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Iron Man 2 / *** (PG-13)

Posted Monday, May 10, 2010, at 5:11 PM

Robert Downey Jr. is back in the heavy metal wars in "Iron Man 2".
Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment present a film directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Justin Theroux. Based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Don Heck and Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby. Running time: 124 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language).

Well, there goes my theory about second films in a series being the best. Not that "Iron Man 2" is bad, but it doesn't come anywhere close to the heights achieved by the first "Iron Man".

"Iron Man 2" is a slick summer blockbuster that delivers just what the summer crowd is looking for, big bangs, some good laughs, shiny objects and not much else. Robert Downey, Jr. ("Sherlock Holmes") returns as Tony Stark, the flamboyant playboy CEO of one of the worlds biggest technology innovations companies, and the first superhero to revel in the disclosure of his secret identity as the powerhouse Iron Man. Downey's performance is just as quirky and charming here as it was in the original, but since this new upbeat take on the superhero psyche was explored so well in the first movie, he doesn't seem to be given as much to do here.

Stark isn't having such a good time as Iron Man as it would appear on the surface, however. Since replacing his heart with what is essentially a nuclear reactor (I'm sure there are Iron Man purists out there who will be clamoring to explain to me how erroneous that statement is), it has begun to poison his blood system. As his blood toxicity levels rise, he becomes sick. He starts acting like a man with a death sentence. He takes bigger risks, begins selling off and giving away his cherished treasures. He promotes his secretary, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, "Two Lovers"), to CEO--not an entirely bad decision, since she basically runs the company anyway--and he disappears from the public eye at just the wrong time.

Meanwhile, there are two developments that very much demand Tony Stark's/Iron Man's attention. The first is that the U.S. government is very interested in using the Iron Man technology as a military application for "the public good." They are so desperate for the technology that they are willing to go to Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, "Moon"), an inferior competitor of Stark Industries, to build an army of Iron Men. They sic a U.S. Senator (Garry Shandling, "What Planet Are You From?") and investigative committee on the Iron Man technology. They even enlist Stark's good friend, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, "Traitor"), of the U.S. Air Force, to persuade Stark to turn the technology over. When Rhodes sees Stark getting out of control, he just takes the Iron Man prototype.

Second, there appears to be a madman loose with Iron Man in his sights. He's a Russian named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"), and he has a grudge against the entire Stark family. He looks like a bum leftover from the Cold War bread lines of the Soviet era, but he's actually a gifted physicist in his own right who seems to have developed the exact same energy source technology Stark uses for the Iron Man suit. Instead of an iron suit of armor, Vanko uses it to power electrically deadly whips that he employs to try and kill Stark during a Formula One car race in one of the film's most impressive action sequences.

On top of all this, Stark is breaking in a new secretary, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johnasson, "Vicky Christina Barcelona"), who just might be a little more than she appears at first. It takes a visit from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, "The Spirit"), of the super secret special ops agency S.H.I.E.L.D., to enlighten Stark as to her purpose and Iron Man's value to the Avengers' Initiative, alluded to in the first "Iron Man". Now, this is just getting confusing, at least to the uninitiated.

It should be clear from this synopsis that "Iron Man 2" suffers from the same ailment as almost all comic book movie sequels, too many characters, too much going on. Its saving grace is that director Jon Favreau ("Elf") and screenwriter Justin Theroux ("Tropic Thunder") don't get themselves bogged down in character and emotional development. They don't go off on tangents and end up with the mess that was "Spider-Man 3". They keep it simple and stick to the action. They don't overcomplicate the plot any more than working all these characters in requires.

I don't think the majority of viewers will dislike "Iron Man 2", but many will be disappointed that it isn't as good as the first one. It is well made and doesn't fall into the typical plot muckery of many blockbuster sequels, but it doesn't rely on Downey's original interpretation of the main character as much as it does the action and special effects. It's a good time, but not a great one. For those who just can't get enough, it delivers. And, yes, there is one of those now expected Marvel credit cookies at the very end of the final credits, but it will be utterly indecipherable to anyone who isn't very familiar with the superheroes of the Marvel universe.

"Iron Man 2" is currently playing at Marshall Cinema and Galaxay Cinema in Sedalia.

Visit A Penny in the Well for trailers, DVDs, start rating scale and my weekly mini-review feature Penny Thoughts.

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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.
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