Iron Man flies back into our lives with fireworks, a Richard Sherman jingle, and a chorus of skimpily suited dancer-cheerleaders. In truth and fiction, showmanship is the order of the day for superhero sequel Iron Man 2, though the flash and dazzle distract from plot machinery that’s more than a little clunky.
The coming-out-party that reintroduces our heavy-metal hero—a.k.a. crafty industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.)—is Stark Expo, a year-long world’s fair that doubles as a monument to the CEO’s ego. One portentous demonstration of hubris follows another when Stark smugly answers to the Senate Armed Services Committee, whose ax-grinding Senator Stern (ever-welcome Garry Shandling) wants to seize Stark’s high-powered armor for military use.
Stark counters that his invention is inimitable and therefore the ideal deterrent: “I have successfully privatized world peace! What more do you want?” Cue Russian physicist/ex-con Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who makes his own public splash as “Whiplash,” using technology very similar to Stark’s. Vanko demonstrates his tech in a murderous assault on Stark, whose late father Howard (John Slattery of Mad Men) apparently wronged Vanko’s late father.
The first impression of Iron Man 2, heard under the Paramount and Marvel logos, is the distinctive murmur of Downey, whose tossed-off readings make every line a seeming ad lib. Even with his recent prolific output, Downey remains a dazzling talent, and he goes a long way in holding Iron Man 2 together. Director Jon Favreau wisely casts Sam Rockwell as rival weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer. He’s not so much a foil for Stark as a nasty doppelganger, possessed of the same gift-curse of funny blather.
There’s a lot more going on in Iron Man 2, which suffers from that sequel symptom of cramming in too many elements: Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing Terence Howard) clashes with best bud Stark and becomes the power-suited “War Machine,” a new Stark employee (Scarlett Johansson) turns out to be comic femme fatale “Black Widow,” Stark takes strides with presumable flame “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and a certain Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) continues to circle Tony as a possible recruit for the eye-patched one’s team of “Avengers.”
Speaking of too many elements, Stark is tasked with discovering a new element when the palladium in his arc-reactor core turns out to be poisoning his bloodstream. It’s one of a few clever stakes-raising turns screenwriter Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) devises. Still, the mad dash through plot points that are, at times, needlessly complicated and, at others, not complicated enough can make the Iron Man 2 experience naggingly unbalanced.
Presumably due to budget concerns, the raison d’être action scenes can feel truncated, most noticeably in a rushed final battle involving Iron Man, War Machine and Whiplash. But the giant-sized set piece at Monaco’s Grand Prix delivers the goods. And yes, if you’re a comic-book fanboy who has avoided online spoilers, there’s again a surprise awaiting you in a post-credits sequence.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]