Iron Man 2 (2010)

Directed by Jon Favreau

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

After watching the first Iron Man movie, I was curious as to how the franchise would deal with Iron Man’s lack of memorable villains. I suppose the Mandarin is relatively well-known, but Yellow Peril stereotypes don’t play well in Asian markets. And most of Iron Man’s remaining opponents are just guys in battle-suits, and at least half of them are Cold War commies. So they’re both interchangeable and out-dated.

The filmmakers behind Iron Man 2 addressed this problem by avoiding it as much as possible. Much of Iron Man 2 has nothing to do with Iron Man fighting Whiplash. Instead, the movie spends time on Tony Stark’s conflict with the U.S. government, or a subplot about Tony’s father issues, or a subplot about Tony’s impending death from palladium poisoning (due to the device in his chest), or a subplot about Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes becoming War Machine, or a subplot about Pepper Potts assuming control of Stark Industries, or a subplot about a rival weapons developer who wants to publicly upstage Tony, or a romantic subplot with Pepper Potts, or the introduction of Black Widow, or a couple of scenes that set-up the upcoming Thor movie, and a few scenes with Nick Fury that set-up the inevitable Avengers movie.

The avoidance strategy actually works well for most of the film. Easily the most enjoyable part of Iron Man is not the action but Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark. Downey-as-Stark can invent a new technology, outwit his business rival, and score a threesome with Swedish supermodels at the same time. In other words, he’s an unapologetic male empowerment fantasy, but without the trite moralizing of characters like Superman. And the best scenes in Iron Man 2 are when Robert Downey, Jr. hams it up as a self-aggrandizing (but lovable) jackass. Whether he’s mocking a congressional committee, or getting drunk while wearing the Iron Man suit, or flirting with Pepper Potts, Tony Stark is an entertaining character even without the superheroics. Unfortunately, Tony doesn’t get to have as much fun this time around. The Rules of Hollywood Trilogies demand that the second movie be darker than the first, so Tony has to spend a sizable portion of the film fretting over his mortality, which gets tiresome very quickly (spoiler: he doesn’t die).

And the film eventually has to get around to the external conflict. This is a summer blockbuster after all, so explosions are mandatory. And to be fair, there are a lot of explosions in the climax, and Mickey Rourke tries his hardest to make Whiplash seem like an intimidating character. But at the end of the day, Iron Man is still slumming it with a villain that shouldn’t keep him occupied for more than 15 minutes. As a comparison, imagine a Batman film where the only villain was KGBeast.

As for whether Iron Man 2 is worth your hard-earned money, it depends on your taste for big, dumb action movies. Iron Man 2 isn’t as good as its predecessor and it lacks a strong villain, but it does everything an action movie is expected to do, and in just over two hours.