Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was one of the happy events of 2008. It was a superb piece of super-hero entertainment, one that handled lightning-quick shifts in tone (grimness in Afghanistan, hilarity in Malibu) with a deftness that made the very hard work look very easy. It also reassured comic fans and mainstream audiences alike that there were still terrific movies to be made based on Marvel characters, reassurance that was sorely needed in the wake of the dire Spider-Man 3. So, the question with Iron Man 2 is, given the returning director and cast, was that same magic recaptured? The answer is a delighted yes.
The story picks up with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) basking in his fame as Iron Man. He puts on a showy entrance at the opening of the Stark Expo, thumbs his nose at a Congressional committee that wants to appropriate his suit’s technology, and races fast cars. But beneath the levity is a dying man: he is being poisoned by the very element that is keeping his heart ticking. Other problems arise in the form of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the embittered son of a former research partner of Howard Stark (Tony’s father), and Justin Hammer (a hysterically funny Sam Rockwell), Tony’s self-regarding business competitor, who is a devious and corrupt as he is incompetent. Unlike Hammer, Vanko is dangerous, harnessing the same energy source as Stark to power his own super-suit. They join forces to destroy Iron Man. He, meanwhile, seems bent on destroying himself before they can get around to it. His behaviour becomes erratic, forcing best friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to abscond with the War Machine suit, and he turns over his company to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Into this mix comes SHIELD, embodied by leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and agent Natasha Romanoff, AKA the Black Widow (Scarlett Johnansson). Fury sees Stark as a potential asset, but only if he can both sort his life out, and save it. The question is whether he will do so before Hammer and Vanko’s plans come to fruition.
Obviously, this is a pretty tangled plot, with a wealth of characters. So many notable comic book figures could easily push the movie into dreaded Batman and Robin territory, but Favreau and scripter Justin Theroux keep all these balls in the air with the same apparent effortlessness as in the first film. One of the film’s great joys is its dialogue, which comes at us with the overlapping energy and wit of a Howard Hawks screwball comedy. That’s right, old-school Hollywood charm in a summer blockbuster. So life is pretty good. The action scenes are still thrilling, and the sequel arguably improves on the original by giving us, in Justin Hammer, a villain who is much, much, much more fun to spend time with than the growling Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).
Is it a perfect film? No. While the first film’s final battle against Stane went on far too long, the equivalent scene here with Vanko is over so quickly as to be anticlimactic. The whitewash of the character of Tony’s father is unconvincing. And the film may be a little too funny, thereby burying some of its more serious themes and ideas.
But these issues are ultimately in the nature of quibbles. This is superb entertainment, and its sunny disposition, which sees its hero even more fully redeemed than does the first film, makes for interesting comparisons not only between the two films of the franchise, but between this and the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of recent super-hero films, Christopher Nolan’s symphony of darkness that is The Dark Knight. Is Iron Man 2 the product of an America that is beginning to feel good about itself again? Time will tell. In the meantime, popcorn rarely tastes as good as when it is accompanied by fun of this high an order.
Our hero is gleaming and high-tech. So are the movie’s production values. Therefore, the disc’s picture had better be, too. And boy, is it ever. The AVC codec handily delivers well over 30 mbps throughout the film, and the film’s 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio has been preserved. Blacks, contrasts and colours are beyond reproach, and there isn’t a hit of grain. Or at least, there is none as far as the movie’s original footage is concerned. During the commentary track, Favreau notes that the stock aerial shot of Washington, DC, doesn’t hold up at Imax presentations. It’s a testament to the quality of the Blu-ray transfer that the shot doesn’t hold up here, either, the sudden appearance of grain giving away its origin. Similarly, the details are so sharp that the effort that went into Paltrow’s tan and makeup is now clearly visible. While not entirely flattering to her, it is undeniably striking when the home video transfer reveals elements that weren’t apparent in the theatre. There is no edge enhancement, even in scenes where the characters are strongly backlit. Instead, to take one such scene, where Stark sits on his balcony with his back to the sea and sky, one is struck by how every nuance of the sunlight striking his hair has been captured. A stunning transfer.
Here, too, the work is exemplary. The film has two dominant personality traits: it is both dialogue-driven comedy and bombastic action flick. That’s quite a range for the audio to handle, and it is more than up to the job. The explosions are grand, as is the music, and the sound effects have been given excellent placement, zipping from one speaker to another in perfect sync with the visuals. The dialogue is always crystalline, which is crucial given its overlapping nature. If the audience must stay on its toes to catch all the lines, it helps that the delivery of these lines is completely free of distortion. Among the nicest touches is how much care has been taken in making sure the surround sound complements the dialogue. Specifically, what I’m thinking of here is scenes where characters are speaking into mics or are in large halls. The speakers pick up the echo and reverb of the dialogue, meaning that one’s screening room suddenly has the size and acoustic properties of the room in the film. Talk about plunging the audience into the movie.
Commentary track: Jon Favreau guides us through the film, and his commitment to the movie is as apparent as his love for the source material. His own comic acting and writing skills serve him well here, as he is a quick-witted, modest and self-deprecating speaker.
SHIELD Data Vault: There are two options here. The first is Footage Scan Mode, which means that pop-ups occur during the film, showing exploded views of settings, more detailed concept art for the failed suits built by North Korea and Iran, and so on. This is fun, but not always that informative. Where viewers are likely to spend more of their time is in the Vault itself, which features dozens of files (in text form) on the characters and events of the film. There is more setting up of Thor and The Avengers going on here, though not much new data to be gleaned, sorry.
Previsualization and Animatics: These appear as PIPs during the relevant scenes in the film.
Ultimate Iron Man: The Making of Iron Man 2: (87:08) An in-depth documentary, divided into four parts: “Rebuilding the Suit,” “A Return to Action,” “Expanding the Universe” and “Building a Legacy.” There are many good interviews here, going far beyond the simplistic “we all love each other and the script” responses. There’s even footage of Downey’s welcome speech to cast and crew on the first day of shooting.
Featurettes: (30:31) One substantial feature or six smaller ones, depending on your preference. The subjects covered are “Creating Stark Expo,” “Practical Meets Digital” (a look at the FX), “Working with DJ AM” and three “Illustrated Origin” pieces, featuring Nick Fury, Black Widow and War Machine. For my money, these last three are the most interesting, especially for viewers who have read the comics, but not recently, and so are perhaps a bit thrown by the some of the character interpretations (which draw heavily from Marvel’s Ultimates line).
Deleted Scenes: (16:50) Eight of them, with more entertaining (and interesting) commentary by Favreau as an option.
Concept Art Galleries: 11 of them.
Music Video: “Shoot to Thrill” by AC/DC, heard during Iron Man’s arrival at Stark Expo early in the film.
Trailers: Three theatrical trailers for Iron Man 2, two trailers for the video game, and one for the Avengers animated show.
This is about as complete a package as one could ask for. The extras are abundant, and the picture and sound are so beautiful, they would be distracting if the movie itself weren’t as good as it is. A very strong second entry in the franchise.