Iron Man 2

Lighten up. That directive had a lot to do with what made 2008’s “Iron Man” rake in more than $585 million worldwide.

The film’s polished storytelling and sly humor invigorated a comic-book superhero genre that, for all its box-office successes, had slipped into an angst usually reserved for high school sophomores. The Hulk was more mopey than marvel, while “Superman Returns” explored the Man of Steel’s sullen side. Even the best of the field, Spider-Man and Batman, are essentially psychologically scarred vigilantes. “Iron Man” restored fun to being a good guy.

As Tony Stark, the playboy industrialist-turned-superhero, Robert Downey Jr. (“Sherlock Holmes“) defeated the downers. His Iron Man was smart, feisty and able to deadpan as well as he could fly. A sequel was inevitable, but so was apprehension surrounding it. Would “Iron Man 2” be able to deliver the goods?

Well, yes “” for the most part.

“Iron Man 2″ purrs along on the conviction that it is a popcorn picture, nothing more and nothing less. It boasts action, laughs, romance, explosions, pseudoscientific gibberish and Scarlett Johansson slinking around in a skintight bodysuit. The movie has everything. In fact, if there’s a problem with “Iron Man 2″ “” and there is “” it is that there’s just too much of everything.

The sequel picks up six months after the conclusion of the first “Iron Man,” in which Tony has publicly admitted to being the guy inside the big metal outfit. Fame suits him. Ensconced in his Iron Man getup, he makes a splashy entrance at his own glitzy Stark Expo technology show and boasts about having successfully “privatized world peace.”

But all is not well. Insidious congressmen, working at the behest of oily arms manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, “Moon“), want Tony to surrender his Iron Man technology to the military. A crazed, heavily tattooed Russian physicist named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler“) has invented his own lethal costume and is chomping at the bit to take on Tony.

There is a mystery surrounding the alluring Natalie Rushman (Johansson, “He’s Just Not That Into You“), a new hire at Stark Industries. Most pressing of all is that the palladium battery that powers our superhero is also slowly killing the man in the suit.

That secret weighs on Tony, who copes by boozing, carousing and becoming a general embarrassment to his faithful sidekick, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, “Two Lovers“), and his best friend, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, “Brooklyn’s Finest“).

Things start to come off the rails when Samuel L. Jackson (“The Spirit“) shows up donning an eye patch as Nick Fury, the head of a crime-fighting operation called S.H.I.E.L.D. Moviegoers without some background in comics might wind up scratching their heads at the sudden intrusion of a character who is never sufficiently introduced. Narrative clarity, however, appears to be expendable when Marvel execs must set the stage for what promises to be a lucrative slate of future superhero flicks featuring Fury, The Avengers, Captain America and more. Consequently, “Iron Man 2″ is bogged down with enough plot to feed a family of four and still have leftovers for a summer’s worth of doggie bags.

Director/actor Jon Favreau, who helmed the first “Iron Man,” does a respectable-enough job handling the demands of a preordained box-office juggernaut. He successfully choreographs at least one boffo set piece, in which Vanko, brandishing electrified whips as if they’re tentacles, wreaks havoc at the Monaco Grand Prix.

The rest of the action feels creaky by comparison, but Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux (“Tropic Thunder“) are clearly more interested in things that don’t go boom.

In fact, “Iron Man 2″ is more funny than ferocious. Downey’s comic timing remains without parallel, and his wiseass charisma does wonders for a character who might have been insufferable if played by another actor.

Downey is nearly matched by Rockwell, whose Hammer is the also-ran desperate to be the cool kid. He also gets the movie’s best moment. Outfitting a prototype of the Iron Man suit with a host of weaponry, he waxes on the brilliance of his own arsenal (“If it were any smarter it would write a book; it would make “


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