"Iron Man 2" Puts Pedal to the Metal

Directed by Jon Favreau
Screenplay by Justin Theroux, based on the character created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson,  Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Jon Favreau, John Slattery

For all its fantastical trappings, the Marvel Comics superhero movie Iron Man (2008) was at heart about being morally responsible for one's actions, even when those actions might be perfectly legal and arguably justifiable. Without making more of the sequel than it itself intends, Iron Man 2, rather than pursuing that notion and examining the consequences of taking responsibility, instead veers off into a less expected and ultimately more interesting direction: It's a story about how even when the fantastical happens, one doesn't necessarily change.

They say money changes everything, but lots of lottery winners will tell you that they themselves don't change but remain, often for the worse, who they are, despite brand new circumstances that beg for them to adapt and grow.

Industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) — who in the first film develops the jet-propelled battle-suit that makes him Iron Man, and announces that the superhero-cum-deterrent is he — has become, six months later, the biggest celebrity on Earth. "I've successfully privatized world peace!" he crows, only half tongue-in-cheek, at the start of Stark Expo, a yearlong scientific world's fair at the site of the 1964-65 World's Fair in Flushing, New York. "What more do you want?"

It turns out what we want isn't what we thought we wanted. Stark is, if anything, more of who he was in the first film — his idiosyncrasies deeper, his self-indulgences greater, his insouciance thankfully trumping any hint of piousness. While there's nobility in the greater outlines, becoming Iron Man hasn't made his details any more serious or his person any more reliable — and that's refreshing. Much as we all love Superman or Spider-Man, who when given great power took on great responsibility, it's nice to see that great power doesn't necessarily make you a choir boy — not even a brooding, self-tortured Bat-choir-boy.

Stark's hubris before a Senate committee, led by an aptly grandstanding Garry Shandling, is all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. His showboating fuels the rage of revenge-minded Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who updates technology jointly developed by his own castoff father and Stark's late dad (John Slattery, reprising his "Mad Men" look in a 1974 industrial film). He creates a bare-bones battle-suit with the addition of metal-rending electrical "whips," and eventually gets recruited by defense contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).

 With head-to-toe Russian prison tattoos and as bad a badass as can be, Vanko remotely attacks Stark with a couple dozen battle-suit drones while taking the controls of a Mark II Iron Man suit piloted by Stark's friend Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, succeeding Terrence Howard). The long-ensuing battle fully and satisfyingly exploits the oversized visual possibilities of comic books, turning those Ben-Day dot newsprint images into flesh, as it were, and failing only in the truncated climactic battle with Vanko himself, over far too soon and simply.

For the record, Vanko here is never called Whiplash, after the character on which he's based, and neither is Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) called the Black Widow nor Rhodes dubbed War Machine. Yet even without those comic-book code names, Iron Man 2 furthers the comics' mythos while leaving the cinematic Stark almost but not quite the same. As in films about men in submarines and tanks, man-in-a-can movies like RoboCop, Steel and this one use the metaphor of metal as something that hides humanity and emotion.

The people inside a U-boat or the Iron Man armor may be flesh-and-blood and foible-filled, but the exterior, whether slicing through seas or roaring across the heavens, is intimidating and implacable. The tension and the drama come from where those counterpoints intersect. And in that respect, Iron Man 2 is fully fleshed-out, warts and all. It's the most slam-bang fun you can have while pondering the nature of identity, and whether we can ever really change who we are.

Oh, and stick around after the credits. Otherwise you might be a Thor loser.

For more by Frank Lovece: FrankLovece.com