What would “Iron Man 2” be without Robert Downey Jr.? I asked the same question of “Iron Man,” and, with one exception, the query still applies. That exception, however, is a big one. As Ivan Vanko, the mad Russian physicist hellbent on eradicating His Ironness, Mickey Rourke almost pumps new blood into a franchise that is already starting to show its age.
The appeal of “Iron Man 2,” as with its predecessor, is having a superhero who is not quite super and not altogether heroic. Billionaire playboy industrialist Tony Stark revealed at the end of the last film that he was the armor-suited Iron Man and it didn’t seem to faze anybody very much, least of all Tony.
For such an extreme narcissist, a secret identity would only represent excess baggage anyway. Without it, Tony is free to be his usual hyperobnoxious self and save the world at the same time. In “Iron Man 2,” at least for its first hour or so, Tony is more blisteringly self-infatuated than ever. As he crows in front of a Senate panel grilling him about his refusal to provide the military with Iron Man technology, “I have successfully privatized world peace.” And so he has.
Iron Man is often described as a pacifist warrior, but the reason no wars have broken out with him around is because his armored firepower can best anybody. He doesn’t manufacture weapons anymore because he doesn’t need to. He makes deterrence sexy.
Everything changes when Ivan, who bears a humongous grudge against Tony’s family, arrives on the scene with a self-made armored suit of his own equipped with laserlike whips that can slice even Tony’s Rolls Royce in two. Ivan also comes equipped with a pet cockatoo and so many body tattoos that he’s like a living artwork. As Tony rightly says of him, "You look like you have friends in low places." Ivan also has at least one low friend in high places – smarmy rival industrialist Justin Hammer (a very funny Sam Rockwell).
Clearly this role is Mickey Rourke’s meat. Musclebound and stringy-haired, he doesn’t look all that different from how he did in “The Wrestler.” (Instead of mangling opponents this time, he mangles the Russian language.) Rourke is a one-of-a-kind actor: You may think he’s doing nothing but serving up attitude here but, in fact, he’s digging deep. Ivan’s furious sense of injustice is the realest thing in “Iron Man 2,” even more so than Tony’s race against the clock to survive his own blood toxicity. Rourke puts a human face, albeit a bashed one, on comic book villainy.
Downey Jr., for his part, does the same thing for comic book heroism. It may seem counterproductive for any actor to attempt a full-scale performance in one of these wingding franchise movies, but Downey Jr. does it every time. It may be that he’s one of those actors who is incapable of dumbing down for audiences. He gives you his best each time out, whether he’s wearing armor or Brooks Brothers or hand-me-downs. (That’s not to say that I want to see him playing Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes ad infinitum.)
Aside from these two actors, “Iron Man 2” isn’t much of a whoop-de-do. Gwyneth Paltrow, as Tony’s beleaguered, smitten executive assistant “Pepper” Potts, is still fairly bland, as is Don Cheadle, stepping into the role of Tony’s military buddy “Rhodey” Rhodes. Scarlett Johansson plays a Stark lawyer who doubles as the notorious Black Widow, and her martial arts moves are well coordinated with her slinky outfits. Both are designed to kill.
Director Jon Favreau, working from a script by Justin Theroux, isn’t particularly adept at action. He seems much more at home with catty back-and-forth badinage than with kabooms. But he’s good enough to keep the pyrotechnics on the big IMAX screen popping along. For undemanding audiences, that should be good enough to hold them until the next superhero movie arrives... which should be just about any minute now. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language.)