*Iron Man 2 (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
By way of preamble, this sequel does its requisite bit of forging and soldering and banging out a setup, but only at the fittingly named Stark Expo do proper Iron Man 2 introductions really get underway. Exposition might be the only order of this movie's business: With all the fireworks, the gadgetry, the corporatized idol worship and heavy-duty charm, it finally amounts to a Marvel Studios trade show.
Thank goodness it's got Robert Downey Jr. once again as Tony Stark, the rocket-powered knight in self-styled armor suit, to guide us through its conspicuous outlay. As expected, he's in a chatty, romping mood, and about as lovable as an alcoholic billionaire narcissist can be.
But even after the great flamboyant relief of coming out as Iron Man, it turns out Stark still has issues. For one thing, he's got a problem with his superhero gear: It keeps him alive, but it's killing him, and not metaphorically. Subbing in sludgy smoothies for his much-preferred cocktails isn't quite enough. There is the small matter of needing to invent a new element.
Also, his antagonists are many, and most want his secret technology. They include Garry Shandling as a grasping Senate subcommittee chairman; Don Cheadle (formerly Terrence Howard) as a suddenly adversarial friend and military ally; John Slattery, seen in yellowing corporate filmstrips, as Stark's dead weapon-maker dad; and most notably Downey's fellow near-casualty of 1980s Hollywood, Mickey Rourke, as a seething Siberian exile with an axe to grind and a pair of whips to crack.
That Rourke's character's patchwork of prison tats seems more authentic than his advanced understanding of physics is part of the copious superhero-comic charm — an endowment which also must account for Scarlett Johansson as that new girl, the buxom and mysterious martial artist from the legal department.
All of this can only mean increased personal and professional responsibility for Stark's put-upon assistant Pepper Potts, played once more with aplomb by Gwyneth Paltrow.
But wait, there's more: Enter Sam Rockwell as Tony's squirrelly arms-dealer rival Justin Hammer, a sort of Stark lite; and Sam Jackson as Nick Fury, the head of a covert agency called SHIELD. Marvel Comics completists will observe that hammers and shields are of special importance here, at least as far as franchise propagation is concerned.
And we can see that director Jon Favreau is concerned about franchise propagation. With its wily script by Justin Theroux, Favreau's film is hearty and swiftly paced, but not helped by having so many characters in need of establishment and so few actors on par with Downey's rapturous timing. Everybody seems happy to be here, yes, but the net effect is of mutual strain, generously borne.
It's too bad those menacing, most promising moments — Stark suited up and falling-down drunk at his own birthday party, Hammer's machines running murderously amok — go without the more thoughtful attention they seem to deserve.
Favreau and Co. have a knack for meeting superhero blockbuster expectations. But what else have they got? Guess we'll just have to wait for next year's Stark Expo to find out.