Lots of things get blown up and torn apart in "Iron Man 2," as you would expect from any self-respecting blockbuster kicking off the summer movie season. The magnitude of destruction far exceeds that of its predecessor — from rows of cars to armies of drones to Tony Stark's cliff-top Shangri-La — and includes repeated instances of characters walking away from a massive fireball without looking back. 'Cause looking back is for wimps.
But that's not all that gets obliterated here. The substance of the original "Iron Man," the brain and the soul that set it apart from the typical seasonal fare and made it one of the best films of 2008, also have been blown to bits.
Tony Stark had purpose back then, and despite the outlandish fantasy of his Marvel Comics-inspired story, as a person he had a believable arc. Crafting the high-tech suit and transforming himself into a superhero gave this selfish industrialist and self-destructive playboy a sense of drive, a reason for being beyond just his whims and indulgences.
Here, he's purely arrogant once more, with some glimmers of mortality and daddy issues. And Robert Downey Jr., so irresistibly verbal and quick on his feet in the first film (and in pretty much every film he's ever made), seems to be on autopilot. Sure, he's got a way with a one-liner, and his comic timing is indisputable, but he's done this song-and-dance routine before and seems rather bored with it.
Then again the character — and the sequel itself — are less defined this time. Narratively, "Iron Man 2" is a mess. Director Jon Favreau, working from a script by Justin Theroux, throws in too many subplots, too many characters — and what a waste of that cast, actors who can really act like Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle and Samuel L. Jackson in an eye patch as Nick Fury, offering a bit of foreshadowing to "The Avengers" film. (For more Marvel movie geekery, stick around until the end of the credits.)
As we recall from the last line of the first film, the whole world knows that Stark is indeed Iron Man. Now the government (led by Garry Shandling as a sniveling senator) wants him to turn over the suit for the military's benefit, and his best friend, Lt. Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Cheadle in place of Terrence Howard) can only do so much to protect him.
Why not more scenes with Downey and Rourke?
Meantime, there's a new foe in the form of Russian bad guy Ivan Vanko (Rourke, buried beneath tattoos and a Boris-and-Natasha accent), who's built a suit of his own in his dank Siberian abode, complete with electrified tentacles; sadly, he and fellow acting heavyweight Downey spend most of their screen time apart. In no time, Stark's rival, Justin Hammer (Rockwell, turning on the smarm) snaps up Vanko and asks him to build an army of Iron Men for himself.
Then there's the battle Stark is waging internally, as he reflects on his own weakening body and the memories of a scientist father (John Slattery, glimpsed in old movies) who didn't love him enough. And speaking of love, "Iron Man 2" also tries to find time for the blossoming relationship between Stark and his right-hand woman, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), while dangling the possibility of a dalliance with a mysterious new assistant (Scarlett Johansson).
So yeah, there's a lot going on here. The enemy — the focal point of the whole movie, for that matter — remains murky, making you realize about halfway through that it's unclear exactly what "Iron Man 2" is supposed to be about.
Favreau seemed to handle all the expensive toys effortlessly the first time, an exciting discovery given his previous work on smaller films like "Made" and "Elf." The strain shows now in a lack of momentum and a reliance on generically bombastic action sequences. (The final showdown looks like several blips of light, chasing each other around the skies above New York's Flushing Meadows.)
The cinematography from Matthew Libatique is, once again, an engaging mix of bright, crisp exteriors (especially in IMAX, the way "Iron Man 2" was shown to Los Angeles critics) and tangibly gritty intimate moments. But the big, shiny action sequences — the reason audiences get giddy for movies like "Iron Man 2," ostensibly — too often look cartoony. That's especially true of the initial showdown between Stark and Vanko at the Grand Prix of Monaco, with its cars tumbling end-over-end before — you guessed it — bursting into flames, just as it seems the "Iron Man" franchise itself is doing.
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