Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Don Cheadle as Lt. Col. James 'Rhodey' Rhodes
Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman / Natasha Romanoff
Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer
Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson
John Slattery as Howard Stark
Garry Shandling as Senator Stern
Paul Bettany as Jarvis
Kate Mara as U.S. Marshal
Leslie Bibb as Christine Everhart
Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan
Christiane Amanpour as Herself
Directed by Jon Favreau
Six months after he's revealed his identity to the world, Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (a.k.a Robert Downey Jr.) is more of a rock star than ever before, but he also finds himself the target of a number of different factions: the government wants to take away his armor, deeming it to be a dangerous weapon; Stark's main competitor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is trying to get his hands on Stark's Iron Man designs as well; a Russian physicist known as Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) seeks to get revenge on Stark for sins committed by his father; his best friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is unhappy with Tony's partying ways; and Stark's shapely new paralegal Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) is causing friction between Tony and his beleaguered assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Unquestionably one of the most anticipated sequels and movies of the year, "Iron Man 2" has a lot to live up to. With the first movie, director Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr. and the rest of the cast really hit one out of the park, leaving many wondering what one could possibly do to match or exceed the expectations created by that movie. While "Iron Man 2" successfully conveys the tone and the momentum from the first movie, the sequel factor is unfortunately going to make it far too easy for the critical to turn cynical on that basis alone.
The film's opening title sequence introduces Mickey Rourke's character Ivan Vanko, a Russian physicist who has spent years in prison plotting his revenge on the Stark family for crimes they committed against his own family. A few minutes (and six months) later, we're reintroduced to Downey's Stark as he addresses the adoring masses in a keynote speech at his extravagant Stark Expo in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Mirroring the famous World's Fair held there in 1964, this location will play a key recurring role in the movie, further tying Tony to his father, industrialist Howard Stark. As with everything else in life, the government feels the need to regulate Stark's creation, seeing the Iron Man armor as a dangerous weapon that could fall into the wrong hands, something which becomes apparent when Vanko makes his presence known at the Monaco Grand Prix, wielding energy whips of his own design as he creates a swath of destruction to get to Stark. Stark's main competition, weapons contractor Justin Hammer wants to get his hands on Tony's armor for his own reasons and he sees Vanko as a possible ally.
The character development in the movie is top-notch, similar to "Spider-Man 2" in the way it doesn't merely fall back on what worked in the first movie, instead instilling real personal conflicts into the mix. In this case, it's the fact that Stark has essentially been poisoning himself with the technology he needs to survive, which has him acting more erratically than normal, his relationships with his closest confidantes, Pepper Potts and James Rhodes, also changing dramatically because of it.
Robert Downey Jr. is still on his game with the character that has successfully taken his career to another level, still playing Stark with the same arrogance and swagger as before but also showing a more sensitive side, a new-found depth of humanity as he tries to let Pepper know about his condition. A few developments early in the movie brings a new dynamic to their relationship though the awkward chemistry between them that worked so well in the first movie is still intact.
This makes it even harder to adjust to Don Cheadle stepping into the shoes of James Rhodes, previously filled by Terrence Howard. His first few appearances in the story are fairly inconsequential but he seems out of place in the equation. It's only once Rhodey gets a chance to don his own suit of armor, which doesn't feel as forced or shoehorned into the movie as it could have been, where he starts to develop his own personality.
Covered in the tattoos one might find on Russian gangsters, Mickey Rourke makes for quite an imposing presence with his brain constantly stuck in revenge mode for what Tony's father has done to his own. There are a few questionable aspects to his origin story that don't ring true, like how a brilliant physicist could go through such an unlikely transition in prison to become such a menacing villain, but Rourke still makes for a far cooler Whiplash than any that's ever appeared in the comics, so much so that you'll wish to see him in that guise more than we actually do.
Regardless, the movie's true show-stealer is Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, playing quite the perfect counterpoint to Downey's Stark - just as funny and eccentric, but with far less scruples. Like with Whiplash, it's a shame there aren't more scenes between the two well-matched actors. Hammer really is the glue holding this story together, not only bringing Vanko into the fold, but also providing weapons for War Machine, while at the same time seeking to build his own personal army of Iron Men. The key is that everything happens in this story for a reason, and it never feels like it's just a matter of trying to sell toys. In fact, some may be surprised by the general lack of overt product placement considering all the products that have been tied into the movie via commercials.
Scarlett Johansson has rarely been sexier - when she hands Stark a martini and asks if it's dirty enough for him, you'll want to ask the kids to leave the room. Granted, most people will already be aware of her character's "secret identity" going in, but she's certainly at her best when we finally get to see that character in action. Again, it's another aspect of the movie which leaves you wanting more. Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury plays a slightly bigger role though still more of a continuation of his cameo in the first movie trying to persuade Tony to get involved with the Avengers Initiative; the results of this subplot will certainly surprise and confound those who think they know what to expect. Thankfully, Favreau has given himself a much bigger part as "Happy" Hogan, still on the sidelines for much of the movie but giving himself some of the best moments with Johansson. (Clearly, the man is no dummy!) By comparison, the characters played by Kate Mara and Olivia Munn are so inconsequential you'll be astounded how much press they've received merely due to their involvement with the movie.
The first movie was at its weakest during the climactic battle between Iron Man and Jeff Bridges' Iron Monger, and Favreau has certainly improved on the quality of the action scenes with a number of fantastic fight sequences between Iron Man and others. Unfortunately, there also seems to be a lot more talking in the movie, too, and despite the clever patter, the middle portion of the story gets somewhat bogged down and convoluted by the number of characters and subplots. Favreau manages to pull all of it together as these characters converge into an extremely satisfying final action sequence, the last thirty minutes of the movie literally exploding into a full-out war.
Overall, the film just looks terrific, the blending of CG and live action being seamless throughout--something also on par with the "Spider-Man" movies--and every shot having a sharp and vivid clarity of color that makes everything look hyper-real without feeling overly stylish. Favreau also uses the media well to tell this story, whether it's the ever-present C-SPAN cameras at the Senate hearings, the journalists always around the key players, and even some political commentary from Bill O'Reilly. This is one other way that Favreau keeps the movie grounded in our reality in ways that haven't been achieved quite so well in previous superhero movies.
The Bottom Line:
It may be hard for anyone to claim that "Iron Man 2" is nearly as mindblowingly amazing as the first movie was for its time, though it's still better than 95% of the movies based on Marvel Comics characters. Favreau clearly knows how to make a fun and entertaining summer movie, and the clever introduction of new characters and the masterfully-realized action scenes should make up for the film's dialogue-heavy lulls. High expectations from the first movie may leave some wanting, but there's enough brilliance on display to leave you wanting more as well.