Robert Downey Jr., in 'Iron Man'

Dir. Jon Favreau
(2010, PG-13, 124 min)
★ ★

Either I’ve changed since 2008 or Tony Stark has. In the first Iron Man film, I remember being charmed by the billionaire arms manufacturer, a vainglorious man-child who approached superheroism like a playground. But in Iron Man 2 he’s much less charming. His brashness has become shtick. He’s not just making a spectacle of himself, he’s making a spectacle of being a spectacle, self-consciously showing off like it’s a marketing ploy. Step right up and behold Tony Stark’s ego! He wisecracks at Congressional hearings. He recklessly drives his own race car. He jumps out of a plane and lands on stage at his own weapons expo in full regalia, and when he takes off his armor his tuxedo is still well-pressed and his hair still perfectly coifed. “I’m an incorrigible brat, but that’s why you love me,” he seems to tell us. I’m not sure I even like him this time around.

I found myself rooting for Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), an interesting villain who deserves all the excess screentime that goes to the clownish Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a business rival of Tony Stark’s whom the screenplay designs, it seems, to make Stark look less smarmy by comparison. Vanko is a Russian physicist who creates his own energy-core-powered battle suit and attacks Stark at an auto race in France. His backstory is the only disappointment: his father, a physicist like him, was deported and exiled because of Tony’s father, and now he wants to destroy the Stark family legacy. And so on, and so on.

Mickey Rourke, as Ivan Vanko

Why does Vanko waste time on revenge? He’s wily, serenely intelligent, and always seems to be thinking two steps ahead — psychotic, yes, but nobody’s perfect. The revenge scheme seems beneath him. It would be more interesting if he had more philosophic motives, like The Dark Knight’s Joker, who didn’t want money or power, but set out to expose human nature. Vanko makes a good point early on about wanting to deflate the legend of Iron Man, to prove he’s not alone among geniuses and can be defeated. Stark claims to have “privatized world peace” and that no one will be able to duplicate Iron Man technology for at least five years, which he seems to think is a long time. A senator played by Garry Shandling has legitimate concerns about letting a private citizen possess such a weapon without legal restrictions, but like anyone with a reasonable point in this film he’s made into a buffoon. Perhaps dumbing down everyone else was the easiest way to make Tony heroic.

Tony is still assisted by Pepper Potts, one of my favorite characters with one of my least favorite character names. Gwyneth Paltrow plays her as serious and levelheaded, making her a good counterpoint for Tony’s mischievousness. I find myself resisting their romance because it reinforces his behavior when what he needs is a strong foil. In the same way, I prefer Tony’s friend Lt. Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle) when he acts as Tony’s conscience and not his sidekick. It might be easier to like Tony Stark if he weren’t surrounded by people who like him so readily and forgive him so easily. A little reckless endangerment? Millions of dollars of property damage? A government at the mercy of a man who operates his suit drunk to entertain party guests? Oh I can’t stay mad at you!

Gwyneth Paltrow, as Pepper Potts

The action is of the typical sort. Hand-to-hand combat, CGI battles with a lot of heavy metal, stuff blowing up real good, too many edits that break up the action into indistinct flashes of mayhem — as is typical these days. Funny how movies like this are sometimes matter-of-fact about the things that are most interesting about them. Take the computer technology — it’s extraordinary. I find it exciting to see on the website Think Geek a device that projects a working keyboard onto any surface with lasers, yet Tony Stark is shown manipulating 3D virtual computer models in thin air with his fingers, with the help of a fully functioning artificial intelligence that not only thinks but has emotions. Forget weapons technology, he should be competing with Apple. Throw an MP3 player into his suit and he could change his name to iRon Man.

And let’s talk about world peace for a minute. The film states it but doesn’t show it. How does it work? Does violence in Darfur cease because an American blowhard owns a metal suit? How does Tony end military conflicts that don’t involve the United States? Which side does he choose, and what is the political fallout? If he defends the State of Israel, would the Palestinians really be scared into peaceful coexistence? Bill O’Reilly is shown criticizing Stark for not being there for the American people, but I would think O’Reilly and his FOX News counterparts would be in full support of a private businessman resisting the demands of the US government. Or maybe there’s a Republican in office.

Such details aren’t important to the plot of Iron Man 2, where the events take place in a vacuum. It’s a passable, well-made action film if that’s what you’re looking for, but you can do better. The first Iron Man film was an infectious entertainment. This time the machinery runs on autopilot.