Superhero movies tend to do better on the second installment than on the first installment. The Dark Knight was better than Batman Begins. X-Men 2 was better than the first X-Men movie. Part of this is because the writer no longer is saddled with having to set up the hero’s origin story, while also setting up the origin story for the villain as well, and laying down the rules of the setting, and establishing all the characters you’re introducing. Come movie number two, and you (and the audience) already know what the rules are and the hero’s origin. Now you just have to establish a new villain, possibly involving his origin (though, as The Dark Knight showed, not always), and plot the character growth for the returning cast.
I’m not saying it’s easy. I am saying it’s not necessarily as hard as the first outing.
In Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has revealed himself publicly to be Iron Man, making him one of the few superheroes in film to have a public identity, and in this installment, Tony now finds himself facing some of the consequences. Congress wants the Iron Man armor to be turned over to the Federal government, and Tony’s refusing. Meanwhile, the arc reactor that’s keeping Tony alive is slowly killing him by leeching palladium into his system, leaving Tony to try to build up a legacy that will continue to make the world a better place, while making himself dispensable enough that when he drops dead it will all keep going, and while trying to fullfill his semi-personal bucket list without tipping off Administrative Assistant Pepper Potts (Gweneth Paltrow) and Happy Hogan (Director Jon Faverau) Meanwhile, Tony faces two opponents who are both connected to him personally, and both couldn’t be more different – business rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a slightly less competent version of Tony, who aspires to take Tony down a notch, and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of the man who designed the Arc Reactor with Tony’s father, who wants revenge for his father being disgraced and deported from America.
If I could summarize the theme of the film in a word, it would be “legacy”. Tony Stark knows he’s dying, and wants Stark Industries to continue down the path he moved it on in the last movie after he dies. However, he also wants to the company to be able to operate completely without him after his death, so he acts to deliberately push everyone from his life away, so when he dies he hurts them less.
Justin Hammer represents the legacy Stark probably would have left if he’d continued to be involved with weapon production, and if you look at the conflict between Stark and Hammer, it’s over the legacy of Iron Man. Tony envisions Iron Man as a symbol of peace. Hammer’s goal is a series of mass produced “Iron Man” knock-offs which would turn the technology into a symbol of war. The ultimate faceless soldier.
Finally, Ivan Vanko’s origin is, unintentionally, part of the legacy Tony’s father, Howard (John Slattery in an excellent role) left (by unintentionally, I mean that the character didn’t intend it, not the writers). Because Howard had Ivan’s father deported, he ended up dying in poverty, and Ivan himself ended up living the hard life he did, driving Ivan to seek revenge. So, Ivan becomes a dark mirror of Tony Stark. While Tony knew wealth, privilege, and all the finest schools, Ivan Vanko knew poverty, crime, and hardship, but managed to nurture the seed of his intellect, but for a darker reason than Tony did, for revenge.
This leads to the film’s conflict – Tony trying to build up his final legacy, as forces conspire to destroy it utterly.
No, they don’t explicitly spell it out in the film. Really though, they don’t need to – I picked up on it.
I give this film a full recommendation. The acting is great. The writing is great (as you could probably tell by my gushing over it), and the visual effects are excellent. If you have an Imax theater near you, see it there. It’s worth it.