Gaudy, of course, as any tentpole usually is, the Iron Man sequel is not entirely a departure from what made the first film an affable-enough adventure. But it’s not like its tumescence is better. It’s that cliché you’ve come to expect about air conditioner season: each movie is out to out-do the predecessor (here with a wink or 80), to allow you a couple of no-brainer hours, to be the best ride possible indoors. This isn’t to say Iron Man 2 is a mere displeasing diversion. Rather, as with any macho machine aiming to get spent, unless you really get a kick out of consequence-free explosions and bad puns, all the faux-irony (the real armor?) just gets heavy. The action scenes are all a beat or three too long, the jokes are just above that lowest common denominator range, and its presence as a product is transparent, no matter attempts at the self-aware bet-hedging—in fact, all those nods at the audience wind up like tics. For a film full of “confidence,” it sure seems to desire approval, just like its hero. What’s crazy is just how much its audience will, in fact, eat this swill with a smile and bankroll untold expanding universes.
At the very least, there’s Mickey Rourke, who seems not just acting in a different movie but from another planet altogether. The film is canny enough to set him up as an alien apart—he’s a tattoo canvas caricature from Moscow named Ivan Vanko out to avenge his dead and disgraced dad armed with whips and rocket science, or some kind of close physics—but Rourke doesn’t seem interested in the plot. His Vanko is meat with a grin, moving slowly even in violence, covered in “a story” of ink we don’t get to learn and masked into his “bad guy” slot all too easily by those gold teeth and white highlights in his sometimes-top-knotted-mane. It’s as grotesque a character as Randy, The Wrestler, but that’s only because everything else in this film is so cleanly garish, so glinting. So Rourke dominates by default. He doesn’t even need to annunciate his fake Russian, let alone his goofy accented English. He’s got that face and that body, everything bulging without looking fat or strong, or ballooned, and every scene he’s in becomes interesting if only to see how he’ll sit in a chair or on a bed or if he’ll smirk.
The other scenes aren’t “boring,” per se, but they only work as much as they do thanks to the “yes, please, paycheck” cast of charmers who are all better than this for any litany of reasons. Robert Downey Jr. can play himself better than anybody, as he proved in round one, even if he’s wearing awful suits and awful facial hair. Gweneth Paltrow looks her best in this franchise, but worse here for all her pouting; she was allowed to flirt in the first film. Don Cheadle can emote better than anybody (his countenance is the pathetic appeal) but he’s just angry here, or self-satisfied. Sam Rockwell can dance, and make funny faces seem almost serious, but he’s a mother of invention and clearly shilling for himself (the only other bit of self-reflexivity in design beyond Rourke’s interloper). And Scarlett Johansson’s got a body, and a face, but she doesn’t seem to know how to use either: her big fight scene hides her forever-stone features all too well in its legible choreography so you only see it as a punchline (after each encounter), which might be synonymous with “money shot” for all I know.