With the release of “Iron Man 2,” the Marvel Comics franchise is officially two-for-two — two thoroughly competent, occasionally inspired yet ultimately forgettable films that promise sly engagement with real-world anxieties, then set that promise aside in favor of corporate intrigue and endless scenes of robots bashing the crap out of each other.
The first half of the original “Iron Man” played on public anxieties about a post-9/11 world in which democratic governments had ceded power to soldiers and corporations, and city-leveling firepower was available to any party with money and connections. The hero, wastrel industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), was a poster child for military-capitalist America — a smart-mouthed rotter who believed in nothing but his own comfort. The replacement of Stark’s heart with a nuclear-powered machine was a mere formality: his real heart stopped beating much earlier.
Director Jon Favreau (“Made”) and his screenwriter Justin Theroux set up a hard-edged redemption fable with goofy political resonance. After a lifetime of cashing checks and disclaiming responsibility for his company’s actions, Stark endured Christ-like solitude and abuse in a Mideastern desert, was reborn a man of conscience, and rebuilt his own image and his company’s (both represented by the suit) and set about deweaponizing Stark Industries.
Stark’s ethical reboot was a big bait-and-switch, of course. Jeff Bridges’s character, a bald, glowering wannabe-CEO, tried to set Stark up for a fall and reposition the company to deal death again — and, as is always the case in super-expensive comic book flicks, the story resolved itself with the protracted spectacle of two guys in cool suits whaling on each other. Favreau’s gift for semi-improvised ball-busting comedy and Stark’s Nick and Nora Charles-style banter with gal Friday Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) made the film seem fresher than it was.
You could tell by the good-enough-for-government-work fight scenes that Favreau could not care less about mayhem. But since the film moved fast and didn’t take itself seriously, nobody seemed to mind. “Iron Man” coasted to box office glory on the strength of Downey’s Eddie Haskell grin and mumbled witticisms. (What’s the difference between superhero movies and every other kind of movie? During superhero movies, you perk up when people talk to each other and check your watch when stuff blows up.)
“Iron Man 2” enacts more or less the same story, changing key elements to avoid charges of bald-faced rehash. In place of an intra-corporate rival pressuring Stark to surrender the suit, Stark has two external nemeses: Mickey Rourke’s thug-inventor Whiplash, who accuses Stark’s late dad of betraying and impoverishing Whiplash’s own father and building the Stark empire on intellectual theft; and a conniving fellow industrialist (Sam Rockwell, channeling yuppie weasel Carter Burke from 1986’s “Aliens”) who’s in cahoots with military and legislative sleazoids (the latter represented by Garry Shandling, whose rubbery face-work is the film’s scariest special effect).
Here, as in the first “Iron Man,” Stark’s heart trouble is a compact metaphor for his moral and emotional struggle. Sickened by radiation seepage, he obsessively tests his blood and scarfs raw chlorophyll; the ever-growing network of veins on his chest is as abstractly beautiful as a Piet Mondrian print. But Stark’s cardiac failure is at least half due to depression and self-loathing. Scared of death and worried about his legacy, he numbs his pain with booze, material goods and party-hound excess, carrying on like, well, the pre-rehab Robert Downey, Jr.
That description makes “Iron Man 2” sound a cut above the norm, and I guess it is, for whatever that’s worth. But the resolution of Stark’s struggle relies too heavily on deus ex machina (no pun intended). Theroux’s script fudges its laboriously introduced, every-great-fortune-is-built-on-a-crime angle, much as the first film dropped its Tony-Stark-equals-the-sins-the-military-industrial-complex angle. And the entire thing feels a bit too much like A Very Special Episode.