The primary challenge for all blockbuster franchises is to be big yet fleet. Iron Man is as good a model as any, thanks largely to Robert Downey Jr.’s flamboyantly narcissistic Tony Stark, plus filmmakers who valued pacing and character as much as superhero hardware. But sequels, in their quest for more and bigger action and colorful new villains, tend to take on weight, and suddenly Streetcar Marlon Brando turns into a marble-mouthed beast with an ice bucket on his head. The exceedingly busy Iron Man 2 comes perilously close to that tipping point—call it the Spider-Man 3 axis—but much like its predecessor, it’s a clean, efficient, somewhat generic piece of storytelling, and most of the additions aren’t subtractions. This passes for success in the summer movie season.
Exalted worldwide as a one-man peacekeeping force, Downey’s preening Stark has become so busy erecting monuments to himself that he hands over Stark Industries to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and devotes his energies to Iron Man full time. But he faces serious adversity from within and without: Rogue countries and private competitors like Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) have begun testing their own weaponized robot suits, the Armed Services Committee (led by smarmy Senator Garry Shandling) wants to bring Stark under federal control, psychotic Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) looks to carry out a decades-old family vendetta, and the arc reactor in Stark’s chest cavity is slowly killing him. And oh yeah, there’s his mysterious new assistant Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and a bigger role for military buddy Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing and upgrading Terrence Howard).
That’s at least two sequels’ worth of incident packed into one, but director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux treat most of the scenes with a light, glancing wit that keeps the bloat at bay. Downey is reliably funny in his runaway egotism, and Rockwell’s Hammer proves the ideal adversary, a creature of equal vanity whose haplessness constantly undermines his raw, nefarious ambitions. The long stretches between action beats would be a problem for other movies of its kind, but as with the first Iron Man, the splashy effects sequences—which ring with the dull clang of metal on metal—are by far the least compelling in the film. The less money on the screen, the better the movie becomes. Is the Dogville set available for Iron Man 3?