Iron Man 2

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following the custom of superhero sequels, fans and reviewers will compare and contrast “Iron Man 2” with the inaugural installment, a moot point when the grand design is to engineer and weld the franchise into a cinematic simulacrum of the Marvel Universe that looks an awful lot like a money-printing machine warming up to deliver as many spin-offs as the summer blockbuster schedule will allow. We love to complain about that common tragedy of the cape-and-tights genre: the follow-ups lose their balance taking on the weight of more story, more villains, more characters, and more action – even when alternatives are practically impossible.

“Iron Man 2” embraces this “more is more” expectation with a vengeance, but in its defense, the running time is two minutes shorter than the first episode and the current model isn’t dependent on the delivery of an origin mythology. Instead, Robert Downey Jr.’s billionaire industrialist Tony Stark is free to emphasize all the ways in which he defies the Batman template’s somber expectations of serious responsibility, searing guilt, and secret identity. Instead, Stark’s narcissism and fame are expertly communicated by Downey Jr., who cockily asserts during a televised Capitol Hill hearing that he has privatized world peace.

In one interesting scene, a drunken birthday bacchanal that Stark attends in full armor, the late DJ AM, to whom “Iron Man 2” is dedicated, drops “Another One Bites the Dust” while Stark gets sloppy. There is no Ghostface appearance, but a mixed bag of celebrity cameos, from shuddersome Bill O’Reilly to the classier Christiane Amanpour, links the movie’s fantastic alternate reality to the one in which the viewers reside, and a deliberate Stan Lee/Larry King mix-up notwithstanding, director Jon Favreau (who also returns as Stark chauffeur/bodyguard Happy Hogan) smoothly translates the candy-colored panels of the page to the computer-enhanced dream vision of Hollywood spectacle.

What a bummer that Gwyneth Paltrow’s talent is wasted playing the outdated stereotype Pepper Potts. Despite Potts’ promotion to CEO of Stark Industries, she remains a second-class citizen in her partner’s world, cleaning up his messes, nursing his wounds, scolding his bad behavior, and shrieking when placed in harm’s way. Screenwriter Justin Theroux’s snappy one-liners allow Paltrow and Downey Jr. the opportunity to banter in the tradition of William Powell and Myrna Loy, and the script is stuffed with a surprising amount of clever bons mots and double entendres, but Pepper is shackled to the sexist tradition that puts the men in the center of the action while the women passively observe from the sidelines.

At least one woman, Scarlett Johansson’s Natalie Rushman, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent never directly identified in the movie as Black Widow, is allowed to dispatch a squad of security goons, but the character is so vague, fuzzy, and unfinished that we never develop a sense of her importance to Stark. The same goes for Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, who descends in the middle to explain all sorts of presumably critical information, but really seems to be there to remind ticket buyers that Captain America and Avengers movies are on the way. Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke fare slightly better, stepping into the sequel’s equivalent of Jeff Bridges’ role in the first “Iron Man.” With so many important characters returning, however, there simply is not enough time available to fully explore the new personalities. Hopefully, part three won’t be as crowded.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/10/10.

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