Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau's follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn't need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise's bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Not simply concerned with billionaire arms dealer-turned-metallic hero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Justin Theroux's story features a bevy of superheroic figures outfitted with deadly artillery, from Stark pal Lt. Colonel Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle, taking over for Terrence Howard) decked out in his own silvery weaponized War Machine suit, to a straggly haired, heavily tattooed Russian genius named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) who mimics Stark's tech to create an outfit equipped with energy-beam whips, to a horde of gigantic drones programmed to kill. Yet regardless of this cornucopia of battle-ready players, inspired action—the ingredient most absent from its otherwise admirable precursor—continues to be in short supply, a failing made additionally disappointing by the film's nominal preoccupation with the importance of legacies.
Iron Man 2 certainly tries to rectify this situation via multiple explosive sequences of armored goliaths crashing and smashing into environmental structures and each other, and in particular, Iron Man and War Machine are afforded a decent tag-team clash against an army of nasty robotic adversaries. Favreau's centerpieces, however, generally opt for fleet, half-baked commotion in place of prolonged mech-on-mech mayhem. And unlike, say, Spider-Man 2's climactic train skirmish, in which the webslinger's full range of powers are put on thrilling display, Iron Man only gets to give his abilities quick workouts, and rarely in scenarios infused with dramatic weight. More than the quantity of chaos, it's that shallowness which proves this second installment's greatest failing. Smoothly shot by Favreau and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, the film suffers from a case of distension, which in turn results in a frustrating lack of focus and depth.
In this misshapen saga, set shortly after the last adventure's events, Stark is still flirting with, and driving mad, assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), but now he's also swooning over fetching new employee Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who's secretly the super-spy Black Widow. And not only is he pitted against Vanko, whose Whiplash ensemble dispels Stark's smug congressional hearing assertion that no one has duplicated his Iron Man tech, but he also has to contend with rival weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who loathes living in Stark's celebrity shadow. Further muddling matters, Rhodes is intent on placing the Iron Man suit under government control, all while Stark takes occasional meetings about the Avengers—distracting setup for Marvel's 2012 multi-superhero film—with eye-patched S.H.E.I.L.D. bigwig Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Oh, and Stark is dying as well, poisoned by the very mechanical heart that keeps him alive.
Suffice it to say, this is far too much plot for a two-hour film to handle, leading to undeveloped storylines and predictably confused performances. Though saddled with one-note baddies, Rourke and Rockwell chew scenery vigorously enough to keep the malevolence quotient high, and even stuck with material which strains to generate bad boy insouciance, Downey Jr.'s Stark remains a swaggering, cocksure charmer. The rest of the cast, however, doesn't fair well, notably Cheadle, whose Rhodes is so underwritten that his decision to not only confront Stark about his increasingly bad behavior, but downright betray his close friend, is rushed to the point of feeling illogical. Still, the actor seems more comfortable than Johansson, as the actress does little other than flash the same blankly sultry expression in every scene, including a last-act set piece—in which she reveals her hand-to-hand fighting prowess against nondescript security personnel—that's gracelessly shoehorned into the proceedings to provide the character with some semblance of a purpose.
Theroux's script makes plain that heritage-related concerns motivate both Stark and Vanko, yet the duo's common impulses to honor their fathers prove unequal: Stark's father was, it turns out, a tough but loving guy, while Vanko's was a money-grubbing villain. Somewhat shrewder is the way in which the series again positions profiteering as the constant threat to Iron Man's potential for using military-industrial might in service of solidifying global peace. Whether it's Hammer's desire for a Pentagon contract, the military's desire to co-opt the Iron Man suit for their own untrustworthy ends, or the fact that Vanko's revenge has its roots in his daddy's own avarice, this sequel follows the original's lead in suggesting that greed (for money and power) is the underlying cause of military misapplication. Nonetheless, despite being present in each of the tale's various strands, such notions fall victim to the material's overabundance of interests, the film deficient in coherent narrative arcs that develop and culminate with momentum.
This perfunctory treatment also extends to the idea (à la The Dark Night) that, though Stark's vigilantism seems for a time to have made the world safer, it's actually spawned greater threats. Unfortunately, as with so much of Iron Man 2, potent dramatic dynamics are handled hastily, with the film eventually declining to make Stark's own go-it-alone modus operandi a complex issue with which he must wrestle. The hero's mixed feelings over his father are resolved via a deus ex machina that appears via his departed daddy lending a helping hand from beyond the grave, and his renegade behavior is simplistically posited as the only reliable, fail-safe means of achieving true justice and safety. Moral conflict and redemption, central to the first Iron Man, are here reduced to afterthoughts.
Skimming these subjects in favor of computerized sound and fury might have been forgivable were the material otherwise funny, inventive, and exciting. Alas, the burden of so many storytelling responsibilities saps life from not only the hasty action but, finally, from Downey Jr.'s brash quips, brazen come-ons, and once-fizzy, now-obligatory rapport with Paltrow. Devoid of an emotional or moral center, it's a clunky tank of a summer spectacle with too many chinks in its armor.