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When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) takes the stage at an Expo at the beginning of Iron Man 2, he does so in a manner completely befitting his self-assured bravado – by jumping out of a plane and landing on a platform covered with scantily clad dancers. It’s a move that only a man who knows he’s got a hit on his hands could make. Which is also why, though Steve Jobs is too scared to do it, director Jon Favreau can pull it off. He knows that the Iron Man franchise is returning as reigning champ and is going to set the bar for summer movie blockbusters.
Since the first film, Iron Man has helped stabilize the world, bringing forth an era of peace and tranquility not seen in decades. Naturally the U.S. Army is desperate for this ”weapon” — the Iron Man suit — to promote more peace. Riiiight…
A Senate hearing sets up the conflict between Stark – resolutely defending his ownership over the technology – and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a rival defense manufacturer. (If a real Senate hearings were this exciting CSPAN would get a huge ratings boost.) Despite the incredulity of this overly scripted and melodramatic scene (even for a film filled with flying men in suits), it does allow Rockwell to introduce a truly sniveling character in Hammer.
Meanwhile, in Russia, heavily tattooed brilliant scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) has vowed revenge for the betrayal of his father by Stark’s father (played by Mad Men’s John Slattery as a Walt Disney-like innovator). But it takes Hammer and Vanko teaming up to become a force worthy of challenging Iron Man – and even then it’s not all that impressive.
In fact, it’s Tony himself who is the biggest threat to Iron Man’s continued existence, for the element that fuels his battery heart is slowly poisoning him; in typical Tony fashion, he’s determined to wallow in self-destructive behavior until it’s his time. Which leads the film, written by Justin Theroux, to also wallow for a while.
Iron Man 2 is most fun when being the least serious. When Stark is at the top of his game – insulting senators or belittling Hammer – there’s no one else you’d rather be. Or be with. But when soul-searching takes center stage, the character development drags down every story arc. Fighting inner demons is always less fun than fighting real opponents (remember Spiderman 3?). For example, in his attempt to prepare for the future, Stark gives control of the company to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Watching Pepper try to wrangle a company is much less fun than her trying to wrangle Stark. And their budding romance is marginalized to allow for Stark to flirt with his new assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson).
Even though the bad guys leave a lot to be desired, compared to Stark fighting his friends, they’re a welcome element. As the heavily-accented Vanko, Rourke relies on his appearance more than anything to be threatening. Looking like The Wrestler again, only with clean hair, Rourke mumbles through the part and whips deadly ropes of electricity around with abandon. Even with his wild appearance, it’s his brain which is supposed to be the bigger threat, but something just doesn’t compute when you’re forced to watch his dirty, disgusting fingernails fly over the keyboard. As his financier Hammer, Rockwell has a fun character to play, but Hammer is ultimately just annoying, and even Pepper can intimidate him into stepping aside. Not scary. At least Rockwell is a joy to watch. Which pretty much sums up this film: story problems aside, it can still be a fun movie.
When Stark is at his best, Downey is the embodiment of cocky, self-assured, and totally believable as a man who would strap on a metal suit and fight bad guys. His moments of deep introspection are merely passable, and the quibble there is more with the character’s shortcomings than from Downey’s as an actor.
In a welcome move, Don Cheadle has replaced Terrence Howard as Stark’s military buddy Rhodey and does a much better job in the role. Where Howard was too wispy, Cheadle takes it up a notch and provides more military backbone to the part. (Though, curiously, all of the military personnel are rather spineless in the film.)
The best addition to the movie is Johansson as both Stark’s assistant and as a secret agent working with the mysterious Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Though the lingering shots on her strutting around in a skin-tight outfit are a little too gratuitous, as Natasha Romanoff she does kick some ass. She’s what Jennifer Garner wishes she had been able to do as Elektra. You almost wish Natasha was on the other side to see her take out Pepper Potts in a fight. Because as the CEO of a major corporation, Pepper still comes across as a lightweight, and Paltrow doesn’t do the character any favors.
After Stark conquers his demons, things start to blow up like a Michael Bay Transformers movie – meaning too much, too fast. And then it’s over in a flash, with the final moments coming quick and cheesy even as the bombs are still ringing in your ears.
When director Favreau is really on, his film is indestructible. Fewer attempts at serious cinema will go a long way for future installments in the Iron Man franchise. Speaking of which, die-hard comic fans who want a tease of the next Marvel comic coming to theaters should stick around through the credits. For others, there’s no need to hang around after the last bomb has exploded.