“Iron Man 2” Lacks the Original’s Mettle

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Director Jon Favreau, who tries to top or at least match his “Iron Man” (2008) with “Iron Man 2,” might have benefited from the baseball adage, “Don’t show ‘em all your pitches in the first three innings.” But then, if he had held back, the first film mightn’t have been the groundbreaking sensation that it was. It’s a Catch 22 worthy of the franchise.

While the aura and splendor of adolescent fantasy that embodies comic books are present here in all their optimistic possibilities, gone is that thrill of first discovery. The making real of a superhero via the synergy of man and machine is now a fait accompli. What we’re left with in round #2 are but the nuts and bolts of repercussion.

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Six months have passed since weapons mogul Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has shed his secret identity. As Iron Man, he has managed to sow peace among the major nations. Of course, that isn’t enough in some power grubbing corners. Though you can appreciate their argument, even the U.S. Senate isn’t at ease with Stark’s proprietary monopoly.

But Garry Shandling’s clownish Senator Stern and his resentful Armed Services Committee aren’t the self-appointed peacekeeper’s most dangerous detractors. Carving a niche among the ranks of villainous personae, Mickey Rourke is properly distasteful as Ivan Vanko, the vengeful offspring of a scientific genius Tony’s dad allegedly wronged.

A chip off the old block, Ivan also knows his way around the gizmos, gadgets and theorems of highfalutin technology. In fact, he may be dangerously close to mimicking the synergy of organic and inorganic properties that has literally propelled his golden boy antithesis to global fame. However, Tony’s biggest problem may be the enemy within.

Out-rocking the very notion of rock stardom and regularly burning the laser beam at both ends, he incessantly flaunts his success, essentially challenging Achilles for who can exude the most hubris. Continuing the analogy, instead of his heel it’s the hole in his chest—the one with the palladium-inserted canister—that symbolizes his fate.

You see, the palladium, while both keeping him alive and empowering him like Popeye’s spinach boosted to the nth power, is also poisoning him. Which explains why he’s behaving like Bette Davis’s Judith Traherne in “Dark Victory” (1939). Snubbing his nose at friend and foe alike, he celebrates his quandary in showy displays called expos.

Rounding out the classic, comic book elements is Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, the sweetly realized, low key dream gal Stark has yet to realize as such…proving once again that you always hurt the one you love. His personal assistant, she’s concerned not only with Tony’s well being and legacy, but that he might run Stark Industries into the ground.

It’s all in there—love, hate, power struggle and the perennial race by competing societies to be one up in the technology department— a veritable microcosm of everything that has occupied civilization since time immemorial. Neatly packaged in glossy tones with light show punctuation, it is a colorful primer, an intro to poli-sci.

As such, younger minds will be gratified to find confirmed many of the truths they had suspected all along. In this respect, director Favreau, inspired by the seminal work of Marvel Comics mainstays Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby and working from a script by Justin Theroux, successfully transfers the comic book culture to film.

The metaphors are apt and poetically ironic. And though delivered with a tempering of popular, rebellious cynicism, the justice meted out ultimately bears a distinct, American flavor. Adult viewers should enjoy the refresher course in Machiavellian politics whilst recognizing the purely coincidental resemblance between characters fictional and real.

But even if “Iron Man 2” does take a tiny next step up the FX ladder, it can’t satiate the electronic monkey Hollywood has insidiously planted on our backs. While things go snap, crackle and pop at regular intervals, filmgoers seeking a multi-media jaunt of the psychedelic kind may prefer to revisit their copy of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

Still, Mr. Theroux’s script is infused with a steady diet of witticisms and barbs delivered by an engaging cast. Robert Downey, Jr., while glibly subtle almost to a fault, is nevertheless a winning title superhero; Gwyneth Paltrow is appropriately winsome as the love interest; and Mickey Rourke amuses as the movie villain version of a junkyard dog.

But if the original was a soaring, cinematic symphony of comic lore, philosophy and kaleidoscopic invention, here those attributes are programmed and perfunctorily churned out with player piano precision. Try as he may to put the artistic palette to the metal, Mr. Favreau’s directorial alchemy just can’t turn “Iron Man 2” into motion picture gold

“Iron Man 2,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Jon Favreau and stars Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Mickey Rourke. Running time: 124 minutes


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