A few years ago, not many people outside of the comic fan base knew who Iron Man was. Sure, he was one of Marvel's big hitters in the world of comics, being one of only a handful of characters who was appearing in at least one comic every month since the sixties. But if you didn't read comics, you maybe had a passing familiarity with him at best. He wasn't exactly Spider-Man.
Then came 2008, and the Iron Man movie, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr. Not only was it a bloody good film, but it did good business too. People flocked to see it, and suddenly Iron Man was up there with Superman, Batman and the Hulk in terms of popularity. A sequel was inevitable.
That sequel is here now, and I'll be honest, it's a hard film for me to review objectively. A lot has been made lately of Marvel's decision to tie their movie universe together the same way they've been doing with their comic universe for decades. Iron Man was the first film to acknowledge this, with a cameo from Nick Fury, a reference to the Avengers and a blink and you'll miss it shot of a certain star-spangled shield. After Downey Jr then appeared in The Incredible Hulk as Tony Stark, it was inevitable that Iron Man 2 would bring in even more elements of this shared universe, building to the highly anticipated Avengers movie in 2012.
The thing with Iron Man 2 is, I have to try and look it through two different sets of eyes. There's the huge comic geek, who watches it going "Fuck, yeah, the Black Widow's kicking ass, ooh, there's the shield again, hooray for Nick Fury, War Machine's a badass, and is that.... ooh, that's a big hammer." Then there's the other side of me, which should try and look at this film and say "Okay, so it's a massive geekgasm, but how does it hold up as a movie?" Ya know what? Fuck the other side!
Iron Man 2 is fantastic entertainment. Starting only a few months after the original left off, it shows us a Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) who's discovered that the Iron Man suit is slowly killing him. As he embarks on a journey of self destruction, he also comes under attack from elements of the US government, who want to mass produce Iron Man suits as weapons, rival industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who wants the secrets of the Iron Man armour to sell to the government, and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the villainous Whiplash, who pretty much just wants to kill Stark as revenge for what Stark Sr did to his own father.
With all this going on, you could easily be lead into thinking that Iron Man 2 is going to get much darker than it's predecessor. Don't worry though. It's not. If anything, it's more fun than the first film. Downey Jr still brings a lot of fun to Tony Stark, even during the characters worse moments. Confronted with his own mortality, Stark decides to just go out and enjoy himself Likewise, Sam Rockwell is clearly having fun as Justin Hammer, the man who wants to be Tony Stark, but clearly isn't. Even Jim Rhodes has lightened up this time around, though that could partly be because Don Cheadle gives him more character than Terrence Howard managed first time out, and partly because he finally gets to suit up as War Machine.
Two other characters served better this time around are Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), who goes from a post credits cameo to a full on supporting character, and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) who even gets to show off his boxing skills to boot. Of course, with all these characters, then some were going to get short shrift. There's less of Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts this time around, and Scarlett Johanssen as the Black Widow looks stunning, but feels mainly like a set up for the Avengers movie.
Sadly, it's Mickey Rourke who's worst served in the movie. While excellent as Vanko, after his initial fight with Iron Man at the Monaco Historic Grand Prix (motor racing at Monaco AND Iron Man's briefcase armour in one scene? Yes please!), he gets sidelined into a lab for most of the rest of the film. It's a shame, as it feels like they didn't really know what else to do with him at times.
Watching Iron Man 2, it's clear that this is a part of something larger. While the geek inside me loves this, I can't help but wonder if all this crossover action may put off the casual film goer. But ya know what? I don't really care. They can go see something else, and let me enjoy my big superheros fights which reference events on a far larger tapestry. Iron Man 2 is awesome!
Oh, and stay to the end of the credits. Just like last time, there's a treat for the fans which sets up the next Marvel movie, and really "hammer" home the shared universe idea. It was more than enough to make me wish it was 2011 right now.