Summer officially starts off with a bang with Iron Man 2, the most exciting film this year. Director Jon Favreau puts the story and characters in full throtle mode and rarely lets up throught the movie's 125 minute run-time. Critics have lashed the sequel, saying that crisp visuals, an overload of villains, and flashy, amazing action scenes have trumped what made the original Iron Man a hit (an intelligent script, a middle-of-the-road political assessment on war and peace, and a great comeback performance by Robert Downey Jr.). Fair criticism, but they're only two-for-three correct. Downey Jr. never loses sigh of what made us love Tony Stark in the first place: he's a naricassistic playboy with an ego that dwarfs Tom Cruise, even when the acr reactor that's keeping shrapnel from hitting his heart is also poisioning his body. He doesn't want our sympathy, he wants go go out as he came in. Mickey Rourke, fresh off his soul-searing porrait of Randy "The Ram" Robinson and his weary, grieving heart in The Wrestler is equal parts hilarious and simmering with menace as Ivan Vanko - a.k.a Whiplash - the movie's antagonist. And becasue you can never have enough villians, the filmmakers threw in Sam Rockwell to play Justin Hammer, Stark's rival in providing defense contracts to the U.S. military. Rockwell is as a smooth-talking, snake-oil salesman personified in Hammer, adding Vanko to the payroll after confronting and nearly killing Stark at a gran prix race in Monaco.
What the critics are correct are in is that there is an overload of characters in the sequel (Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman - a.k.a. Black Widow and Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D. commander Nick Fury are only serving as a backdrop for the next line of comic book films that Marvel Studios will release in the near future), and story is being sacrificed at the altar for kick-ass action. If this sounds like last year's fiasco Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, guess again. The filmmakers are smart enought to know what Iron Man 2 and what it isn't. They're buling off some of the elements that we loved the first time (hint, hint: Downey Jr. and the action), and brought the action to the next level of bad-assery that few summer movies will be able to top.
*** stars out of ****