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Iron Man 2

Soft Around the Edges

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

The summer blockbuster seasons officially begins with Iron Man 2, the highly anticipated big-screen return of the Marvel Comics armored superhero.

With Jon Favreau (Zathura, Elf, Made, Swingers) back behind the camera for this sequal, along with Robert Downey, Jr. back as the billionaire inventor/playboy/superhero, and a strong supporting cast, expectations for Iron Man 2 are understandably high. Unfortunately, it falls short due to an unfocused, underwritten screenplay.

As the world’s first costumed superhero without a secret identity, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has become a rock-star/celebrity. But fame has its personal and professional complications. Stark promotes longtime assistant and sometime romantic interest, Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), to CEO of Stark Industries. Stark’s new assistant, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), arrives with an impressive resume and a hidden agenda.

Meanwhile, Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wants Stark to turn over the Iron Man technology for military use. Stark’s friendship with Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), has cooled over Stark’s refusal to turn over the Iron Man technology and his decision go it alone as a superhero.

Those are minor problems relative to what next Stark faces next: Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian with an angry grudge. Vanko claims his late father co-created the arc reactor technology that powers Stark’s heart and armor with Stark’s father, Howard (John Slattery). A jealous business rival, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), allies himself with the unpredictable Vanko. In another personal complication, Stark faces his own mortality: The miniature arc reactor embedded in his chest has been poisoning.

In anticipation of the another Marvel film, Avengers, which will go into production next spring (for a 2012 summer release), Iron Man 2 gives Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of the super-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. organizations, a more substantial role in Iron Man 2 as Stark’s late-film, de facto mentor. Iron Man 2 also includes a gag related to Captain America: The First Avenger, yet another Marvel film in the works.

While necessary to set the groundwork for the upcoming films, the Nick Fury/Avengers scenes are poorly integrated into Iron Man 2. The scenes take valuable screen time and dramatic momentum away from Iron Man 2, briefly making Stark a secondary character in his own film. They also add to a second act that already feels overlong due to multiple conflicts facing Stark that need to be resolved before the end credits roll.

Not surprisingly, Iron Man 2 uses Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic screen presence to cover narrative flaws, along with several above-average set pieces (cue, once again, AC/DC), including Stark’s first confrontation with Vanko at the Monaco Grand Prix — an example, unfortunately, of saving the best for first rather than last.

It’s clear that screenwriter Justin Theroux’s (Tropic Thunder) and Favreau needed additional time to raise Iron Man 2 to the engaging, engrossing level of the first Iron Man.