05/18/2010 11:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Iron Man 2


On the potential-for-blockbuster scale of superhero films, Iron Man 2, directed by Jon Favreau, written by Justin Theroux, Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Kieber, and Jack Kirby, registers monumental. Too bad its execution undercuts such status with Hollywood doses of too-much-ism.

Prior hype aside, themes abound, a story line bristles: it's got promise. There's ego (Tony Stark's) as well as healthy doses of capitalism (the Iron Man suit leaves beta version one and gets reverse engineered and mass-produced; though not named as such, Founder's Syndrome figures mightily here as does business succession), and technology (Stark creates a new chemical element; his gizmos made the iPad look like an Etch-a-Sketch).

The set up's sturdy. The opening sequence shows Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) getting the rock star treatment at the Stark Expo. Watching the lovefest on TV in a Moscow hovel, a sulking Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) works on something sinister-looking (Oh God, is it). Then he consoles his dying father, Anton (Yevgeni Lazarev), who allegedly got ripped off by Tony Stark's father, Howard (John Slattery). What you've got is a story of sons who bear the sins of their fathers in revenge for lost millions, sullied honor, and misappropriated fame.

Except, you don't. That intriguing premise went to hell. Instead of focusing on an intergenerational conflict that pits tech-enhanced brawn against tech-enhanced brawn, the movie veers off as errant as a North Korean test missile.

The film ventures too much and gains nothing. Though Stark is a maniacal competitor, the film sets up too many conflicts that he matter-of-factly resolves. Adversaries include his mortality (that damn palladium core is killing him), his aloof and back-from-the-dead father, Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), his competitor Justin Jammer (Sam Rockwell), the vengeful Vanko, the superhero recruiter Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), his chum Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and, in some cuddly manner, Pepper. Though the movie swarms with interesting characters and startling scenarios, it suffers from the if-one-is-good-then-two-is-better syndrome. As a result, we don't root for anyone. If one hottie, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is good, then two (Scarlett Johannson) must be better. If one foe (the military industrial complex) wanting to reverse engineer the Iron Man suit is good, then two (Vanko) must be better. If having father issues with one father (Howard) is good, then two (the father figure Nick Fury - Samuel L. Jackson) must better. If one entrepreneur (Stark) wanting to have a lavish, to-die-for lifestyle is good, then two (Hammer) must be better.

The film's exuberance (read hubris) clumsily trips over itself and becomes slick. And slick is the way we look at the performances. Robert Downey Jr. captivates (and he knows it) as the brilliant playboy/entrepreneur. Gwenyth Paltrow waxes willowy and sleek as his Girl Friday while franchise-newcomer Scarlett Johansson titillates both as Stark's legal counsel, Natalie Rushman, and as Natasha Romanoff, a woman with her own secret identity whose martial arts skills at the end are diabolically beautiful. Mickey Rourke puts those wrasslin' muscles to good use as a borderline Russian baddie. The supporting cast is a little more believable: Shandling as the put-out Senator, Rockwell as the guy with the man-crush on Stark, the delightful Slattery as his father and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick, who, oh yeah, was attempting to recruit him for an initiative to save the world from dark side superheroes.