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Iron Man 2 review: Flies high and fast, just not Mach 1

Iron Man strikes a pose in the Mark 4 armor in "Iron Man 2."
Iron Man strikes a pose in the Mark 4 armor in "Iron Man 2."Marvel Studios

Best comic-book movie ever? This decade - which has been a huge, marvelous, ongoing coming-out party for geeks - has given us a lot to chew on. X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and Iron Man are all excellent films, and the first three were sequels to really good movies. So how does Jon Favreau's Shellhead sequel fare against its holy-crap-I-can't-believe-how-good-this-is 2008 thrill ride?

Pretty well. It's a solid, exciting piece of entertainment with a wonderful cast, witty banter, scummy folks in business suits, and showdowns against armored villains ... essentially all the stuff that worked in the first movie. And they work here, too, for the most part. Robert Downey Jr. continues to draw your eyes to the screen like paper clips to a magnet. He's incredibly animated, even when Tony Stark is in his calmer moods. His style seems to be a perfect match for Favreau's directing, especially when Downey dives into the Howard Hawks-like overlapping dialogue that made the first film a treat to listen to as well as watch. Early in the movie, there's a quick scene where Stark - now known worldwide as a superheroic global protector and playboy - walks past a small mob of fans, and Downey's attention jumps from person to person with ease. His teasing, arrogant, self-mocking banter with Gywneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts was reminscent of 1940s' screwball comedies. I chuckled many times during this film.

Iron Man 2 gets a boost from a slightly darker core than the first movie. Tony Stark is no less driven to succeed than he was before he became Iron Man, but now he has set himself up as guardian - of the United States, of his technology, of his celebrity status. And it's too much for him. While I won't get into spoilers, this film does lay groundwork for the classic "Demon in a Bottle" storyline if they want to tackle that in Iron Man 3 (which Favreau says won't happen until after 2012's Avengers film).

Favreau, who's well aware of comic fandom, took a gamble by including two villains - a big no-no since the 1990s' Batman sequels and repeated painfully in Spider-Man 3. But it's no problem in Iron Man 2. Whiplash and Justin Hammer mesh well together, and the fact that Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell turn in good performances helps a lot. Rourke in particular is great as Ivan Vanko. Surprisingly, he doesn't have a ton of screen time, but he makes the most of every iron-toothed smile or grimace.

In Whiplash's public debut on the Monaco racetrack - the movie's best scene (the suitcase armor!!) - you have no doubt that he can kick butt. Can he kick Iron Man's butt? Ah, but that's not the goal of the scheming, vengeance-driven Vanko. Using his own arc-reactor-powered weaponry against Iron Man, he wants the world to "see God bleed." As Nick Fury suggested to Stark at the first film's conclusion, Stark's impulsive "I am Iron Man" declaration has opened a Pandora's Box that Stark - through ignorance and narcissism - never anticipated. And coping with the political and technological fallout adds psychological pressure on top of the physical (and physiological) obstacles that Stark must overcome. The solution that Stark finds - and the way it's presented, with its nods to Marvel continuity - is well done and cool to watch.

Still, the sequel never quite reaches the sense of exhilaration in the original, partially because that first film was so surprising. Now? Guys in flying metal suits? Seen it! The closest that Iron Man 2 comes is in the Monaco sequence - the world's first superhero-vs.-supervillain fight (on global TV, no less) - and in the climax, where Iron Man and War Machine take on a dozen Mandroid-style foes. Does that make Iron Man 2 a bad film? Not at all. It's a good film. It simply doesn't do anything to match the newness and the "Wow" factor of the first Iron Man.

It also should've ditched Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow. Oh, she's hot, all right. But the character does next to nothing and is clearly present only to further the SHIELD/Avengers plot thread. (Interestingly, there's a clip in one of the commercials that shows Stark helping Natasha with a version of his repulsor - the "Widow's Sting"? - but that scene isn't in the final cut here. Oh well, DVD extras await!) On the flip side, Don Cheadle is terrific as Rhodey, Stark's friend who has do a complicated emotional dance on his way to becoming War Machine.

There are numerous easter eggs for Marvel Comics fans, some more blatant than others, including the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Thor cameo mentioned here back in March. And as with the other recent Marvel Studios films, You Dare Not Leave until after the end credits have rolled. Go see it.

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