GENRE: Superhero demolition derby
THE PITCH: After outing himself as Iron Man, zillionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) contends with vengeful, whip-cracking Ivan Vanko (tattooed, Russian-accented Mickey Rourke), a smarmy arms merchant (Sam Rockwell), romantic tension with his assistant (Gwyneth Paltrow) and … a blood toxicity problem?
MONEY SHOTS: Ivan keeps a toothpick in his mouth when he strides onto the Grand Prix track and shears racecars to ribbons with whips of lightning. Tony’s pal James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) dons an earlier version of the armor for a brawl that seems to reference Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. Scarlett Johansson maintains perfect hair while kicking all kinds of ass. Iron Man and Rhodes’ “War Machine” have final showdowns in an amusement park cherry orchard that prove explosively exciting without dragging on forever.
BEST LINE: “I have successfully privatized world peace. What more do you want?” Tony asks, displaying the kind of hubris that anticipates a major fall.
WORST LINE: “Are you that guy? Because if you are, you can solve the riddle of your heart,” spymaster Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, basically playing himself) tells Tony while keeping a straight face.
BODY COUNT: Five, although the whiz-bang set pieces at the Grand Prix and the Stark Expo (like a cross between a World’s Fair and a sales convention) keeps the inevitable bloodshed of bystanders off-camera.
FASHION STATEMENTS: Before a jubilant crowd at the Stark Expo, Tony doffs the Iron Man armor to reveal a dapper pin-striped tuxedo. Behind him, Rockette-style showgirls wear red-and-gold armored bikinis. Rourke flashes a mouthful of shiny teeth. Johansson squeezes into a black catsuit for spy hijinks.
SOUNDTRACK HIGHLIGHTS: AC/DC continues to be the franchise’s house band, bookending the film with “Shoot to Thrill” and “Highway to Hell.” The Clash turns out to be a new favorite, with “Should I Stay (Or Should I Go),” “This Is Radio Clash” and “The Magnificent Seven.” (A friend of mine speculates that “Seven” might hint at the number of members on the team of the upcoming Avengers movie.)
NOTABLE CAMEOS: “Mad Men’s” John Slattery plays Tony Stark’s father – and looks a little like Walt Disney – in cleverly shot vintage promo films. Iron Man co-creator Stan Lee makes his requisite cameo, dressed as Larry King. The late Adam “DJ AM” Goldstein (to whom the film is dedicated) plays at Tony’s birthday party.
HEY, WAIT A MINUTE: Rourke and Johansson play characters known as “Whiplash” and “Black Widow” in the comics, but I don’t think they’re ever called by those names in the film.
EXTRAS: One fleeting, mid-movie joke and another scene at the end prime the pump for next summer’s Marvel movies. You may notice that some Paltrow-Downey flirtation from the trailer – “Go get ’em, boss,” “You complete me!” – didn’t make the final cut.
BETTER THAN THE ORIGINAL? No. Director Jon Favreau’s introductory film felt like less like a standard superhero origin than an American James Bond, in which the action, political commentary and clever humor felt entirely organic, despite its love of hardware. The sequel’s health crisis storyline casts a pall over the action and feels like a cheap play for sympathy.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Favreau plays Tony’s driver, Happy Hogan, but as the director of Iron Man 2 he seems more like an overworked traffic cop, trying to prevent the collision of too many plotlines and characters. Iron Man 2 provides the requisite level of action and fun performances, especially from Rourke and Rockwell, even though the incessant changes in tone and storyline can give audiences whiplash. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.)