Iron Man 2
Directed by Jon Favreau
Screenplay by Justin Theroux
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell.

It’s been six months since Tony Stark revealed to the world that he’s the metallic avenger (not to be confused with the capital-A Avengers, but more on them later) known as Iron Man and in that time, much has changed.

No longer just a fabulously wealthy inventor and playboy, Stark (played once again by the indefatigable Robert Downey Jr.) is now a freakin’ superhero, a one-man army who flies about the globe righting wrongs and keeping America safe.  Already nuclear hotspots like Iran and North Korea have toned down their rhetoric, instead funneling their defense budgets towards developing armored soldiers that can go toe-to-toe with Iron Man.  (Though based on top-secret test footage, they’re at least 10-20 years away from any kind of success.)  Even the U.S. government can’t replicate Stark’s creation, which is why they’re hounding him to turn over his technology–too bad for them that his fame, fortune and popularity essentially puts him above the law in the public’s eyes.

Meanwhile, on the homefront, Stark is preparing to turn over control of his company, Stark Industries, to his longtime personal assistant/love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) so that he devote his full attention to his armored heroics.  The change in management happens to coincide with the lavishly funded Stark Expo, a sprawling exhibit of the company’s many wares, which kicks off with a special appearance by Tony in full Iron Man regalia.  Touching down in a football-stadium sized convention hall, Tony soaks up the crowd’s ecstatic cheers and applause.  He’s a superstar, a legend, the king of the world–or, put another way, he’s just too damn big to fail…which means, of course, that he’s inevitably going to be taken down a few pegs.

The same could be said of Iron Man 2 itself, which completely embraces the “bigger, louder, more!” aesthetic that sequels to unexpected hits often fall prey to.  Based on advance hype alone, there’s no way that the movie won’t open to a gazillion-dollar opening weekend and the amount of money that’s been invested in making the action sequences as explosive and entertaining as possible will guarantee that audiences keep coming back for more.  So failure isn’t and won’t be an option for Iron Man 2.  Still, amidst the movie’s enormous set-pieces, costly digital effects and beefed-up cast of characters, it’s hard to escape the nagging sense that something vital is missing.  Maybe the movie’s giant scale makes it less nimble or maybe Justin Theroux’s screenplay needed at least two more drafts before shooting started.  Either way, Iron Man 2 simply isn’t as satisfying as its predecessor.

Or perhaps what’s really missing is the element of surprise.  It’s hard to remember now, but when the first Iron Man blasted into theaters only two short years ago, it seemed like something of a longshot.  Aside from the title character’s status as a second-tier Marvel Comics hero in terms of name recognition, the movie was saddled with a leading man with a tumultuous personal and professional history, a director whose commercial track record was uneven at best and an untested production company (Marvel Studios) making its first big-budget blockbuster.  But thanks largely to Downey’s live-wire performance and Jon Favreau’s light touch behind the camera, Iron Man clicked.  Seen again, it’s clear that even though the plot is held together by scotch tape, the movie’s sense of humor carries the day.  Eschewing the trend towards grim comic-book movies (dark and disturbed works for Batman, not so much for Superman and Spider-Man), Favreau and Downey gave us a superhero who–gasp!–actually likes being a superhero.  Whether he’s tinkering in his lab or soaring through the skies, Stark always appears exhilarated by what he’s doing and that excitement galvanizes the audience as well.

Tony’s positive attitude is something from the first movie that does carry over into the second chapter.  Even though he’s been at it for six months, he still goes about his heroics with a twinkle in his eye and a quip at the ready.  Only now there’s a new development: the same element that’s powering his internal battery is also poisoning his blood.  Try as he might to ignore it, the knowledge that the thing he enjoys most is also killing him eats away at his mind and takes a toll on his relationships with Pepper and his best friend Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle, stepping in for Terrence Howard).  He’s also wrestling with some lingering daddy issues, which are only exacerbated by the government’s continued harassment.  See, back in the day, Papa Stark (Mad Men‘s John Slattery) had no qualms about handing over technology to his country’s military, so why should his son and heir be any different?

It isn’t long before the Stark family’s past literally comes back to haunt Tony in the form of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of the Russian scientist that worked alongside Stark senior…that is, until he was descredited and deported at his colleague’s insistence.  Exiled to Siberia, the disgraced inventor spent the rest of his life mired in poverty and hardship, but made sure to pass both his loathing of the Stark clan (as well as his knowledge of their supposedly propriety technology) onto his child.  Tony’s coming-out as Iron Man is just the spark Ivan needs to seek revenge.  Creating his own battery-powered super-suit–a gladiator-style outfit with a pair of wicked energy whips–Vanko confronts an out-of-uniform Stark and proceeds to thoroughly kick his ass…that is, until Tony manages to get a hold of the handy portable version of his Iron Man armor.

