do.

On the villain front, Mickey Rourke is silently menacing in his few scenes, whereas Sam Rockwell is the exact opposite, actively chewing the scenery in every scene as millionaire weapons dealer Justin Hammer, and almost steals the show with his over the top performance.

And then there are the femme fatales – Gwyneth Paltrow once again feels underdeveloped as Stark’s love interest (as does the entire romance subplot), but Scarlett Johansson scores a home run with her portrayal of Natalie Rushman aka the Black Widow in the Marvel universe. She gets a scene where she literally kicks ass, and it would be interesting to see if she would get an expanded role in the upcoming Marvel universe films, which could include Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, Nick Fury and of course the inevitable Iron Man 3. Many of these are subtly referenced in the film (as well as in a short post-end credits sequence), but these little winks and nudges could prove to be confusing and alienating to audiences not acquainted with the Marvel universe, especially since many of these characters aren’t as popular or well-known as those in X-Men or Spiderman.

Iron Man 2 also has a couple of well-choreographed action sequences, in particular the scene at the Monaco Grand Prix, but the finale feels slightly underwhelming as it’s simply a bunch of tin men battling it out with guns blazing. It doesn’t confuse, unlike the terrible action sequences in the Transformers franchise, but it’s not particularly exciting either. Having said the, the CG work in Iron Man 2 is top notch, and there’s very little that can be nitpicked.

There’s a potential for Iron Man 2 to be quite a dark movie, with Stark’s gradual poisoning from the suit and his nihilistic behaviour, but Favreau tries as much as possible to keep it light, injecting a fair amount of humour into the film. There were times where I wished that Favreau would have taken the risk and gone a little more Dark Knight on his take of Iron Man, but two brooding superheroes probably won’t make good business sense. Not that there’s much wrong with the path he’s chosen for his franchise, since Iron Man 2 is almost assuredly a box office hit and will spawn one more sequel at the very least. And unlike most franchises, I am actually quite eager to see what else can be pulled out of Favreau’s bag of tricks in the third installment.

Rating:  * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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