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Believe ‘Iron Man’ hype — mostly

POSTED: May 5, 2010 11:30 p.m.
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Gwyneth Paltrow, left, and Robert Downey Jr. fight for the survival of their relationship in "Iron Man 2."

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No other movie in 2010 will hit theaters with more hype than "Iron Man 2." You’re all waiting for it and you’re all going to see it regardless of what I write next, so the real question is, does it live up?

Mostly, he writes with hesitation (adopting the narcissistic third person in honor of the movie’s narcissistic hero Tony Stark).

The first "Iron Man" shocked everybody by scoring huge box office returns and earning strong reviews. The Tony Stark/Iron Man character meant nothing to most moviegoers before the 2008 hit, but he’s become an icon. And now the sequel is the first official summer release of the year.

Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux try to satisfy those unreachable expectations by introducing a new villain and several supporting characters, all played by big-name actors.

The result is a movie that is just as funny as the original but a bit full of itself.

Tony’s new nemesis is an imposing Russian fellow named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), whose physicist father worked with Tony’s dad long ago. After Vanko’s papa was accused of treason and deported to Russia, Ivan grew up to become an impoverished physicist with a big-time grudge again the Stark family.

When Vanko’s father dies, Ivan uses Daddy’s blueprints to make his own version of Tony’s reactor and reinvents himself as Whiplash. Wielding two electric ropes that can slice through anything, he sets out to destroy Tony.

All of this happens during the opening credit sequence, which should be a sign that "Iron Man 2" is dense with plot.

Tony also battles congress and the military, who want access to the Iron Man suit and all the technology related to it. This pits Tony against his best friend, Lieutenant Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle, who controversially replaces Terence Howard, the original Rhodey).

A rival industrialist named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) also wants access to the suit, mostly as a way to help his company beat Stark Industries.

Meanwhile, Tony has a sexy, mysterious new personal assistant, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who struts around in tight skirts and may not be who she seems. The movie’s marketing has already revealed that Johansson eventually dons a cat suit and kicks some butt.

As if that isn’t enough, Tony’s relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) seems to be falling apart.

"Iron Man 2," like every blockbuster sequel in recent memory, commits the sin of trying too hard to outdo its predecessor.

The real casualty in all of this is Rourke, who simply doesn’t get to do much. He is totally believable as a scarred and angry Russian underworld figure, but Whiplash targets Tony merely for revenge. The character is menacing and dangerous but offers none of the complexity of, for instance, the Joker or Harvey Dent in "The Dark Knight." This flat villain keeps "Iron Man 2" from reaching the quality of the best superhero movies.

However, Downey is as charming as ever. He’s the only actor on the planet who could pull off the role of a narcissistic (have I mentioned that yet?) billionaire playboy who we actually like.

He and Paltrow are the George Burns and Gracie Allen (look them up, children) of superhero movies. Their chemistry is more fun than any other on-screen couple working today, regardless of genre.

Rockwell is perfect as the foil (make note of his spray-on tan), Johansson looks great in the cat suit but clearly didn’t do her own stunts, Samuel Jackson shows up wearing an eye patch, and the movie hosts an endless parade of hilarious cameos, none of which I’ll spoil here.

"Iron Man 2" doesn’t take itself too seriously, and we shouldn’t make the mistake of expecting it to be an instant classic.

Favreau and company understand that the distinctive quality of these Iron Man movies — and there will be more — is their cheeky playfulness and over-the-top attitude. And that’s still the reason to buy the ticket.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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