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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Robert Downey Jr. gets an assist from the unseen Don Cheadle (as War Machine) in Iron Man 2.
Iron Man 2 is the much-anticipated kick-off to the 2010 summer movie season. Of course, spring just began a few weeks ago, but Hollywood could care less. So long as exciting blockbusters keep coming out, moviegoers probably don't care either. Every year, I make a mental list of the five movies I'm most anticipating and this was one of them.

Robert Downey, Jr. returns as billionaire industrialist Tony Stark. His Iron Man suit has brought a months-long end to world conflict, but the U.S. government wants the technology so that they can build more suits, thereby insuring that no one ever messes with America again. A rival industrialist, the less competent Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), is working with the government to provide the same thing in case Stark can't be convinced, or forced. The military has even ordered Stark's best friend "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) to talk his pal into sharing the invention with the army.

Meanwhile, a Russian physicist named Ivan "Whiplash" Venko (Mickey Rourke), whose father was allegedly screwed over in a business deal by Stark's father, decides to exact his revenge. Possessing some of the same technology as Tony, he builds his own weapon, a pair of laser-like whips that he intends to use to tear Iron Man to shreads. You may recall the infamous end credit scene from the original picture, in which Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) recruits Stark into the Avenger initiative. Well, he's back, and he knows that Stark is in danger, so he assigns Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johannson), a.k.a. Black Widow, to protect him.

In all this description, I've yet to find a place to talk about Stark's loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), with whom his repressed passion continues to build.

The reason why Iron Man worked was because it was more of a Tony Stark story than an Iron Man story. The sequel is pretty much the same way. It asks the question: What happens when you've given the world an incredible gift, but everyone still wants more? Tony has, as he puts it, "privatized world peace" by creating Iron Man technology, yet he's made out to be an unpatriotic bad guy by a senator (Garry Shandling) who resents his unwillingness to use it for military purposes. Factor in Whiplash's thirst for revenge and the Avenger initiative's uncertainty as to whether he's serious enough for their organization, and you've got one confused Tony Stark. No wonder he throws his hands in the air, going on drunken binges and partying with anonymous women. This "hero in crisis" idea works well for second installments of superhero tales (Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight mined it as well), giving us a little more character depth to go with the requisite amped-up action.

If there is a flaw in Iron Man 2 (and there is), it's that the screenplay by Justin Theroux gives in to the worst comic book movie temptation: throwing in too many fan favorites simply because the original was such a big success. In addition to Tony Stark's own story and his previously-established subplot with Pepper, we've now got Nick Fury and the emerging Avengers initiative, Black Widow, Whiplash, Rhodey turning into War Machine, not to mention the whole thing with the rival industrialist. As a result, the plot often goes in six different directions all at once, to the point where it starts to seem really disjointed at times.

Everything else is completely the equal of the original. The humor is just as effective, the special effects are maybe even better, and the action is every bit as awesome. While Iron Man himself may get the fanciest action sequences - such as the thrilling scene in which he takes on Whiplash at a Monaco race track - he's not the only one to bring the pain. Scarlett Johannson has a fanastic action sequence in which she takes on a slew of assailants all by her lonesome. Hit Girl would be jealous.

Iron Man 2 takes all the things we want from a summer blockbuster (action, cool CGI, excitement) and melds them with a compelling character study. Tony Stark's adventures mean more because we have a sense of who the man is. His private struggles often play out once he puts the suit on. Downey is again extraordinary in the role, giving the rakish Stark lots of fascinating dimensions. I also want to single out Mickey Rourke, who does a tremendous job oozing menace as Whiplash. This is not a campy, over-the-top bad guy performance, but rather a work of skilled characterization. In Rourke's hands, Whiplash is deadly without being psychotic, and that makes him a real threat.

No matter what, people were going to line up for this movie. The anticipation has been high for months. While the plot is not as tight as it could be, Iron Man 2 still delivers in every other way. (And, in fairness, the individual subplots are all good, there's just too many of them.) I'm so glad that director Jon Favreau and his team have scored again; I love the character of Tony Stark as much as I love his alter ego, and I'm hoping that we've got a long-running quality franchise going here.

( 1/2 out of four)

Iron Man 2 is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.

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