Iron Man 2 isn’t a bad movie. My wife’s one word review was simply “Meh”, and that’s a pretty good overall description of the film. Except for some genuine chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, and the moment where Tony Stark puts on his suitcase armor (as seen in the trailers), almost everything else moves along with a light tone that seems more fitting in a screwball comedy than an action film.
There are some good performances from the cast, and the actual ideas could make for a compelling story about the post-origin problems of being Iron Man, if only the resolutions for all then didn’t end up being different versions of Deus Ex Machina. And the metaphors are perfectly timed: after falling for a few seconds near the beginning of the movie, Iron Man doesn’t actually show up for the first half hour, and when the fireworks finally do come they’re mostly medium sized.
(non specific spoilers follow)
The biggest structural problem is that at key points the story gets hijacked by the need to set up a series of films set in a cinematic Marvel universe. It forces the plot to deconstruct itself in incredibly unhelpful ways, such Nick Fury showing up to rewire the plot and hand out cures to the film’s conflicts. He leaves behind a secret agent character who is supposed to babysit Tony Stark, fails at that job, and then leaves the movie entirely only to arrive in an after-credit sequence that is supposed to set-up the upcoming Thor film—except it doesn’t even mention that movie by name. Even the comics have the good sense to tell the audience when a crossover story is actually crossing over.
The second major story problem is that none of the characters seems genuinely motivated, and the stakes aren’t really ever that high. Tony’s life is sort-of in danger for a while, but that’s mostly resolved in a throwaway moment mentioned above. Then the move becomes about Stark’s daddy issues, all of which get resolved before you’ve fully figured out what they’re about. There’s also a rivalry with another arms manufacturer, but he’s played mostly for laughs. Lastly there’s there is Mickey Rourke as the film’s main villain, who never really rises to more than a cartoon threat. By the anemic explosions and rooftop banter at the end of the movie it seems like everyone mostly decided to show up and have a little fun, without ever actually making something truly entertaining.
Even narrative-free blockbusters like Twilight and Transformers get that you need to hit some high points in order to make the popcorn-munchers happy. Iron Man seems content to coast at a steady pace, pushed by the energy of the first film, and pulled forward by the excitement of the upcoming Marvel movies. Too bad it didn’t end up being more.