Industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is dying. The toxicity level in his blood keeps creeping higher. The batteries that power his electronic heart - which gives him the strength to be the superhero Iron Man - get drained faster than a talkative teenager's iPhone. He is forced to reckon with his legacy, including who will run his weapons manufacturing company, Stark Industries, after his death.
This is the intriguing central premise of Iron Man 2, and Downey, who invested the original 2007 film with surprising heft and uncommon sweetness, once again gives it his all. Running his fingers over the darkened and dying arteries that extend from the central hole in his chest, Downey wears an expression of anguish mixed with bittersweet acceptance. If most comic-book sequels are about the struggle to balance a personal life and a public one (see Spider-Man 2, Superman 2 and so forth), Iron Man 2 is a meditation on impotency and irrelevancy; a franchise preoccupied with its own expiration date
If only the screenwriter, Justin Theroux ( Tropic Thunder), knew when to say when. Iron Man 2 turns out to be preoccupied with much more than simply dying. There are new characters and convoluted subplots and any number of details that seem to exist solely to set up more sequels. The story operates in fits and starts, with long, dialogue-heavy scenes giving way to confusing, over-edited action. Characters switch alliances and secret identities are revealed, and Stark's central dilemma steadily gets lost amid the chaos. By the three-quarter point, it has become impossible to care about anyone on the screen.
Picking up shortly where the original left off, Iron Man 2 finds Stark still marching to the beat of his own drum. The U.S. Senate, led by Senator Stern of Pennsylvania (Garry Shandling, mugging shamelessly), demands that he hand over his Iron Man suits, because such powerful weapons should not be in the hands of the private citizenry. Stark argues that he's a peace-keeping capitalist whose suits serve as a deterrent against foreign attacks. It will be years, he argues, before any enemy can even come close to approximating the design of the Iron Man suit.
Enter fellow weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who is frantically trying to develop his own Iron Man technology. And enter Ivan Dranko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian physicist with dark highlights in his bleach blond hair, who has come up with a contraption even more powerful than Stark's -- and who is also harboring some sort of grudge against our hero, whose father betrayed his own father.
Oh, and enter Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), a new legal assistant on Stark's team, and did I mention that Lt. Col. Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) is starting to have misgivings about his buddy Stark's plans, and secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is back, about to get a huge promotion, and ... well, you get the idea.
With so much going on here, it's little wonder that it takes so long to get around to the fun stuff. We're nearly 30 minutes into the proceedings before director Jon Favreau (who also made the first Iron Man) springs an action sequence upon us -- a briskly entertaining one, set at the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo, where Dranko proceeds to slice the race cars to pieces with two electronic tentacles that attach to his arms. But too much of Iron Man 2 seems pitched to the comic-book geeks and their love of arcana, including a scene featuring Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the leader of the Mighty Avengers, who is determining whether to recruit Stark to join his team.
Fun for the Marvel Comics true believers, perhaps. But when a movie is more concerned with launching spinoffs than with the plot and characters at hand, something has gone awry. Downey tries to inject the whimsy and eccentricity he brought to the original picture - there's a sad, sweet scene where, confronting his seemingly imminent death, Stark makes a fool of himself at his birthday party - but the screenplay gives him little to work with.
The other characters circle around Downey, struggling to make an impression - especially Rourke's Dranko. Clearly relishing the opportunity to take center stage in a large-scale Hollywood production, the actor mutters unintelligible Russian-accented English and leers gleefully into the camera with a mouthful of silver-capped teeth. But Rourke is never given the time or space to develop Dranko into a truly memorable or menacing villain, à la Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight. Dranko ends up being just another wasted opportunity in a movie littered with them.