While the first Iron Man seemed like a great start, it actually had nothing much going for it except a great lead — Robert Downey Jr. as genius inventor turned superhero — some funny vignettes, and the fact it was much better than most of the other Marvel movies. Iron Man 2 sees the pendulum swing far to the other side with a convoluted story, weak characterization, and perhaps a bit too much action.
Immediately after revealing his identity as Iron Man, Tony Stark finds himself fighting off jealous rivals, discovers an illness related to the arc reactor embedded in his chest, and is at odds with the United States government which is determined on conscripting Stark’s technology for military purposes. Each problem is dealt with episodically laying tracks towards an inevitable and action-packed showdown at the end of the movie. It seems as if the producers were aware of the criticisms concerning the lack of a major villain in the first Iron Man movie. It doesn’t help that Iron Man lacks a strong rogues gallery when compared to other comics heroes like Batman or even the X-Men — I imagine many would be hard pressed to name one or even remember the name of the first film’s villain — and Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) is introduced perhaps to no real effect because his character takes a backseat for the most of the second act.
Downey Jr. continues to play Stark with equal bits of eccentricity, self-loathing, and pompousness, but Iron Man 2 fails, not by, but how it tries to give Downey Jr.’s character more dimensions. Stark’s daddy issues and his better-to-burn-out-than-fade-away suicidal tendencies feel cliche and artificially attached, and the movie loses steam as Stark rides a roller coaster of emotions in between meaningless action sequences. It’s easy to accept the fact that Stark is at his most interesting when he’s struggling with his demons, but Iron Man 2 feels like a step-by-step guide to making Stark a better person. Drama is forced into the story, and the payoffs are slim because the solutions to the problems come too easily. Iron Man 2 feels bloated and dense with empty calories though it isn’t terrible — it’s just nowhere close to exceptional. It’s supposedly the second of a trilogy, but it feels like this Iron Man has started running out of steam.