Tony Stark (a good name for a swank, stark-raving egotist) is a warmonger and a peacemaker who has fitted himself with a nuclear-powered pacemaker that makes him a one-man superpower. Tony's a maverick who boasts that he "successfully privatized world peace!"
IM2 positively revels in its hero's contradictions, chief among them that the device keeping him alive is slowly killing him. Does Tony have sufficient power to fight his enemies, reap billions from war machines, bed every babe in his path, and amuse himself with his own wit?
Not really, though he muddles through with an engaging blend of self-deprecation and self-regard. Often the film follows the predictable cha-cha of superhero conventions (triumph, reversal, glory - plus the daddy issues that dogged Spider-Man 2) when it would have been so much more fun simply to watch the unpredictable Downey tango with his costars without having to don the iron suit.
Favreau's cluttered movie has the noise and neon of a rave on a casino floor.
It presents not one but four villains who successively threaten to neutralize Tony's nuclear ticker:
Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), son of a Russian arms designer betrayed by Tony's father, arms himself for a showdown.
Hammer (Sam Rockwell), rival weapons manufacturer grandstanding for government contracts, schemes to drive a flamethrower through Tony's heart.
U.S. Sen. Stern (Garry Shandling), Pennsylvania lawmaker, wants Tony prosecuted for crimes against the state.
Lt. Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Tony's friend in the Pentagon, behaves more like Tony's foe.
And then there's Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), Tony's mysterious new assistant, who insinuates herself deep in his business. Is her intent seduction - catch her in a Lycra catsuit! - or sucker punch?
With enemies like these, who needs a love interest? Tony, it seems, who promotes Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) from assistant to corporate CEO. Their verbal screwballs crackle, something that cannot be said of Ivan Vanko's lightning-bolt bullwhips, which resemble something from Siegfried and Roy's prop box.
Favreau (who has a small role in the film as Tony's chauffeur, Happy Hogan) doesn't seem aware that Iron Man 2 looks about as appealing as a slag heap. (This, despite working with the first-rate cinematographer Matthew Libatique and the gifted art director J. Michael Riva). Favreau's a workmanlike filmmaker who gets virtuoso performances from his leads, particularly Paltrow and Cheadle, but most of all Downey.
How does Downey do it? How does he simultaneously play shallow and deep? How does he suggest that heavy is the heart that wears the armor and yet carry that iron suit as though it were a wisp of silk? It's a mystery - and a pleasure. Call him Irony Man.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl.