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Movie Review

Iron Man 2

'Iron Man' of the people: Superhero sequel at its best when the stars are having a ball instead of a brawl

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / May 7, 2010

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Robert Downey Jr. looks as hung over in “Iron Man 2’’ as he seemed drunk in “Iron Man.’’ He does his share of drinking this time, too. And the sequel makes more out of his insobriety. It has an early stretch where it fizzes and slurs, with the stars stepping on each other’s lines and feet. The movie feels drunk, too.

Downey’s billionaire military-industrialist slut, Tony Stark, slams down into his own expo (for both peace and state-of-the-art weaponry) as his ironclad superhero self. The elemental casing falls away, revealing a handsome pinstripe suit. Tony pats himself on the back for saving the world (“I’ve privatized peace,’’ he brags), praises the scantily clad entertainment (hey everybody, it’s the “Iron Man 2’’ dancers), then finds himself served with a subpoena to testify at a Senate committee hearing, where the movie begins its improvement of the flagging after-party atmosphere of the first movie.

I’m almost certain this is the first time C-SPAN and summer blockbuster have met. In any case, Tony slouches before a firing squad of congressmen, chiefly a simpering Senator Garry Shandling. They want to take over the Iron Man technology. It could be a threat to national security. What if our enemies use it to destroy us? Experts testify — Stark’s friend, Lieutenant Colonel James “Rhodey’’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and his cocky competitor, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). But Stark rolls his eyes and cracks jokes while his personal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), gives him sour looks from the gallery. The series continues to operate in an arms-race universe parallel to our own, which is a nifty conceit that, in this sequence, produces comical home-video footage of bad Iron Man clones from North Korea, Iran, and Hammer’s company.

At this point we’re about 20 minutes in, and you can’t help but notice that “Iron Man 2’’ is a well-oiled entertainment despite the fact that nothing blows up. This is doubly true a few scenes later, when the movie descends on Monte Carlo for a grand prix race and Downey, Paltrow, and Rockwell seem to really enjoy talking over each other, half-swallowing their put-downs. These scenes have the glamour and wit (however minimal it is) of classic screwball comedy, which becomes a problem later on when the effervescence flattens and a plot takes over.

As it turns out, not all those Iron Man copies are bad. Mickey Rourke shows up at the grand prix cracking two sizzling electric whips. He looks like a dominatrix from “Tron.’’ Rourke plays Ivan Vanko, the tattooed son of the Russian who helped Tony’s father conceive the Iron Man technology. Vanko has come from Moscow to avenge his father with his black-market suit. He has the mind of a physicist, but the body of a paroled bouncer and the hair of a Bratz doll. Naturally, Hammer gets a hold of him and enlists him to perfect his fleet of fighting machines.

Meanwhile, Tony is running out of the palladium that keeps the nightclub in his body from closing. Without it, he’ll die. Will a replacement chemical element turn up in time for last call? Will he drink himself to death? And how do you save the world when you’re drunk? None of this is as interesting as it should be, so the movie builds action sequences around it all. Rhodey tries to stage an intervention by putting on a spare Iron Man suit and fighting Tony in his armor. They wind up demolishing Tony’s cliffside Malibu mansion. It’s a dull, gratuitous, and illogical encounter (can’t Tony just tell Rhodey, “I’m dying, bro’’?), and it gets to the core of the trouble with this movie — and perhaps with the entire superhero industrial complex.

The technology to realize these movies has never been sharper. But staffing them with real stars might be too much of a bonus since they’re more entertaining than the effects. All three “Spider-Man’’ films ran aground during their climactic showdowns, partially because you knew that wasn’t Tobey Maguire swinging through Manhattan. In “Iron Man 2,’’ I found myself more interested in Rourke’s body art than in any of the innovations of the CGI artists. Armed drones are a major feature of the film’s rushed climax, and an apt metaphor for what actors become in these sorts of action sequences.

“Iron Man 2’’ tries to compensate for that, as its predecessor did, by cutting to Downey’s glowing face inside the suit as he blasts away. But there’s still something anonymous about it all, and that just isn’t the case when you’re watching Rockwell apply Tom Cruise’s swagger to Greg Kinnear’s starch. The general excellence of the casting trumps the inarguable excellence of the technology.

Even if Paltrow still seems bewildered as to why she’s here, she spats with Downey better than any woman he’s worked with. Replacing Terrence Howard, Cheadle is more efficient, but the part now has some meat on its bones. And the addition of Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious new Stark Industries hire only sweetens the intrigue. When she steps into the boxing ring wearing work attire and looks just past the camera almost at us, it’s the easiest seduction Johansson’s ever committed. (“I want one of those,’’ says Tony as she climbs out of the ring.) She makes a strong entrance, but has even less to do than Paltrow. And yet, you’re happy to see her.

This movie is at its best when it’s breezy, playing up the idea of the CEO and the superhero as a vain rock star. The beauty of Downey’s performance is that Tony’s self-regard savages the double lives of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. Stark is out and proud. But the heavier both the movie and the metal get, the duller they become. Brawling here feels mandated.

So I suppose it’s to the movie’s credit that it’s as enjoyably verbal as it is. This isn’t Ben Hecht or George Cukor — Jon Favreau returns as director and the script is by Justin Theroux, both of whom are also actors (Favreau reprises his role as Tony’s Jeeves). It’s clear where their sympathies lie. They prefer the people and ask that we tolerate the machines.

IRON MAN 2

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Written by: Justin Theroux

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, and Mickey Rourke

At: Boston Common (including IMAX), Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX in Reading and Natick

Running time: 124 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language)

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