REVIEW: Overstuffed Iron Man 2 Needs More Downey, Less Dazzle
For a movie about a guy in a metal suit, the first Iron Man moved with surprising grace and a minimum of clanking. Jon Favreau, who'd never directed a superhero action picture before, and Robert Downey Jr., who'd never starred in one, pulled off the rarest of feats: They made a seemingly effortless blockbuster, an exhilarating picture that never let us see it sweat. Downey's Tony Stark, a playboy kajillionaire who owed his good fortune to the military-industrial complex, was a charmer with an ego, and he wasn't about to apologize for it. Like all good superheroes, he had his vulnerable side too, but Downey presented Stark's contradictions as if they were all of a piece, instead of turning them on or off with the flick of a switch. He mapped the character's psychic pain by doing a soft-shoe around it -- hard to do in a futuristic metal jumpsuit, but then, that's Downey.
Iron Man 2 is more of the same -- a lot more of the same -- and yet a lot less. Favreau, working from a script by Justin Theroux (which itself was adapted from the Marvel comic-book series), toils hard to pack more in. There are more characters, more special effects, more conflicts, but not necessarily more story. The picture opens extravagantly, with Stark -- as Iron Man -- making a dramatic entrance at his own "Stark Expo," an elaborate version of an auto show (held, appropriately enough, in Flushing Meadows, the site of both the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs) designed to celebrate the latest techno-humanitarian advancements and the fact that Iron Man has kept the world at peace for several years running, though not necessarily in that order. Iron Man whizzes through the sky, arriving at the site on his little jet feet. After he lands -- stealing the show from his warm-up group, a phalanx of shimmying, high-kicking go-go dancers -- his Iron Man armor magically peels itself back and folds itself up, revealing Tony Stark in a pin-striped tux, who proceeds to make a self-aggrandizing speech about how much good he's done the world. As openers go, it's pretty dazzling, not least because it so unapologetically celebrates the real star of this show so far: Stark's hubris.
But not everyone loves Stark as much as Stark loves Stark. In fact, no one seems to love him much at all: In Iron Man 2 his enemies include a wily congressman (played by an alarmingly puffy Garry Shandling) who has called upon him to turn his Iron Man gear over to the military; an ambitious weapons bigwig (Sam Rockwell) who hopes to harness Iron Man-style technology for evil, not good; a taciturn, badly tattooed Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke) who has an age-old beef with Stark's family; and a sexy minx of a legal assistant (Scarlett Johansson), who may not be what she appears to be (she isn't).
Meanwhile Stark's former pal, Lt. Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes (now played not by Terrence Howard but by Don Cheadle, who has more to give as an actor than this minimalist sketch of a role demands of him) has turned against him and gotten into bed with the wrong guys (although the story never makes clear why he'd get into bed with this particular, and very obviously bad, guy). Even Stark's former assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), whom he's just appointed CEO of Stark Industries, is perpetually annoyed with him -- because she's deeply in love with him, natch. Did I mention that somewhere in there, Samuel L. Jackson strides in wearing an eyepatch? And that Stark's most fearsome opponent isn't even included in the movie's exhausting laundry list of antagonists? (Hint: His biggest enemy lies within!) There are so many characters in Iron Man 2 that there's barely room for a plot. Figures wander on-screen, scowl or kvetch for a bit, and then disappear, only to resurface again after you've nearly forgotten them.
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