“Iron Man 2” is bigger and badder, but still second best

“Iron Man 2” is bigger and badder, but still second best

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  1.             Sequels are always tricky creatures. With the possible exceptions of "The Godfather, Part 2," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and, one could argue, "The Dark Knight," it’s rare to find one that surpasses its predecessor, especially when said predecessor is a film as universally awesome as "Iron Man."

                Not only is it a flick that catapulted Robert Downey Jr. into the stratosphere of superstardom while still showcasing his quirky brilliance. It’s also the film that made Jon Favreau into a full-blown filmmaking powerhouse and took Marvel Studios to a whole new level of storytelling.

                With all that in mind, the extraordinary level of hype surrounding “Iron Man 2” in the months leading up to its release is absolutely justified. It’s a film that, from the start, promised to maintain all the biting wit and high energy visuals of the original, but in a bigger, shinier blockbuster package.

                It’s definitely bigger and shinier, but sadly, “Iron Man 2,” despite being a very respectable popcorn thrill ride, fails to make it into the realm of sequels that meet or surpass the original.

                It’s been six months since Tony Stark (Downey) became Iron Man, and apparently he’s spent that time making the world perfect. But all is not well. Not only is the palladium-based reactor (that shiny thing in his chest) that keeps his heart moving slowly killing him, but he’s also dealing with a rival arms dealer (Sam Rockwell), Senate hearings, pressure from his assistant, the lovely Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his best friend James “Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and a shady, tattooed man named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is lurking in a Moscow tenement, building something that will bring a decades-long vendetta against the Stark family to fruition.

                That’s a pretty long paragraph, right? And I didn’t even mentioned Stark’s new assistant (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), or the giant expo he’s hosting in New York that features Iron Man themed cheerleaders and lots of new high tech toys.

                Which brings me to Reason Number One that “Iron Man 2” isn’t quite as good as “Iron Man”: overstory. Yes, I know, that’s not a real world, but it’s what comes to mind when I think of the overstuffed, muddled plot of this flick. It never stops being fun, and it never stops being interested, but at some point you have to stop throwing new plotlines into a 120 minute timeframe. Tension builds and then crumbles, characters come and go, and by the end things don’t get wrapped up so much as severed, sometimes before the logical conclusion. This means the flick doesn’t so much climax as it predictably fizzles, which is sad, because of most of what we’re looking at along the way just refuses to stop being cool.

                Jon Favreau, back for his second turn in the Marvel Universe director’s chair, makes even the often murky two hours of this flick fly by with the ease of a seasoned action maestro. Though it seems he might be a little sloppier with his camerawork (a scene where Iron Man leaps from a plane to make a grand entrance nearly made me nauseous), he seems to be having just as much fun as he did the first time around, and believe me, that is something you notice.

                But, this being a sequel, the good people at Marvel decided they had to make everything bigger, including where the film would take us. So, to that end, we find ourselves visiting, among other things, a racetrack in Monaco and a house party at the Stark mansion in Malibu that disintegrates into a powersuit fight. Don’t get me wrong, I love powersuit fights no matter where they take place, but things like that make me feel less like I’m watching Iron Man and more like I’m watching a Bond flick on steroids (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but hey, I came here to see Tony Stark). And speaking of that, I mentioned the sexy secretary, right? Which brings me to Reason Number Two why “Iron Man 2” isn’t as good as “Iron Man”: too much fluff.

                The cast maintains the same level of excellence as they did the first time around. Rourke is underused, and Johansson is little more than eye candy, but Rockwell, Paltrow and Cheadle shine. Downey retains his usual eccentric charms, and somehow manages to pull off the strange alchemy of blending depth and comic brilliance, even when the reason for the aforementioned depth is often lost in the shuffle of CGI and supervillain monologues. Which brings me to the Third and Final Reason why “Iron Man 2” isn’t as good as “Iron Man”: weak themes. Well, it’s not that the themes themselves are weak. The overarching concept here is that Stark, on the verge of death, is contemplating what his legacy will be, and Vanko, who doesn’t care if he lives or dies, is working to destroy that legacy. It has the makings of something great, dramatically speaking, but whatever sense of a profound and epic struggle there might have been is overshadowed by the hugeness of everything encircling it. All that huge stuff is interesting, nice to look at, even, dare I say it…boss. The problem is the film’s emotional core, like Iron Man’s ARC reactor, runs out of juice.

                So, three big reasons why “Iron Man 2” isn’t as good as “Iron Man,” none of which are big reasons why you shouldn’t go see the film, or big reasons why you won’t love it. Make no mistake; this is a truly awesome film. It might be missing a certain something, but it’s still better than most action films ever hope to be, and you will leave smiling. Oh, and please, oh please, stay for the credits. It’s a Marvel film, boys and girls. There’s always a coda.

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