iron manMidway through Iron Man 2, mega-wealthy egotist-hedonist-industrialist and uncloseted superhero Tony Stark throws himself a birthday party — one of those horrid poseur parties wherein everybody looks like a Versace nightmare — and while the sequence at first feels incongruously silly (Iron Man suited-up, drunkenly dancing to phat beats), it soon jibes with the rest of Jon Favreau’s brilliantly-adrenalized follow-up to his 2008 hit, Iron Man. Sloshed Stark starts amusing his guests via plasma-blast skeet-shooting of assorted bar items, until one nubile celebrant offers up a watermelon. “She wants the Gallagher!” exclaims Stark (sans explanation), before blasting the big, bulbous fruit to smithereens. It’s a throwaway moment, but also a defining one: In the superhero world, surly Batman is too busy putting Order to Chaos; nerdy Spider-Man is too busy with his Great Responsibility; godly Superman is — I don’t know what the hell Superman is anymore. But Iron Man — he’ll take time out from “privatizing world peace” to detonate a watermelon (via veteran- comedian in-joke) vaulted above a gaggle of stripper-type extras. This is why we like Iron Man — as he self-diagnoses in this movie, you can always count on him…to pleasure himself.

It turns out there’s a lot to like about Iron Man 2, which is as sleek and savvy as it is outrageously entertaining. The gist is that Stark (Robert Downey, Jr. — pulling his patented petulant prick shtick — sigh, wish I could be adored for that) is being pressured by both the U.S. Government (in the form of Garry Shandling — somehow it fits) and passive-aggressive engineer-competitor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell — typically terrific yet generously refraining from running away with the whole film) to turn over his iconic suit (or: High-Tech Prosthesis) for military R&D. Meanwhile, in a low-rent corner of Russia, a poorly parallel of Stark called Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, bad-boy perfection with chic ombre locks) uses the co-designed blueprints of his and Stark’s late physicist fathers to hammer out his own weapon-suit — with nifty electro-whippy things — to destroy his wealthy Western rival and do that terror stuff that’s so fashionable amongst unhappy people nowadays. The story zooms from Malibu to Monaco, but it’s bookended by Stark’s technological Expo in Flushing Meadows, New York, which is populated by even more strippery-looking extras who admittedly look a lot more fetching wearing the sternum-based arc reactor than Stark himself does.

Since I probably had more fun watching Iron Man 2 than I will at any other major movie all year unless I get a girlfriend who likes to fool around at movies, let me provide you with the short list of what I didn’t like about it — from me, that’s a good sign — then I’ll rave about it, then I’ll let you go. For one, there’s a terribly glaring plot hole which has Vanko showing up, fully armed (and electro-whipped) at the Monaco Gran(d) Prix, where Stark has decided, only moments earlier (!), to take over as driver for Team Stark. While the resulting car-slashy-crashy mayhem is undeniably bitchin’, my sense of logic nags: How the hell did Vanko plan his rather geographically-challenging attack when capricious little Stark himself didn’t even know he’d be there? Makes no sense, and could have been remedied in editing with something as simple as a voice-over announcement — if anybody had spoken up about it. Apart from that, I found the physical attacks on the henchmen way, way too violent for a movie aimed at kids — and speaking of aim, Hammer’s gun-fetishism is verbally amusing (Ulysses gag = A+), but still it turned my stomach. (I only like fantasy weapons — I’m simply not the type of guy who jizzes over real ones.) And lastly, as in the first Iron Man movie, the big action finale is — like life and Tony Stark himself — nasty, brutish and short. Screenwriter Justin Theroux has woven a fine script, but the robot-heavy third act is no masterpiece of editing. As Rourke mutters in one of his wonderful exchanges with Rockwell: “People make puhdroblem. Tuhdrust me. Duhrone bettedr.” — but have we learned nothing from the new Star Wars? Battles against drones (robots) aren’t much fun for us. Oh, and one more suggestion: Once your finale has begun — fellahs, seriously — don’t have your main heavy spend half of it sitting tapping at a keyboard as I am doing, for free, at home, right now. We don’t show up to watch Rourke type! Come on!

