Combustible Celluloid
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With: Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, John Slattery, Jon Favreau, Paul Bettany (voice), Kate Mara, Leslie Bibb, Garry Shandling, Stan Lee
Written by: Justin Theroux, based on a comic book created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby
Directed by: Jon Favreau
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language
Running Time: 124
Date: 04/25/2010

Iron Man 2 (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Steady Metal

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jon Favreau's Iron Man 2 sadly doesn't match the great emotional highs of other superhero "part twos" like Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight or X2: X-Men United. Rather, it concentrates on being lighter, more fleet-footed and more consistent than its predecessor. It also corrects the major flaw of Iron Man (2008), which forgot about characters during its final battle, concentrating on the clashing and clanging of two digital blips. Here, we get more Robert Downey Jr. and more friendly chatter. At the same time, it's also the biggest all-star Hollywood spectacular since Nine, boasting a long and generous cast list (with five Oscar nominees) where even the tenth-billed actor is worth the price of admission. (Plus, it has the benefit of not being in 3D!)

The action picks up not long after the conclusion of the first film, in which Tony Stark (Downey) announces to the world that he's Iron Man. This sets up whole new series of subplots. Firstly, the evil, tattooed vodka-swilling Ivan Vanko (a terrific Mickey Rourke) sees the broadcast and begins building his own battle armor, for revenge. Apparently, Tony's dad once did something mean to Ivan's dad. Then, a Senate hearing committee tries to claim Tony's invention as the property of the United States, and we meet the slimy weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who is also trying to come up with something similar to the Iron Man armor.

Moving on, Tony decides to hand over the CEO chores of his company to his whip-smart secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). She, in turn, brings on board a smokin' new cohort, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), "from legal." Johansson is so curvy here that she'd make Marilyn Monroe cover up in shame, and even Tony can't quite find the right come-on quip for her; he just sputters. Unfortunately, Tony has begun to have issues with blood toxicity, and even his temporary solution of drinking a kind of chlorophyll shake isn't working so well any more. He must find a new way to power his heart or he will die. All this happens during the gigantic, extravagant year-long Stark Industries Expo, filled with lights, music, dancing girls, and dangerous weapons.

There's plenty more, and suffice to say that Don Cheadle takes over the role of Lt. Col. James Rhodes from Terrence Howard with no struggle. Leslie Bibb reprises her role as a reporter for a single scene, and Clark Gregg and director Favreau also turn up again. Paul Bettany provides the reassuring voice of Tony's computer, and Samuel L. Jackson gets a few choice scenes as Nick Fury (also teasing audiences with the future "Avengers" film). Finally, Garry Shandling appears as a crooked senator and the adorable Kate Mara appears all-too-briefly as a subpoena server. As always, the real key to the movie's drive and personality is Downey's awesome catch-me-if-you can performance; he dances circles around his co-stars, dazzling us and drawing us in at the same time (he understands how to be vulnerable as well as flashy).

Another actor, Justin Theroux from Mulholland Drive, earns his second screenwriting credit, after working on the terrific Tropic Thunder (did Downey request his services?). It's a lone credit, though I would gamble that some of these actors provided a wisecrack or two of their own. The movie is hysterically funny, with some near-classic lines of dialogue that might even make Quentin Tarantino envious. However, it lacks a really driving plot; each scene plays out beautifully by itself, but the scenes don't really band together to build or climb or generate suspense.

I think this will give the overall impression of lack of quality, but this lightness is what I really like about Iron Man 2. Lightness gets a bad rap these days; everything has to have at least the illusion of depth, but the illusion of depth -- rather than real depth -- to me is far worse than a pure celebration of fun. (Think of a film like Duck Soup.) Director Favreau is particularly good at this kind of thing, having climbed his way up on brisk, smart, high-concept comedies like Made, Elf and Zathura. Favreau also understands the clarity of action and the movie's aerial fight scenes have a lovely fluidity that makes them enjoyable, even if they don't really contain anything new.

In fact, I'd argue that Iron Man 2, despite its huge budget, is really what Manny Farber used to call an "underground movie," or a pure action movie with no ulterior motives. It has no agenda, other than to be muscular fun. It helps that Iron Man has always been a sort of B-list comic book hero, and there was very little at stake in adapting him to the big screen (much like Ghost Rider), and so when it turned out well, it was a happy surprise. Obviously the sequel doesn't have that same underdog status, which may also irritate some viewers, but by trying not to go bigger, deeper and louder, Iron Man 2 goes in exactly the right direction.

Fans will already know, but I will remind them, to stick around until the end of the credits for a neat little superhero movie tease.

Part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise.

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