Iron Man 2: Anything But an Empty Suit

Well, that's it. The backlash has begun. Against the Iron Man franchise (although not the first movie, which is apparently unimpeachable), against Marvel's slow build to The Avengers (which is really only touched on twice in the new film, briefly) and against Robert Downey, Jr. himself, who is apparently too obnoxious, although they may have him confused with the character he plays. I'll admit that I had my own doubts going into this second installment since I do recognize the greatness of the original and since Marvel hasn't had the best luck with getting their comic book characters firmly established as film characters on par with the likes of James Bond, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter. But from the perspective of a long-time, die-hard fan of ol' Shellhead, I thought director Jon Favreau, screenwriter Justin Theroux and RDJ and the rest of the cast delivered a sharp, entertaining follow-up despite some cracks in the armor.

If Tony Stark seems a little too self-absorbed in this film, he has a very good reason -- he's dying. (Relax, not a spoiler -- you find that out almost immediately.) The chest piece he invented to protect his heart is slowly killing him, and his veins are turning black from his chest up into his neck. So he understandably gets frustrated in Senate hearings when a politician (Garry Shandling) demands he turn over the Iron Man armor, leading him to rashly hand the reins of Stark Industries to his secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) when he no longer feels like dealing with it. He belittles his rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) because he's tired of the man's insufferable one-upmanship, and he flirts relentlessly with his new assistant Natalie Rushman, because... well, because she's played by Scarlett Johansson. There is a reason for his foolhardiness, and it all has to do with his inability to save his own life.

Ultimately, it leads to drinking, which is a famous addiction of Stark's in the comics. But whereas in the books the alcoholism derives from Stark's business failures and failures as a hero, here it's been deftly combined with the sickness storyline, possibly inspired by the time in the comics where Stark's suit caused him debilitating nerve damage. It's a clever way to make two slow-burning comic-book plots manageable for the screen, and it also sets up a third -- the schism between Stark and his best friend, James Rhodes (Don Cheadle). After falling out with a drunk Tony, Cheadle falls in with Hammer, who unbeknownst to him has already allied himself with brilliant (albeit insane) scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) to show Stark what's what. But when Vanko's whip-based idea of revenge goes beyond Hammer's petty rivalry, Stark and Rhodes must team up to stop him.

Complaints about the film include "too much action" and "not enough action," and I think the truth lies in the middle. The balance between edge-of-your seat action sequences and quiet, reflective moments allows us to spend some time with the characters and learn how they're feeling -- and how they feel about each other -- in between high-octane AC/DC music videos and Rock'Em-Sock'Em Robot matches. Not that the special effects are all mindless. The inevitable Stark/Rhodes armored fistfight, to the tune of Daft Punk's "Robot Rock," is simultaneously sad, awesome and hilarious, and even having seen most of Whiplash's racetrack assault on Iron Man in the trailers doesn't make it any less beautiful, in its own way.

Performance-wise, Sam Rockwell steals every scene as Hammer, bragging to Stark even as he looks like he wants to be invited to dinner. Rourke admittedly doesn't have much to do, but he's hypnotic to watch, even when he's just working on crazy tech and feeding his cockatoo. Cheadle's Rhodey is gloomy whenever he's actively opposing his friend, but he can be funny, as well, and his sunny-day banter with Stark is entertaining. Paltrow is a weak spot, as her Pepper is a bit whiny and grating at times, but Johansson is surprisingly unoffensive as the new girl, and her fight scenes towards the end are as sleek and stylish as her wardrobe. And RDJ, of course, is in full effect, making cockiness seem charming and rudeness seem almost appropriate, and proving that a hero doesn't have to be a soft-spoken nice guy in order to get the job done.

Find out what the future holds for Tony Stark and Black Widow on the big screen.

Look back at the best quotes and quips from Iron Man 2.

If you're worried about keeping track of everybody, check out our guide to the characters of Iron Man 2. Then see why we think Iron Man 3 is gonna suck! And let us know what you thought of the movie below!

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