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Unlike a lot of critics, I'm usually glad to see the “Serious Movie” season go. While I don't mind a cerebral time at the movies, I've always been a fan of summer blockbusters: the popcorn-munchers; the brain cell killers; the flicks that promise nothing more than a lot of explosions, some quippy one-liners and a couple hours in a cool, dark room. I would submit that our American obsession with watching stuff explode on screen tells you a hell of a lot more about who we are than even the best Oscar-winning films about sad people living lives of quiet but poetically-filmed desperation.
Given that, I have really been looking forward to this summer's biggest comic-book-spawned blockbuster: “Iron Man 2.” I'm a lover of funnybooks from way back, not to mention a fan of the always-interesting Robert Downey Jr., so this seems like lightning in a popcorn bucket for me.
The best news is: Though sequels often disappoint, it appears that director Jon Favreau has managed to take a page from the Christopher Nolan playbook and make a Part Deux that is as entertaining and fun as the original. Building on the story started during the first film and illuminating previously shady corners of the franchise a la “The Dark Knight,” it's a great time at the movies.
Once again, we follow the adventures of Tony Stark (Downey), the billionaire heir to a fortune built on the back of the military/industrial complex. In the first flick, Tony wound up with a prototype reactor embedded in his chest, which gave him the power to fly around as Iron Man, righter of wrongs in an exotic-alloy battlesuit Stark built himself. While most superheroes guard their secret identity like the formula to Coca-Cola, Tony outted himself as Iron Man at the end of the last film.
This go-round finds him dealing with the ramifications of that, including the rigors of fame and the machinations of the U.S. government, which wants to get their hands on the Iron Man blueprints in order to create the next generation of armored soldier. When we return to the story, things are quickly going south for Tony, what with the fact that the reactor in his chest is slowly leaching a lethal dose of Palladium into his body — something he has tried in vain to stop. Adding to his troubles is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian supervillain out to avenge the death of his father, who had his prototype power cell stolen by Tony Stark's dad back in the day. With the help of his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his pal Lt. Col James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Stark fights against the evil military hardware dealer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who wants to back Vanko in his play to destroy Iron Man.
While the cool-stuff-blowing up quotient is high in “Iron Man 2” — including a laser-whip fight at the Monte Carlo Gran Prix, and a no-holds-barred battle between Tony Stark and Col. Rhodes while both are fitted out in near-indestructible Iron Man suits — no movie can stand on spectacle alone, even a summer blockbuster. Luckily, the film weaves in a nice ribbon of personal conflict, including Tony's mental melt-down when faced with his own mortality (the scenes of Tony acting like a drunken idiot will be particularly familiar to those who remember Robert Downey Jr.'s own problems with drugs and alcohol), his decision to hand over Stark Inc. to Pepper, and Tony's guilt that his fortune is built on invention-thieving. That said, the film is always fun, and never gets preachy — mostly thanks to Downey, who can deliver a one-liner with pinpoint accuracy.
In short, “Iron Man 2” is a heck of a time at the movies.