Without Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man 2 would probably be painful to watch. With him, it is a light romp filled with clever dialogue and fun action. If it wasn’t clear before, Downey, Jr. is probably the most charismatic and entertaining actor currently working.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Mickey Rourke is powerfully menacing as mad scientist/supervillain Whiplash, but he isn’t given enough to do and he is beaten far too easily--as was Jeff Bridges’ Ironmonger in the first film. Samuel L. Jackson is Samuel L. Jackson--tough and cool as always. Gwyneth Paltrow is fine as Pepper Pots, Tony Stark’s right-hand-girl and love interest, while Scarlett Johansson is awful as Stark’s new-assistant-who’s-actually-a-secret-agent called Black Widow. She’s supposed to be mysterious and sexy but comes off as stiff and boring, her fight scene is ludicrously fake. Sam Rockwell is a disappointment. He’s a terrific character actor in plenty of other movies, but here he just becomes incredibly annoying, draining all menace away from the villain’s team and replacing it with obnoxious faux-macho chatter.
The plot is uneven. Tony Stark has a problem with the arc reactor keeping him alive and is slowly being poisoned to death, but this is resolved before the final act, and once it is all sense of danger goes with it. The rest of the movie follows the fairly predictable superhero formula: a villain arises with some sort of new powers, clashes with the hero once or twice while formulating his evil plan, then eventually unleashes his full attack at the end before being defeated by the hero. It’s the scenes with Stark out of his robot suit that are interesting.
You see, Congress wants to take Stark’s suit away as a dangerous weapon. But as Stark points out in the hilarious Congressional hearing scene, it’s his property, he built it, and no one has the right to just take it away. In fact, Stark says, taking on the character of an Ayn Rand hero, they should thank him, because he has “successfully privatized world peace!” This is a wonderful line, but raises serious political questions. While the scene overall seems to be a libertarian hoo-rah (and made my conservative soul cheer), the implications of “privatizing world peace” are not so simple. Just because one believes certain government functions would be better handled by the private sector does not mean we should hand over national defense and the right to use deadly coercive force to a private entity, much less an unknown quantity. with suspect motives. The movie seems to acknowledge this by having the military--with the help of Stark’s best friend, Rhodey--steal one of his Iron Man suits. They apparently intend to use it as another weapon in their arsenal for things like the war in Afghanistan and other matters of national interest. What does Stark think of this? He never says. This conflict between public and private interests never has any payoff, and the movie’s politics are just muddled. The same thing happened with the first Iron Man, where Tony is awakened to the violence and injustice in the world by being kidnapped by terrorists. He discovers that the weapons he manufactures have somehow been falling into the hands of terrorists, who then use them to kill American soldiers and innocent civilians. Yet, while this would naturally make a man want to stop giving weapons to terrorists, he takes it a step further and declares that he will stop making weapons altogether--depriving the soldiers he was officially selling to, anyway, the tools they need to defeat the terrorists. Then he builds his own weapon suit and goes killing on his own. Somehow this is supposed to be more enlightened.
People generally don’t want politics mixed with their entertainment, and I’m usually no exception. Part of the beauty of Downey, Jr.’s performance, though, is that he could map out a position and stick with it, no matter how outrageous, and the audience would still love him and accept what he says. Anyway: Both Iron Man movies are highly entertaining and are among the finest superhero movies to appear so far. But while they appear to deal with the real world, bringing up contentious political subjects with a light and inoffensive touch, they lack the conviction and/or self-awareness to follow through on their positions and merely end up muddled.