Who's better, um, suited to achieve world peace — the private sector or the U.S. Senate? That's among the questions raised by the amazing new film Iron Man 2, now playing at your friendly neighborhood movie theater.
When we rejoin Tony Stark, last seen admitting that he is the man inside the Iron Man armor, he is fending off an unctuous senator (played with astonishing realism by Gary Shandling) who believes those high-tech secrets would be safest in the hands of the public sector. Stark has the temerity to assert that his property belongs to him, setting up one of the film's central conflicts.
After the first Iron Man unexpectedly was one of the best comic-book movies ever made, I had my expectations lowered sufficiently by several reviews that concluded the first sequel wasn't up to the standards of the 2008 original. By the time Captain America's shield makes an unexpected appearance, I was totally immersed and well on my way to concluding the relatively downer reviews were hooey.
Robert Downey Jr. continues to be a dream bit of casting as Tony Stark. Mickey Rourke is wonderful as the villanous Ivan Vanko (Whiplash), and Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer is the actor's most entertaining performance since he nearly stole Galaxy Quest as Guy Fleegman. Gwyneth Paltrow is appealing again as Pepper Potts, although she isn't given as much to do as in the first flick.
Scarlet Johansson is marvelous as the mysterious new lady from Legal, and the scene near the climax where we get the full reveal of her capabilities is right up there with Yoda's light-saber battle in the annals of action-flick treasures. Don Cheadle as Rhodey/War Machine is fine, although I still don't know why it was necessary to replace Terrence Howard, who handled the role in the first installment.
After two hours that flew by in a flash, director Jon Favreau (born to direct Iron Man and to play Happy Hogan) has answered my opening question definitively — What has government ever done better than the private sector, after all? — and pretty much cleared the enormously high bar he raised in chapter one.
The main reason Iron Man 2 is not quite the special ride that Iron Man was is simply that it doesn't have the element of surprise: Few people really thought that a film based on one of Marvel Comics' second-tier heroes would be that great. The second film proves it wasn't a fluke.
And the now-routine teaser scene after the closing credits is one of Marvel's best yet. Is it 2011 yet? Please?!