John Favreau doing Michael Bay doing Robert Altman doing Dostoyevsky doing Shakespeare. “Iron Man 2″ is as elegant as it sounds. After battling a pre-Oscar, double-crossing Jeff Bridges in the first film, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark finds himself pitted against Ivan Vanko, the metal-mouthed Muscovite brainiac version of Mickey Rourke, who is intent on punishing the weapons tycoon and textbook narcissist, now publicly known to be the man behind the Iron Man mask, for some imperialistic evil his father may or may not have brought upon his father — or something like that. Just don’t ask too many questions or you’ll never find your way out of the film’s motive-free carousel of circular reasoning. Just remember: Russian, bad; American, good. Now sit back and enjoy the ride.
Clearly made by talented professionals, the production is as slick as they come with effective green screens, top-notch CGI and almost believable sci-fi weaponry. Favreau heaps on the imaginary high-tech gadgetry sure to give fanboys more seizures than a Japanese cartoon. And Downey’s signature machine-gun dialogue delivery is amplified to the point that it feels like the brunt of the action is going on during the intervals between the big fight sequences. Whether he’s blasting champagne bottles with his palm energy ray in a drunken haze at a house party, humbly claiming that he has “successfully privatized world peace” before a Senate committee hearing, or showing off his latest stroke of genius against a backdrop of half-naked dancers at his self-congratulatory Stark Expo, it’s surprisingly refreshing to finally engage with a superhero without the weight of the world on his shoulders — or who at least doesn’t act like it.
Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and the rest can be such downers. Tony Stark has no wrongful death to avenge, no discernible romantic yearnings, no self-righteous grandma to keep him on the straight-and-narrow, and now that everyone knows that he is Iron Man, he has no destructive, gnawing secrets. Crime-fighting is simply a means to an end for Tony Stark. He does it because it keeps him in business and allows him to booze and chase skirts in peace. The fact that an egomaniac like Stark can exist in a Hollywood blockbuster like this without either getting his comeuppance or being worshiped as the spokesman of the new American dream is more than welcome in an era of moralizing sociopaths in tights.
As good as Downey and Rourke are, it is a largely unsung actor who steals the show. The criminally underrated and underused Sam Rockwell plays fellow weapons dealer Justin Hammer, a jealous, weaselly Tony Stark wannabe who uses Vanko’s expertise to try to steal just a little of Stark’s maddeningly perpetual spotlight for himself. He’s the tag-along little brother whose neglect festers and eventually rears its ugly head in the most insidious of attention-seeking tantrums. Rockwell should have won an Oscar for his virtuosic performance in the psychological sci-fi drama “Moon,” and he brings that same character awareness here.
Other than its considerable assemblage of witty rapid-fire verbiage mostly spewed by Downey, Justin Theroux’s script is the main culprit in the failure of “Iron Man 2″ to reach the bar set by its predecessor. It suffers mildly from sequel syndrome which holds that everything must be bigger, better — the same disease that destroyed “Spider Man 3.” Theroux’s script makes for a far better movie than “Spider Man 3″ but it similarly writhes under the weight of hollow plotting. Thanks to Favreau’s sure hand the “Iron Man” franchise was well on its way to shaking the tethers of conventional, banal comic book movie storytelling. Instead, we get a heap of baffling fights, loud noises and an eye patch just for the heck of it. “Iron Man 2″ is leaps and bounds ahead of the bulk of sequels out there, but it never really finds the core of its own story.