*Note as of 07/14/12* - Click here to read my updated review for Iron Man 2 on Commentary Track.
Iron Man 2 takes off from exactly where the first film ended: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) revealed to the world that he is Iron Man and is now basking in fame. He’s also dying of palladium poisoning from the Arc Reactor fixated within his chest. But the latter is a secret well kept from the entire world and even from his closest friend Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and his trusted assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Downey Jr. is still a fantastic Tony Stark, riddled with ADD but this time focusing more on his alcoholism and Paltrow is great as Pepper, keeping her possible affections for Stark a secret even from the audience. But Cheadle’s Rhodey has almost no chemistry with Stark because of script problems.
To add to the roster of excellent actors and their fantastic performances in this film we have Mickey Rourke playing Ivan Vanko, a Russian scientist who believes that his father was the original inventor of the Arc Reactor technology and who wants to exact revenge upon Tony Stark for not recognizing that fact, and Sam Rockwell playing Justin Hammer, an industrialist who competes with Stark Industries in weapons manufacturing and who hates Tony Stark (and vice versa).
Vanko manufactures a suit that uses the Arc reactor and incorporates a pair of electric whips, walks onto the race track of a Formula 1 race in Monaco, and destroys a few of the cars competing, including one being driven by Tony Stark himself. Stark then meets his match in a menacing, gold tooth capped, tattooed walking wall of muscle. And when Justin Hammer sees Vanko’s destructive style on TV he immediately assists in faking Vanko’s death and recruits him so as to build robots for him and help him destroy Tony Stark.
They’re a terrific duo of bad guys. Their chemistry is evident from the get go and they clearly have fun playing the badass Ivan Vanko and the snaky Justin Hammer.
Here’s the first big problem with this sequel: aside from the two new bad guys (whom are awesome), there are even more new characters. Nick Fury is not a new character but has almost ten minutes of screen time in this film. The problem with Nick Fury’s existence in this film is that he mostly explains to Tony that he’s being recruited for the Avengers initiative and seeing that The Avengers will have their own film, I don’t understand why an Iron Man film has to focus on that. It’s an Iron Man film. The first movie showed an appearance from Nick Fury for a minute, after the end credits, where he simply whispered the Avengers initiative. That was enough to excite the fans. But he returns here and simply focuses on news about another movie and, therefore doesn’t need to be in this movie.
The other new character is Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) and she works in Stark Industries’ legal department. She’s gorgeous, she's deadly, and secretly works for S.H.I.E.L.D., under Nick Fury’s jurisdiction. However, as beautiful as she is her character is unnecessary in this film.
So we have a Tony Stark that’s dying and tries to live life to the fullest. He throws a party, gets ridiculously drunk, and almost destroys his house while showing off to party attendants what his Iron Man suit can do. Rhodey shows up, puts on another Iron Man suit, the War Machine, and beats up Stark. Where that character trait came from, I don’t know. He also steals the suit and hands it over to Hammer Industries. That, also doesn't make sense.
The movie is terribly uneven. It seems to suffer from the ADD that Stark suffers from, except for the middle segment which mostly develops character that was already developed in the first film. The bad guys are under developed and so the third act doesn’t work well because their true intentions are even kept a secret from the audience. Even though Cheadle is a better choice for Rhodey than Terrence Howard was, he doesn’t have any chemistry with Tony Stark and that’s the screenwriter’s and director’s faults. The action is good and the CGI is even better than the first film’s but there is a large lack of physics and the Iron Man seems to lack weight and mass. The structure is all over the place and yet the beginning, middle, and end are directly borrowed from the first film. This movie has the exact same ending as the first film but doesn’t deserve to because Vanko is not Obadiah; he’s not personally close to Stark. The character arc that Stark goes through in the first film is strong and relates to the overall ending and here it’s just a generic standoff.
I like this film for trying to be bigger and better than the first, I like the action in it, and I like that Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) is trying to persuade Tony Stark to hand over the Iron Man as a weapon. He refuses to do so because he IS the Iron Man and it’s not JUST a machine. The movie has good ideas but the lack of proper structure causes the film to suffer greatly; there are too many peaks on this mountain. The performances are terrific but there are too many characters. Tony Stark is too erratic and although fun, he drains the audience’s energy. The bad guys, again, are underdeveloped. There is too much happening here and within too little time and then there's too much left out.
Many will compare this film to The Dark Knight (2008), in terms of them both being sequels but are incomparable because in The Dark Knight, everything that happens there happens for a reason (cause and consequence) and every character that is introduced exists with a purpose. Here, there’s too much happening at all times and some happenings and characters don’t need to be here.
It’s a nice try but it's not nearly as perfect as the first film.