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The first Iron Man was a breath of fresh air when it came out in 2008. That was the year The Dark Knight showed audiences how morosely ambitious a comic book story could be, as well as arriving after the more serious tales of humanity X-Men and Spider-Man, amongst others, had. Sure there were the couple blips on the radar called Fantastic Four, but those were merely campy and pulpy because the story wasn’t strong enough to be anything else. It was the risk-taking on behalf of Marvel to give such a huge tentpole film to an unproven, small-scale indie darling like Jon Favreau and the loose cannon, yet perfect choice for the titular hero, Robert Downey Jr. that bridged the gap, creating an amalgam of everything one loves about comics. The humor was there, the technology we could only dream of was literally at the characters’ fingertips, and the moral quandaries of war, peace, and everything in the gray area between were delved into rather than left to suffer behind easier, clichéd superhero tropes. Iron Man’s tone was just what theatergoers needed, that cocktail able to reach the masses and entertain all.

But, like all successful first installments to inevitable franchises, the sequel wore its burdens around its neck during development. Iron Man 2 was ready to unleash what the Tony Stark fanboys everywhere remembered reading about. Here was a hero unafraid to throw caution to the wind and tell the world who he really was. A perpetual party boy who plays hard and even harder after that, this film was to be the one beginning to show the toll pressures of being a self-made deity could bring. In order to make those hardships even direr, a villain worthy of shaking Stark from his funk was necessary to keep interest. Like so many before it, the filmmakers not only recruited Mickey Rourke to portray Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, a very intriguing opponent that can cause some real damage, but also brought in Sam Rockwell as arch nemesis on the research and development front Justin Hammer, as well as new partners for the side of good including Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and an extensively longer cameo by patched super-spy Nick Fury, letting Sam Jackson earn his keep after signing that massive nine picture deal to come in and out of all Avengers-centric origin tales. Could it be too much too soon? I was certainly leaning that way after trailers debuted and early buzz disappointed.

Then I heard quotes on behalf of Favreau and company talking how the film was for fans of the comic, ushering the viewership into the darkness at the center of Stark’s self-destruction. Still a vehicle for merchandising and as family-oriented a film as a PG-13 movie can be, using alcoholism to bring the role to his knees would have been great for fans of dramatic gravitas, but perhaps chance alienating a large portion of the audience intended to make it a huge blockbuster. I’m okay with that, though. If I want to watch society in its disgustingly amoral authenticity, I’ll check out Chris Nolan’s work with Bruce Wayne. Marvel instead keeps the themes intact while making the descent more accessible for a wider range of ages, getting Stark addicted to an antioxidant drink of sorts, a potion necessary to slow the poisoning of his blood at the hands of his palladium-powered heart. The one thing keeping him alive is also that which is killing him ever so slowly and painfully. So, the prospect of Iron Man 2 isn’t so much in defeating Whiplash, but using his existence as a catalyst to wake up and realize the true consequences of his actions. If unable to find an alternate power source, not only will he cease to be, but the peace created on behalf of fearing him would too. Without Iron Man holding court, every country creating its own technology grabs for power, destroying the world.

In those regards, I felt the story to be adequate. Does it actually go anywhere? No, at least nowhere besides the result of a brief evolution in Stark’s ego and self-worth anyway. Having the expository origin tale wrapped up in its predecessor, I hoped for a bit more in terms of story progression. Instead we are given what, for all intents and purposes, feels like a bridge to whatever is coming next, whether that be Iron Man 3 or The Avengers, I’m not sure. Stark needs to grow into the responsibilities of his new occupation as keeper of World Peace—he doesn’t quite get there by the time the end credits roll. With that said, though, don’t think this film is just a bunch of wild special effects and overkill action scenes. It is all those things, yes, but it orchestrates them deftly into a strong piece of cinematic entertainment. Seeing those holographic computer screens floating in mid-air and totally interactive with human touch will never grow old and the fight choreography is pretty impressive to experience. Favreau and company realizes that one of this franchise’s strongest points lies in the charismatically narcissistic Downey Jr. at the center. We enjoy catching Iron Man kicking butt, yet it’s the snide retorts and one-liners of the man inside we truly love. So, even when engaged in a huge fight, we are always shown his face exposed during down times or engaged inside the helmet with superimposed computer graphics working hard.

The thing that holds a character like The Hulk back is its lack of human connection being fully computer-generated. Here we never really lose the biological core of the actors onscreen. Downey Jr. is as good as ever and his spiral into depression and uncertainty only gives him room to be even more enthralling. I enjoyed the expanded role of Don Cheadle’s recast Rhodes, slowly warming Stark to the idea of a partner through aggressively forceful ‘tough love’ and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, although taking a backseat, resonates with her determination and will to succeed, showing exactly what it is Stark sees in her. John Slattery is spot-on casting as Poppa Howard in film footage, doing what he does on “Mad Men” each week; Johansson is very much in the background, therefore not annoying much as usual, and her fight moves are slick as hell; Rourke is fantastic once again as the tattooed, genius heathen inciting Stark back to life while trying to destroy him; and Rockwell couldn’t be better as Hammer, a mirror image of Stark in every way, but unsuccessful, unlikable, and vindictive—hilariously so. Favreau’s small role as bodyguard and driver Happy Hogan also gets expanded, making his appearance so much more relevant than it was in the first.

So, while the story is weaker as far as growth and weight, Iron Man 2 makes up for it in sheer enjoyment. Bigger, louder, and more explosive in every way, the film is just as fun as the first and should be appreciated as such in the scope of the series. Development for guys like Whiplash and Hammer may be almost nonexistent, but then we figure they will either die or be more important in later installments anyway. The film is less a standalone story than an integral cog in the machine Marvel Films has been building, hoping to culminate with a massive collaboration containing every superhero entity working side by side—now there is a recipe for disaster and way too much for its own good sensibility. I was never bored, loved the faux scientific breakthroughs like the creation of a brand new element, and felt the adrenaline rush with every battle, no matter how small. Stan Lee’s characters are once again getting king-like treatment in their adaptations to live action cinema. I don’t think he’d continue showing face if he didn’t think so. I’m sure he could have stayed home and gotten the real Larry King instead otherwise.

Iron Man 2 8/10

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photography:
[1] Gwyneth Paltrow (left) stars as Pepper Potts and Robert Downey Jr. (right) stars as billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, in “Iron Man 2.”
[2] Mickey Rourke on the set of Marvel Studio’s Iron Man 2 as “Whiplash.”

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