IRON MAN 2 ****

Sometimes, though rarely, rich movies yield even richer sequels, and such is the case with IRON MAN 2, easily the best superhero sequel since THE DARK KNIGHT, and instantly one of the best films ever made within the genre. Unlike the Batman sequel, however, which revelled in its titular darkness, IRON MAN 2, even more so than the original, is played for laughs – literally. There are very few scenes in the film that aren’t essentially comedic; very few people die, there is very little violence, and indeed, even the action scenes are kept to a minimum. Instead we have Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark / Iron Man, and we get way more of Tony than Iron Man – indeed the suit doesn’t come out very much in this outing, and certainly less than the original. This is a brilliant move, for while Iron Man is one of the least interesting superheroes (essentially a flying, fire-spitting metal suit), Stark is one of the superhero world’s most fun alter-egos, and Downey plays him for all he’s worth. The kicker here is that Stark revealed that he was Iron Man to the world at the conclusion of the first one, and as the new one begins we find Stark revelling in the world’s adulation – an extremely Branson-esque figure that the world adores for bringing about world piece. All the love is going to Tony’s head, however, and the fact that he’s slowly dying from the very thing that gives him and the world such joy is bumming him out. Also, the US military wants to get their hands on the suit, and he’s not having that at all.

Director Jon Favreau, returning for another round, is extremely wise in playing to his lead actor’s strengths – and to our delight in watching Downey enjoy himself immensely as this arrogant but lovable billionaire (see what I mean about Branson)? Favreau is smart enough to know that we’re sick of seeing CGI characters fight it out endlessly (the worst offender of this being THE INCREDIBLE HULK, which had an epic “cartoon” battle as it’s extremely boring climax) and, indeed, the final battle in this film is practically over before it starts – to the audience’s great relief. Favreau knows that, ultimately, its all about human relationships, and to that end Downey gets to play off Gweneth Paltrow’s Pepper much more – and much more intriguingly – than he did in the first one, as well as having a much more interesting relationship with Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing the original’s Terrence Howard). Sam Rockwell gets great comic mileage playing a villainous rival billionaire, Scarlett Johansson looks sexier than ever (and gets to kick some butt) and Micky Rourke is perfectly cast as the film’s only serious villain, a Russain physicist with a serious grudge against Stark. His snarls and looks create a terrific character of very few words. But its Downey’s show, and he makes the most of it, getting tons of laughs along the way. Stuffed full of in-jokes, visual gags and extremely witty lines (the excellent screenplay is by Justin Theroux), IRON MAN 2 is a superhero comedy without every taking the piss. If you want to get a sense of its cleverness – the evil senator is played by Gary Shandling!

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