From this point on, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.
IRON MAN 2 takes up some six months after the events of the first film and immediately addresses the fallout from Tony Stark very publicly revealing that he is Iron Man. The government, represented by a douchey senator (Gary Shandling), demands that Stark turn over the Iron Man armor to the military, but Stark "humbly" refuses on the grounds that thanks to the suit he has essentially ensured world peace , thus unwittingly forcing his best friend, Col. Rhodes, aka Rhodey (Don Cheadle, needlessly replacing Terrence Howard for no adequately explained reason), to side with the military against him.
During the government hearing, ineffectual rival tech-maven Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is called in as an expert to discredit Stark's claims that the Iron Man armor is not a weapon, but he meets with resounding failure as Stark mercilessly humiliates him and the governmental bureaucrats, lighting the fuse of Hammer's quest for vengeance and an armor project to supersede Stark's technological supremacy (translation: male pissing contest). Meanwhile, Stark's body is slowly suffering the adverse effects of the arc reactor that keeps him alive. His blood toxicity is gradually increasing and the batteries that power the arc reactor burn out at an ever-increasing rate, so unless he comes up with some kind of solution, it's only a matter of time until he's stone-cold tits-up dead. Fearing the worst, Stark names his right-hand woman, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), as Stark Enterpises' new CEO, steps down, and embarks on a series of questionable activities that make no sense to her because she is unaware that Tony is getting ever closer to death's door.
While a conflicted Rhodey is ordered to obtain an Iron Man suit for the military by any means necessary, bitter Russian tech genius Ivan Vanko (an especially grimy and unkempt Mickey Roarke) crafts his own arc reactor and uses it to power a lethal pair of electrified whips for the express purpose of killing Stark (the reasons for his vendetta are best explained by the film itself). Tracking Stark to a Formula 1 race in Monaco, Vanko's admittedly impressive murder attempt fails and lands him in the custody of the Monaco police, only to have his death faked and his escape engineered by Justin Hammer, who promptly places Vanko in charge of improving his munitions company's mini-army of suits that will make Stark's armor look like a Ben Cooper Halloween costume by comparison.
New Stark Enterprises employee "Natalie Rushman" (Scarlett Johansson).
As Stark's behavior becomes relentlessly obnoxious while his health deteriorates, new secretary Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johanssen) joins the Stark workforce and elevates Tony to new heights of perpetual priapism. After witnessing the smokin'-hot redhead hand Happy Hogan (director John Favreau in a role considerably expanded from the previous film) his ass in company's boxing ring with a stunning and lightning-swift martial arts takedown, it's apparent that there's more to Rushman than meets the eye. But that mystery takes a back seat to Stark completely fucking up all of Pepper's PR efforts in the wake of his antics during the government hearing by throwing a wild birthday party at which he gets drunk off his ass, dons his armor and does indoor skeet shooting with the suit's repulsor rays, unintentionally demonstrating just how dangerous the Iron Man technology can be when used irresponsibly. A pissed-off Rhodey puts on one of Stark's extra suits — a silver one, so it's distinguishable from Stark's signature red and gold — and fights him in an effort to stop his friend's dangerous shenanigans, leaving Stark with his ass kicked and making off with an Iron Man suit that he delivers straight to the Air Force.
There's all of this and more going on in this story and each of the narrative threads seamlessly converge to form a satisfying climax, but it has its flaws to go along with its heights, so here are some items to consider:
- I don't buy Rhodey being able to effortlessly operate an Iron Man suit on the first try, much less being able to fit into armor that was built to Stark's own particular body specs, especially considering that it would be built to be powered by an arc reactor that was directly implanted into his chest cavity. There is an argument to be made that Rhodey probably got to test drive one of the suits during the six months prior to where the film's story starts, but the script does not set that up.
- I had serious reservations about Scarlett Johansson being cast as the legendary Russian superspy/S.H.I.E.L.D. operative known to comics fans as The Black Widow, but — lack of "moose and squirrel" accent notwithstanding — she turned out to be awesome.
- Don Cheadle is a very good actor, but his Rhodey made little impression on me. He wasn't bad or anything, but in this story he served no purpose other than to be inside the armor that becomes War Machine.
- The fun relationship between Stark and Pepper continues and it is very entertaining to behold. Downey and Paltrow would have been right at home in an old screwball comedy.
- Mickey Roarke is quite menacing and creepy as Vanko, a man with a wholly understandable reason for his hatred of Stark. He's creepy, dangerous and brilliant, but he also appears to have never washed his hair or fingernails. Significantly, he is not the Whiplash we know from the comics, and I'm thankful for that; Whiplash is a big nothing of a villain in the comics, and here he is re-imagined to very good effect.
- Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury returns and is given more screen time than previous appearances, which is only a good thing.
- "Hey! Larry King!" Best Stan Lee cameo ever.
- I could have done without the overuse of AC/DC on the soundtrack. For the next film I would like to suggest the inclusion of Motorhead's "Bomber" during any aerial action scenes. Also, Saxon's "Terminal Velocity" would be a natural pick.
- Keep an eye out for Captain America's shield.
I went into IRON MAN 2 with zero expectations thanks to many reviews that described it as boring, bloated and overlong, but I seriously have to ask if the critics saw the same movie I did. I think the problem may be that most viewers wanted and expected to get a film that was nothing but wall-to-wall scenes of Stark in his Iron Man armor blowing shit up and providing them with a totally mindless feature-length video game projected onto the big screen. What they got instead was a film that had the balls to have an actual story that is heavily character-driven, with very little of Iron Man in action. The action sequences are very good and the fact that they are used sparingly only lends them stronger narrative impact; they are moments of combat and violence that naturally spring from the narrative, rather than mindless dazzle that amounts to nothing. In other words, the film is far more intelligent than what audiences that think the TRANSFORMERS movies are actually entertaining want, so a negative response was kind of unfortunately inevitable.
Look; I'm a guy who fucking hates the vast majority of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters that leave me feeling ripped off, so I was very pleasantly shocked at being presented with a movie that I actually want to see again in first-run. And at New York City ticket prices, no less! Unlike IRON MAN, I will definitely add IRON MAN 2 to my DVD collection when it gets released, so TRUST YER BUNCHE and check it out. (Just keep in mind that the kiddies may get restless.)