Pitting Tony against the prodigal son of another brilliant inventor seems like an ideal premise for an Iron Man sequel.  Just imagine the storytelling possibilities–Tony and Ivan are forced to battle their fathers’ memories as well as each other.  Or maybe they become reluctant allies, teaming up to take on a power-hungry U.S. military that wants to seize Stark’s armor by any means necessary.  Certainly, the combination of Downey and Rourke is a potent one; instead of trying to match his co-star’s turbo-charged energy (a mistake some of the other cast members make), Rourke is methodical and calm and all the more menacing for it.  That’s why it’s all the more disappointing that they only share about three scenes together during the movie’s two-hour running time.  In fact, following his big debut as a super-villain within the first thirty minutes, Ivan is largely kept off-stage until the big finale in order to make room for two new faces in the bloated cast.

The less egregiously superfluous of these characters is Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), Tony’s chief domestic rival in the weapons manufacturing game, who enlists Ivan’s help in creating an army of iron-clad soldiers that will make Iron Man yesterday’s news.   As conceived by the filmmakers and played by Rockwell, Hammer is basically the Bill Gates to Stark’s Steve Jobs.  Where Tony is the most popular kid in school, Justin is a giant dork.  (Unlike Gates though, none of Hammer’s tech seems to work, which leads one to wonder how he keeps scoring such big contracts.)  There’s some potential to this relationship, but Hammer is ultimately too much of a cartoonish figure to take seriously as a credible villain.  Theroux and Favreau would have been wiser to relegate Hammer to a background role and move Vanko front and center.

If Justin Hammer is primarily an annoyance, than the movie’s other new face, Natalie Rushman a.k.a. the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a flat-out waste of screen time.  Initially introduced as Pepper’s replacement, Natalie seems set up to be the third point in a love triangle with Tony.  But that idea is quickly abandoned when it’s revealed that she’s actually an operative with the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, in his first substantial appearance as Fury after cameos in Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk).  You’d think this would make her more interesting, but after outing her as a hero, the filmmakers have no idea what to do with her.  So she primarily functions as set decoration until Favreau finally hands her an unnecessary fight sequence during the movie’s climax.  Perhaps another actress would have been able to make something of this part, but Johansson delivers a remarkably leaden performance.  Even when squeezed into a skintight leather ensemble, she’s entirely devoid of personality or sex appeal.  Seven years after Lost in Translation, it’s gotten harder and harder to consider Johansson one of her generation’s top talents.

Black Widow is also representative of a larger problem with Iron Man 2.  Because no one was really sure if the movie was going to work, the first Iron Man was treated as a solo adventure for the title character.  The sequel, on the other hand, is a crucial cornerstone in Marvel Studios’ planned comic-book movie universe, which will include stand-alone features starring Thor and Captain America before the team-up flick The Avengers arrives in 2012.  References to these upcoming movies are dropped throughout–warning: you’ll have to stay through the end credits to see the Thor-related clue–and, while amusing at first, they do start to grate after awhile, none more so than Black Widow whose role ultimately amounts to little more than an extended preview for The Avengers.  Call me crazy, but I’d rather that Theroux and Favreau pay more attention to characters and plot points that are going to matter in this movie and not in a film that’s being released two years from now.

While the characters around him may disappoint, Iron Man himself still brings the goods.  As in the first movie, Downey is the glue that holds Iron Man 2 together, single-handedly jump-starting the proceedings whenever the plot meanders off-course (which is often) or a scene starts to drag (also a regular occurance).  He does have solid back-up from allies Paltrow and Cheadle, who know better than to compete for the spotlight, but still manage to slip a few good wisecracks into the mix.  Favreau’s chief skill as a director is ensuring that his leading man’s self-indulgence works for the movie instead of against it; he gives Downey plenty of room to play without letting his antics upset the overall tone.  Perhaps because of his own background as a comic-book geek, he also excels at framing individual shots that could have been directly lifted out of the pages of the Iron Man comic.   Every scene in which Tony suits up, for example, is capped by a power shot of Iron Man striking an awesome pose.  These moments are designed to make the audience break out in applause and I can attest that they succeed.

One area where Favreau’s skills still need work though, is in action choreography.  While the set-pieces make for decent eye-candy, they rely too heavily on big explosions and jittery camerawork to mask any imperfections in the digital effects.  And, like the rest of the movie, the action sequences aren’t paced as sharply as they should be.  The climactic fight between Iron Man and the combined forces of Hammer and Vanko seems to go on forever and when Favreau can’t think of any other way to end it, he just blows the whole battlefield to smithereens.  There’s no question that Iron Man 2 gets the 2010 summer movie season started with a bang.  But where the first movie left you giddy for more right away, this slapdash sequel suggests that Tony Stark needs to take a longer vacation before his next outing as Iron Man.

Iron Man 2 opens in theaters on Friday.