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There's no getting around the fact the specialest effect in Jon Favreau's armored-clad superhero snarkfest is Robert Downey Jr. Obnoxious, narcissistic and frequently entertaining, his Tony Stark is the quintessential ugly American, wielding his charm, capitalist ideals and self-righteous code of ethics with unrepentant élan. Without him, and the menagerie of A-list actors that fill out the cast, Justin Theroux's convoluted yet choppy script would unravel under the weight of Iron Man 2's overly pixillated ode to bad boys with kick-ass toys. Which is a shame, because, unlike The Dark Knight, Superman 2, Spider-Man 2, and X-Men 2, this superhero sequel doesn't outshine its predecessor.
Picking up right where the last film left off, Stark's (Downey Jr.) confession that he's Iron Man has turned him into the ultimate celebrity while inciting government fears that he's inspired a super-soldier arms race. Predictably, they want his technology. "You can't have it," he gleefully crows. "I have successfully privatized world peace!" But no one knows brash Tony's private pain: the technology keeping his heart alive is slowly poisoning him. This sets up Theroux's theme of personal legacy and how the maverick hero is still in search of his heart.
Meanwhile, we're introduced to Mickey Rourke's greasy, tattoo-covered Russian scientist Ivan Vanko and smarmy rival industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). Both want to put the hurt on Stark, and Vanko has the energy whips to do it. So far, so good. For its first 45 minutes, Iron Man 2 jets from Siberia to California to Monaco, setting the stage for a darker, deeper sequel. It all culminates in the film's best action sequence, a killer multi-racecar pileup at the Monaco Grand Prix, where Stark and Venko square off for the first time.
Then the movie starts to crumble.
The problem that has vexed many a screenwriter is how to write an exciting second act, where problems mount and character is revealed. It's here that Theroux and Favreau falter. After establishing a villain that can really give Stark a run for his money (and has parallel daddy issues to boot), Venko is sidelined in favor of Rockwell's hammy weapons manufacturer. This muddies the water as to who the real bad guy is and how Iron Man will rise to meet the threat.
Equally distracting is the uninspired appearance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and slinky Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), who are tasked with setting up 2012's multi-hero The Avengers movie. Valuable screen time is stolen from Stark's simmering love affair with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his illogically on-again, off-again friendship with James Rhodes (Don Cheadle stepping in for Terrance Howard). Characters come and go, complications surface then disappear, and we're shuttled from one laboratory to the next. With so much to do and only two hours to do it in, Stark overcomes his undeveloped challenges and subplots with surprisingly little drama or pain.
When the big finale finally comes, it boasts plenty of state-of-the-art digital pyrotechnics but few gee-whiz moments. Jokes are cracked, weapons are deployed, and stuff blows up real good. But you know something's amiss when Johansson's twirling melee with faceless security guards delivers the final act's most satisfying action moment.
Despite its shortcomings, however, Iron Man 2 remains a cheeky blast of confidence and charisma. Downey, Rockwell and Rourke are clearly having a ball, and Favreau keeps things fleet footed and fun. While there isn't nearly as much combat as you'd expect — most of it is quick and chaotic — there's enough to keep the fanboys happy. It's also interesting (and heartening) to note that the sequel once again indicts the military-industrial complex as a vehicle for unfettered avarice rather than peace and protection. Unfortunately, it never develops those ideas or arguments into anything more than cartoon villainy.
The first Iron Man was memorable and fun, a movie that surprised critics, audiences and studios with its energy and wit. Iron Man 2, in contrast, evaporates as soon as your expectations for clanking fisticuffs, wry asides and ear-splitting explosions are met. Nevertheless, there's little doubt it'll be a hugely successful movie. But it should have been a better movie.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.