Iron Man 2 (***)

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Iron Man 2. 124 mins. PG-13. Directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Justin Theroux. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Let's get this out of the way first: Iron Man 2 Is not Spider-Man 3.  I was concerned there  for a while when it seemed that director Jon Favreau (back for more) kept adding villains and side characters. Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, and Don Cheadle - all fine actors, but the potential was there for this movie to be too overstuffed, too unfocused, and, well, just too busy for its own good.  I don't know how he did it , but somehow Favreau managed to make it work, with most of the first movie's charms intact.  It certainly helps that at the center of it all, he's got the untouchable Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark / Iron Man.  RDJ was the best thing about the first Iron Man, and he's the best thing about its sequel.  In fact, he's so good, he (almost) makes up for the lack of worthy villains and the soggy middle section.

This time around, Stark's ego is running amok in the wake of the public revelation of his alter ego. Stark is the subject of Senate hearings and a government that wants to get its hands on the Iron Man suit for use in warfare. He's also dealing with an annoying tech rival (Sam Rockwell, Amusing as the B-version of Stark - Justin Hammer), the search for a new assistant (Johansson's Black Widow - pretty super herself), and a new foe - Mickey Rourke's Whiplash. Add in some set-up for Marvel's planned The Avengers movie, and, well, you-can see why I was worried this sequel might be too cluttered.

The script by writer (and sometime actor) Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) is just okay. The set-up is great - the first 40 minutes fly by as we're brought up to speed with Stark's new level of celebrity, the Senate hearing , and more. The last half hour works too - energetic, zippy action plus Cheadle's Rhodey gets to put on a suit and become "War Machine." Geeks rejoice in unison. But it's that middle section that drags.  Right around the part where Stark is eating donuts in the middle of a giant donut sign, one starts to wonder, "Uh guys, don't we have to tell an actual story here?"  Favreau, for his part, is a good actor's director, but not the strongest visual stylist. 

One of the pleasant things about both Iron Man movies though is the focus on character and humor above everything else. The action is usually an afterthought - doled out in small measures, and most of it fairly forgettable. It's funny - Iron Man may be one of the only superhero movies where I would be perfectly content without any action. Heck, I do not even need to see the Iron Man character appear at all. I would much rather spend time with RDJ and Gwyneth Paltrow, as Stark's main squeeze (and new head of Stark Industries), Pepper Potts. Their witty, quick-tongued, playful banter is a highlight - consistently funny and a joy to watch.

I wish I could say the same about the villians. Mickey Rourke, fresh off his Oscar nomination for The Wrestler, plays the hulking Russian, Whiplash - a guy with a lot of tattoos, and a huge family grudge Against the Stark family.  After taking out Stark's race car during the Grand Prix, Whiplash joins up with Justin Hammer to build some knock-off Iron Man robots to take Stark down. There is never any doubt they will fail.  Rourke's Whiplash barely registers - he has few lines, and his performance is too clueless and method actor-y.  You can just hear Rourke's train of thought - I'll give my villain a pet bird and have a toothpick in my mouth for most of the movie - that will be interesting!  Rockwell fares slightly better, but his character is still a disappointment.  The Iron Man movies need to get better villains pronto - characters who are smarter than Stark and can really knock him down a peg or two.  Stark needs a Joker-style nemesis.

As far as sequels go, Iron Man 2 is decent enough.  Though not as good as the first, the drop-off in quality is minimal.  I'd be up for a third go-round, as long as RDJ and Paltrow are game.

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