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In its best moments, and pretty much all of them were best moments, the original Iron Man felt like a direct extension of its main character, snazzy and charming and way smarter than it lets on. It's probably a bad sign, then, that Iron Man 2 opens not with the dashing and magnetic Tony Stark, but with blue-filtered cinematography and a crashing, Dark Knight-reminiscent score as we meet Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the Russian crazyperson who may as well have the word "VILLAIN" strewn in among his many tattoos.
Ivan's introduction only takes up the opening credits, and it's barely any time at all before we're tossed into the tawdry excess of the Stark Expo, but the precedent has been set-- Iron Man 2 is constantly, almost unintentionally, moving away from its central character, and it suffers for it throughout. Tony Stark spends most of the movie in a slump, poisoned from the inside by the core reactor that's keeping him alive and dealing, maybe a little belatedly, with some daddy issues. Everyone around him, from rival industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) to newly appointed Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), is keeping busy, but Tony, who seemed to develop a conscience at the end of the first film, is right back to the same old motivation of booze and women. Robert Downey Jr., marvel that he is, manages to make even Tony's stupidest, most selfish antics endearing, but it's almost as if he realized his character-- the title character!-- had been written as a passive bystander, and he had to work double time to make up for it.
That's all fine in the film's first 45 minutes, which introduce Vanko's evil revenge plan, show off Tony's boundless charm at a tense Senate committee hearing, and lead into the film's first, and probably best, action sequence, when Whiplash interrupts a Monte Carlo car race to attack Tony with beautifully realized electrical whips. Preceded by a long and elegant party scene that sets up the film's many rivalries and capped by a comic getaway for Pepper Potts and right-hand man Happy (Favreau himself), the Monte Carlo sequence is everything Iron Man does best: fluid storytelling, over-the-top enjoyable action, inventive gadgets, and humor thrown it at precisely the right moments.
Unfortunately it's another solid forty five minutes before we reach the next action scene, and it's a colossal misstep that throws the entire film off its game. Tony's military pal Rhodey (Don Cheadle now, Terrence Howard last time) is fed up with his friend's drunken antics and shows up at Tony's birthday party to reclaim the suit, but Tony is too busy DJ-ing in his suit and doing party trick. I won't spoil the details, but you probably already know that War Machine makes an appearance in this film, and well...you see where this is going.
From there Tony is occupied by a Da Vinci Code-esque hunt through his father's old documents, which leads pretty much nowhere, while Hammer and Vanko team up, Rhodey questions his allegiance to his friend, and Tony's comely new assistant Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is revealed to have another employer-- let's just say, Marvel fans, that he wears an eyepatch. It's a lot to keep track of, but Iron Man 2, despite its failings, avoids the villain overload that has felled any number of superhero sequels, and all the pieces are set nicely into place for the final showdown. The problem with all of it, though, is that it just doesn't really matter. Ivan Vanko seems set on nothing but avenging the death of his father that he believes Howard Stark caused, and Hammer, annoying as he is, isn't a villain-- he's just Tony's business competition. The first film found Tony Stark getting over his petty business concerns and learning to fight for the greater good, but Iron Man 2 puts us exactly where we started, getting worked up about things like intellectual property theft and who slept with that cute Vanity Fair reporter first. It's fun and glamorous and all, but we've generally come to expect more from our superheroes.
Iron Man 2 was very publicly made in a rush, and it shows-- the script suffers from long stretches of nothing but dialogue scenes, and character arcs that should have connected the whole film show up crammed into scenes, just to make sure they fit into whatever happens in the sequel. That's never more apparent than all the scenes involving Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.; the entire agency was introduced only after the credits of the first film, but going into this one we're expected to understand the purpose of S.H.I.E.L.D., where Iron Man might fit into the Avengers, and even why a maverick like Tony Stark would want to be in that superhero club. Jackson's mighty over-acting and Clark Gregg's smarmy Agent Coulson give these S.H.I.E.L.D. scenes a little zip, but they're effectively just another distracting subplot in a film that could have stood to drop a few.
Tony Stark is practically alone among modern movie superheroes in that he suffers very little self doubt, charging ahead with his plans, damn the torpedoes and that sensible Pepper Potts. If only we could say the same of the sequel that surrounds him, a movie that is so good when it pulls itself together, but is frequently too disorganized or uncertain to soar to the same heights as the first film. There's plenty in to enjoy, and overall Iron Man 2 provides more entertainment, guilt-free, than anything you're likely to see this summer. But based on the first film and many sections of this one, we had reason to expect even more.