Iron Man 2, Jon Favreau’s much-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough 2008 blockbuster, is less a comic book flick than it is a superhero version of Arthur, the Oscar-nominated 1981 comedy that starred Dudley Moore as a drunken, wise-cracking dilettante. In his second turn as Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr. recasts the billionaire inventor as the Dean Martin of industrialists, strutting from one star-studded event to another on a bacchanalian victory tour, dishing out choice one-liners and stirring up minor controversies for his exasperated babysitters, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), to quell. Whether gloating about his achievements at a defense industry expo, upbraiding Senators during a congressional hearing, or getting wasted and donning his armored powersuit to play DJ at his birthday party, there’s no telling what kind of madcap mischief Tony Stark will get himself into next!
The Tony Stark Comedy Tour, for what it’s worth, is a supremely entertaining ride (credit screenwriter Justin Theroux at the very least with crafting the genre’s most quotable film of all time), but I’m fairly certain Iron Man 2 is supposed to be an action film, not the Marvel Follies Variety Show. Surely there must be a supervillain lurking in the shadows, a frighteningly powerful menace preparing to unleash its destructive might upon the world?
There is — well, kind of. The primary antagonist of Iron Man 2, Mickey Rourke’s hulking Ivan Vanko (aka Whiplash), is certainly a fearsome beast, baring his blinged-out grill and electrified tentacles, but he gets all of five minutes of meaningful screen time in the sequel — hardly enough to establish him as a worthy foe for the great Iron Man. Perhaps producers found Rourke’s chosen dialect, learned from John Malkovich’s Rounders School of Exaggerated Russian Accents (“I vant my bort!” he furiously declares when separated from his pet parrot), to be less compelling in post-production.
More likely they became enamored with Sam Rockwell in the role of Justin Hammer, Stark’s resentful business rival and Whiplash’s principal financial backer. It’s certainly understandable. Exuding the hubris and insecurity of a sardonic Mark Cuban (but capable of amusing us with more than just an underachieving basketball team), his performance is easily the best of the film, surpassing even that of the great Downey. (Which makes perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists who wonder why Rockwell was the only member of the main cast not to get his own poster.)
The only problem is, Rockwell’s Hammer is a venture capitalist, not a comic book supervillain, and every second he spends on the screen — as enjoyable as it is — is a second that could have been devoted to dimensionalizing Rourke’s character or crafting a badly-needed action sequence to enliven the talky second act.
It’s little wonder, then, that Stark continues with his feckless, self-destructive ways, unconcerned with the threat posed by the Hammer/Whiplash collaboration. He’s got bigger problems to worry about — namely, his inability to find a suitable replacement for palladium, the substance inside the Arc Reactor that powers both his suit and his heart, and which also happens to be slowly killing him.
Thankfully, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrive at his compound to stage a kind of intervention, bearing a powerful dual-pronged Deus Ex Machina device that instantly wrests our hero from his para-suicidal stupor — just in time to build the upgraded powersuit he’ll need to thwart the army of powerful robot drones that Whiplash is about to let loose upon on the unsuspecting citizens of Queens, New York. Whew! Favreau steps up the action and delivers a suitably big finish, but don’t blink when Iron Man and Whiplash meet on the battlefield, because you might just miss it.
Given that Iron Man 2’s director and writer have both spent the bulk of their movie careers employed as actors, it comes as little surprise that they chose to focus the action on Downey and Rockwell, as the two rank head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. I just wish they found room in between the one-liners for a few more explosions.