Those relatively minor complaints aside, Iron Man 2 rocks just like the first one rocked, only with more complexity, verve, and zing — plus more comic-relief screen-time for director Favreau (as manservant Happy Hogan). Meanwhile, the relationship between Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow — who names these characters?) does indeed expand plausibly within the superhero milieu. As playboy Stark struggles not only with his vices but his potentially-imminent mortality and difficult family legacy (which, as some critics missed, is clearly spelled out by vengeful Vanko), he demotes himself and promotes Potts to CEO of his massive company, which livens up their chemistry significantly — for us, anyway.

Man-2Oh, and now here’s my radical comment: The current Iron Man franchise is simply better than the current Batman franchise. Why? Character! I get that, you know, “dark and mean” is sexy and whatever (if you’re still twelve and listening to Nine Inch Nails — as if), but give me Favreau’s take on an attitudinal orphan bazillionaire superhero over Chris Nolan’s any day. Favreau makes the concept relatable and fun without losing any of the action and danger. How? These characters, and their respective actors, rock. Downey probably can’t help being what he is, but he’s perfect for this role, and a million times more appealing than Bat-Baby Bale-Out (Sing it with me: “Ohhh…goooood!”). Paltrow brings a genuine feminine presence on board — rather than…um…who even played the female “leads” in Nolan’s Batman movies? In supporting roles with neato initials, Clark Gregg (director of the superb Choke, starring Rockwell) as the glib S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and Paul Bettany as the voice of computer J.A.R.V.I.S. both return to fine and fun effect. And speaking of returns, no slight intended to Morgan Freeman’s Batman gig, but Sam Jackson, as this franchise’s Wise Elder Negro (and, soon, star of his own Nick Fury movie) is so damned cool that Mace Windu is forgiven. (Dialogue from Randy’s Donuts scene: “The little brother walked in there, kicked your ass, and took your suit?!”)

Okay, which summons the admittance: As Stark’s chief frenemy (the former Terrence Howard role), Don Cheadle looks like he wandered into this movie on a dare. He doesn’t wreck it, but he looks annoyed at best, and unless he’s in the “War Machine” suit, his posture and tone are decidedly iffy for a hero. Likewise, this film’s other tag-along, Scarlett Johansson as Stark’s sorta-Russian, sorta-martial-artsy new personal assistant. Every day, I encounter squirrels with stronger acting chops than Johansson — but the girl does bring along a sweet caboose. Hallelujah.

Overall — much more than the rebooted Batman and Bond — the Iron Man franchise is succeeding because it’s got heart and soul. Directorially, Favreau couldn’t be a pretentious, sadistic bore if he tried, and I’m interested in these characters and their struggles. Is Stark a hero? — or is he really a self-obsessed phony, desperate to gloss over the sins of his father? (There’s a thematic doozy concealed in that question, as I also ask: Why aren’t we rooting for Vanko? For the majority of people denied the glories of nepotism, isn’t Vanko really “us”? And it follows: With rich militant Daddy sticking the Iron spoon in his mouth, isn’t Stark essentially Dubya? Interesting!) And furthermore, will the ascending wave of cinematic Marvel superheroes speak to us of our own times, technology, and international relations? This movie does! I happen to like cool action and adventure movies, and Iron Man 2 is smart and satisfying to boot. I wasn’t even sure I was going to review it until I pondered it, and saw other critics missing so much about it — plus, for my awesome generation, Favreau includes not only the obligatory AC/DC and obvious Clash hit (“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” — it fits the scene), he also jams to The Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven.” Put simply, this made-man “gives us the Gallagher.” Hey, count me in.

Iron Man 2

Entertainment Value: 13/13
Style: 11/13
Philosophical Insight: 11/13