In all the superhero leagues in all the world, surely Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has the swankiest pad. Bruce Wayne could only gaze in envy on its sleek lines, its perch above the Malibu coast, its softly lit lab with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the sea. In Iron Man 2, the lean, bouffanted Downey toils in crisply tailored shirts amid machines poised to answer every whim, overseen by a computer with the voice of Paul Bettany: English, smooth, sweet-tempered, like C-3PO on chamomile tea, with all the superciliousness expunged. In and out march A-list babes in tight dresses—a gam-off between Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson in which Paltrow wins on length and then disappears in the glare of her opponent’s headlights. Stark’s loyal chauffeur is played by the movie’s director, Jon Favreau, which underlines the sequel’s aim-to-pamper aesthetic, its “You’re so money!” reverence carried over from Favreau’s first film, Swingers. When Stark in his Iron Man suit rockets onto the stage of the Stark Expo—a World’s Fair–like technology showcase spanning the length of Flushing Meadows—and the crowd shrieks and fireworks explode and a kick-line of beauties converges behind him and the egotistical Stark lifts his arms in acknowledgment of his greatness, it doesn’t seem as if Downey is acting. He might truly be signaling, “This is it, folks, the acme of the summer-blockbuster season. And you, a mere moviegoer, are blessed to be in the presence of someone so money.”
It would be easy to write something along the lines of “Alas, those millions couldn’t buy a decent movie,” but I think they can—and have. It’s true that Iron Man 2 began, like all sequels, with a title—or, more precisely, a title and a numeral—followed by a star and director and then, only then, a story. It doesn’t come close to the emotional heft of those two rare 2s that outclassed their ones: Superman 2 and Spider-Man 2. But Iron Man 2 hums along quite nicely. The big FX scenes don’t kill the pace, the way they did at the end of the original and in virtually all of Spider-Man 3. And though it’s very busy—lots of characters, lots of crisscrossing subplots—Favreau and writer Justin Theroux go for a stylized, screwball-comedy tempo with Ping-Pong zingers that show off their leading man’s expert timing. The script isn’t all fluff. There’s a wonderful exchange in Stark’s private plane: He’s slowly dying (the palladium plug that keeps him alive is also poisoning him), and he begs Pepper Potts (Paltrow) to go off the clock and spend a few days in Venice—only she thinks he’s being his usual, boyishly irresponsible self. “We can recharge our batteries,” he pleads, and she answers, with a sad smile, “Not everyone runs on batteries, Tony.”
The first Iron Man picture peddled a bogus but appealing fantasy: that an American from a family that made its fortune selling weapons to kill people in far-off countries could himself become a weapon—for peace! So those of us despondent over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could cheer the anti-military-industrialist-complex message—while also cheering the American military-industrialist ingenuity that now gave us our heavy-metal superhero savior. Either way, it was “America, fuck yeah!” In Iron Man 2, Stark finds himself subpoenaed by a government that doesn’t trust him to hold such unchecked power, that resents his boast of having “successfully privatized world peace.” But his chief Senate antagonist (Garry Shandling) is clearly the puppet of a rival weapons-maker, Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell with the perfect ratio of unctuousness to menace. The script doesn’t clarify Hammer’s master plan, and it dulls the political edge altogether by making Stark’s dead father (the peerlessly sleek John Slattery, seen in corporate-propaganda films) a visionary humanitarian instead of a war profiteer. Favreau and Theroux aren’t taking any chances with the wing nuts this time. Not at these prices.
For all the tumultuous comings-and-goings (the overexposed Samuel L. Jackson with a patch over his eye as Nick Fury; Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard as “Rhodey” Rhodes), the movie’s fulcrum is an actor who, nearly 30 years ago, in Diner, was more money than Vince Vaughn and now is more nightmarish than Freddy Krueger. Mickey Rourke plays Stark’s scariest adversary, the low-tech Russian killer Ivan Vanko (a.k.a. Whiplash), with messy tattoos and a mouthful of metal from which he spits blood—smiling, of course. Striding into the middle of a racetrack, he throws out arms extended by long electric tendrils and slashes through cars as they hurtle past, the man of war as man-o’-war. Stark’s Iron Man suit is more formfitting now, and he never looks computer-generated. When Iron Man and Whiplash face off, you’re aware of the actors under the costumes, of the preening ex-addict Downey and the loose cannon Rourke. Such is the voltage of Iron Man 2: Even with a thousand computer artists between the actors and us, we can still feel those mad, crazy, dangerous egos on the line.