Saying that Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2 is the best big-budget action movie of the year to date isn’t doing it justice, though that’s true. But that’s not shocking, since the competition hasn’t been strong. What might be shocking is that it’s also the best romantic comedy of the year so far. Wild statement? All right, you compare the banter, the interplay, the chemistry and the romance between Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts with any of the year’s other contenders—Amy Adams and Matthew Goode (Leap Year), Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston (The Bounty Hunter), Jennifer Lopez and Alex O’Loughlin (The Back-Up Plan)—and see who wins.
Is Iron Man 2 perfect? No. There’s a structure problem in that the first sections of the film—up through the scenes immediately following the Monaco Grand Prix—move so fast and with such assurance that the middle feels comparatively slow. But the movie recovers from this with a much better third act than Iron Man (2008) got anywhere near. Factor that in with no need for an origins story this round and you have that rarest of the rara avis, a sequel that’s better than the original.
Iron Man 2 manages to navigate some very tricky fine lines. It isn’t pretentious and pompous like certain very serious-minded superhero movies, but it does manage to have a well-crafted more serious side. It’s certainly a pleasure to have a hero who isn’t all angst and gloom, yet the film—and Downey—manages to create issues and currents that lie beneath the surface without turning Tony Stark into a low-rent Hamlet. He has daddy issues, but he keeps them to himself. He acts like an even bigger narcissistic jerk this round, but there are reasons that keep him from becoming unsympathetic. And those reasons—that he’s dying from the poisons entering his blood from the power source that keeps him going—are such that his joie de vivre and lack of self-pity are even more appealing.
Stark’s condition forms only part of the plot. The main nemesis this round is Mickey Rourke as the embittered Ivan Vanko, a heavily tattooed, cockatoo-loving, hygienically dubious fellow with a lot of gold teeth and a chip on his shoulder because he thinks Stark’s father did his own father dirt. To get his revenge, Vanko creates his own variant on Iron Man and goes after Tony. And since Rourke is playing the character, the menace, while amusingly done, is still palpable. Vanko ends up teamed with Stark’s great rival in the munitions game, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). As played by Rockwell, the character is a formidable mixture of clueless spoiled frat boy and the kind of pure meanness this very mind-set can generate. He’s a very unusually fun villain who also manages to be disturbingly sinister.
Also involved is Stark’s new assistant, Natalie (Scarlett Johansson), who Pepper not only views with a degree of jealousy, but as a “sexual harassment suit waiting to happen” thanks to Stark’s unabashed lechery. Johansson is quite good in the role, but her presence is fairly minimal (there are other reasons for her being on board). We also have a troublesome senator (Garry Shandling looking like a monument to Botox), who wants the government to take over the Iron Man technology, and—since we’re setting up a related franchise—Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. And there’s Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard as Stark’s friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes. With no disrespect to Terrence Howard, Cheadle has much better chemistry with Downey.
When you get down to it—and away from all the effects and action sequences, which tend to be coherent, well-done and exciting—what makes Iron Man 2 such a good time at the movies and such a good film in its own right comes down to the chemistry of all the players. That really is the kicker, since all these actors work wonderfully well with each other. They all feel right sharing the screen in a way that just can’t be faked. In that respect, there’s a little magic—or at least the best casting imaginable—at work here. And yes, in case you’re wondering, there is something at the end of the credits. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language.