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Alternate Take: Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Sometimes too much of a good thing really is too much of a good thing. Director Jon Favreau’s cast is a very good thing. Robert Downey Jr. is as good as ever; new additions Scarlett Johansson, Mickey Rourke, and Sam Rockwell steal scenes, and this time around even Gwyneth Paltrow seems to fit in. This group fits so well that Favreau gives us too much of them and his film shows all the hallmarks of being directed by someone who’s too in love with his own cast, a cast of which he’s made himself a very large part.

Favreau’s role in front of the camera as Tony Stark’s limo driver Happy is greatly expanded in the sequel as are the roles of almost all the film’s supporting characters. That’s a problem because there’s only so much film to go around, but also not a problem because all of these characters work so fantastically well. You won’t regret the time the movie spends watching Sam Rockwell, as rival arms dealer Justin Hammer, ranting and raving and threatening. You won’t regret it because Rockwell, like all the actors in this movie, is just too damn good. You want more Justin Hammer because in his own sniveling, ridiculous way Justin Hammer is kind of awesome. You won’t regret spending time with him, at least not while you’re watching him. You might regret later though, after you walk out of the film and realize you spent more time watching his wholly entertaining antics than, you know, watching an actual Iron Man adventure.

Iron Man 2’s biggest problem is that it never really gets around to having that adventure. The action movie you’re anticipating doesn’t really start until the film’s final few minutes when Favreau looks around and realizes, hey, we haven’t actually blown anything up yet. There are a sum total of three action sequences in this movie, the first two are really just footnotes in between long character discussions about corporate politics which are, (again) thanks to the film’s brilliant cast and Favreau’s talent for dry wit, far more entertaining than conversations about corporate politics have any right to be.

The story this time involves the competition between Tony Stark and a rival corporate entity run by the aforementioned Justin Hammer. Mickey Rourke shows up early on as Ivan Vanko, the wild card in the mix with uncertain loyalties. What is certain is that he wants Tony dead. In the background Stark’s also at odds with the government and with the army desperate to get its hands on Iron Man’s weapons, his relationship with military man Col. Rhodes is tested. If there’s a chemistry problem anywhere in the film it’s in their relationship. The movie never really sells it, depending instead on the camaraderie built up between Stark and Rhodes in the last movie to give it cohesion. That might have worked, if Rhodes weren’t played by a completely different person. It may be the same character, only played by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard, but none of the friendship we saw in the last movie really carries over because Rhodes looks like someone new, and Iron Man 2 does nothing here to reconnect us to him. Cheadle handles the role well enough, but if this was their plan, then maybe they should have stuck with Howard.

The rest of the movie’s relationships work brilliantly though and Mickey Rourke as Vanko is a huge upgrade over Jeff Bridges as the cartoonishly insane bad guy Obadiah Stain in the last movie. If there’s any complaint at all in Vanko it’s that we could have used more of him. Rourke’s villainous grin might have seemed more menacing had he spent more of the film actually menacing, instead of leaving him sitting in a corner laughing while Rockwell’s Hammer rants.

Or maybe that time would have been better used watching some of those really cool scenes from the trailer which never made it in? That shot of Scarlett Johansson trying out Iron Man’s weapons for instance, or what about that thrilling scene where Pepper Potts kisses Tony’s mask before tossing it out of the plane for him to dive after it? Those great trailer moments didn’t make the final cut, yet an awkward and generally nonsensical, throwaway, for fanboys only Easter egg scene in which actor Clark Gregg shows up to play a totally irrelevant S.H.I.E.L.D. agent did.

The movie spends so much time letting its cast play with their characters that far too often it forgets to do something with the plot. There are these cavernous gaps in the film where it makes big assumptions about what the audience knows, without stopping to examine whether the film has really explained it. Sam Jackson shows up out of nowhere as Nick Fury and there’s no attempt to flesh out who he is, relying on our knowledge of him from the first film to carry his presence. This ignores the fact that he only appeared after the credits in the first movie in a scene a lot of moviegoers missed. Logical misfires like that one happen because Favreau is more interested in watching his actors interact than actually move the plot forward with them. He’d rather focus on Tony stuttering and stammering in front of Pepper than explain his real purpose for being in her office.

Downey and Paltrow and the rest of the cast are so incredibly good together, it’s easy to understand Favreau’s desire to keep his camera focused on their chemistry, but at some point a good director has to break away and service his story. Iron Man 2 doesn’t always do that, in the process making big assumptions about what we know, some of it based on ancillary knowledge from the last movie or nuggets gleaned from Marvel superhero history in general, and I’m not sure normal viewers are really interested in bringing a Marvel encyclopedia with them.

Yet it’s hard to hold any of that against the movie while you’re watching it. Favreau and his group have so much fun with these characters and this world that even when the pieces don’t fit together you’ll probably be carried right along with them anyway. It works better as a character ensemble than an action movie, and that ensemble is uncannily strong. And when it does get around to action, it’s far more consistent than anything we saw in the last film. Iron Man was a movie of highs and lows, the first half blew the doors off the theater, the second half often seemed awkward and lost. Iron Man 2 maintains a consistent and even keel throughout. It’s never as exhilarating as the first Iron Man is at its best but also never as ordinary as the first Iron Man was at its worst. It’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

What really matters most about Iron Man 2 is that Robert Downey Jr. is as brilliant as ever and the character of Tony Stark has far from worn out his welcome. This time he’s tortured by new demons, as his health declines and he deals with detractors, but throughout it all he’s true to himself. Sometimes who he is, it’s not pretty, but that’s all of him up there on screen whether he’s inside the Iron Man suit or out of it. Stark is the movie’s strength and the way the script addresses the difficulties in dealing with his decision to dispense with notion of a secret identity are the best parts of what ends up being the movie’s plot The places that takes Tony and the way the movie delves into his relationship with his now deceased father really work, even if they so often take us away from the action many will show up hoping to see.

It’s easy to talk about what Iron Man 2 doesn’t do, but what it does do is so full of energy and genuine enthusiasm, that it’s hard to imagine anyone walking out unhappy. Depending on how you felt about the original Iron Man, maybe you’ll be disappointed, but you’ll also be utterly entertained. Iron Man has never been and never will be the perfect superhero franchise. It lacks the subtlety and depth of The Dark Knight and it’ll never have the emotional resonance of Spider-Man. But Iron Man, whatever its flaws, gets these characters right every time, and with or without action that’s more than enough.