Two years ago, “Iron Man” blasted into theaters nationwide and became an instant hit. In its opening weekend, it took in a whopping $98.6 million, and it ultimately netted more than $572 million in theaters around the world. Of course in Hollywood, this kind of success for a movie means only one thing – a sequel.

“Iron Man 2” made its eagerly awaited debut on the silver screen this past weekend, and although it definitely is not as good as the original (Are sequels ever as good as the films that spawn them?), it does offer solid entertainment and a surprising performance by a newcomer to the saga.

During a press conference at the end of “Iron Man,” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) shocked the world by admitting that he and the iron clad human missile able to rocket around the planet faster than the speed of sound known as Iron Man are one and the same. The latest chapter in our hero’s life begins six months after the press conference, and although Tony looks the same as he did half a year ago, things are not going well for him. In the film’s production notes, Downey explains what his character is going through.

“In the first film Tony was in this kind of nether-world, somebody who needed to be put in check. By the time ‘Iron Man 2’ starts you’re essentially seeing Tony’s persona, and he’s showing that persona to everything and everyone around him because he doesn’t want them to know that anything has changed. But a lot has changed, and he’s really in quite a desperate way. The hero’s journey is really what he’s not telling people, not what he’s doing with or without a suit on. And that extends to his own emotional insecurity by not really being able to share it with Pepper. (Gwenyth Paltrow)

“In the interim Tony has noticed that the shelf life on his battery is nearing his expiration date. So, he’s been spending a lot of time working on a renewable energy source. We also left off on the first film with Tony and the military having a somewhat uneasy relationship, though when he comes in and does something right they back him up. I’m sure Rhodey has had a lot to do with that. And I think there’s also been some climbing tension between him and Rhodey.”

In addition to coping with his increasing health problems, Tony must also deal with government officials who are pressuring him to turn his famous suit over to the military so it can be used as weapon. And then there is the problem of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a nefarious villain who has purloined the Stark technology to aid him in manufacturing his own version of the Iron Man suit and who wants nothing more than to destroy Tony. Yes, Tony has plenty on his plate, and “Iron Man 2” chronicles how he deals with everything.

Obviously the main reason the sequel doesn’t match the original is that the novelty of the magic uniform already is known, and this is what made the first film so much fun. And although the sequel does contain its own elements of humor, they are not as fresh as the ones were in the original.

These points being made, “Iron Man 2” does have a number of things to recommend it. Downey delivers another stellar performance just as he did in the first film, and the chemistry between and the lovely Paltrow and him may be even more heated than it was in the original movie. And Rourke is sufficiently detestable as the despicable Vanko. His crowning moment is when he appears at car race and wreaks his own brand of devastation on it.

The battle scenes also were entertaining, but I wanted more of Downey as Iron Man and less of him as Stark, and we don’t get that in this film. Part of the charm of the original was Tony’s learning how to manipulate his new suit, and he doesn’t even use it all that much in this movie.

But the biggest pleasant surprise in this film is Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Tony’s new assistant. She plays a woman skilled in martial arts, and she delivers an impressive athletic performance  that is all the more incredible because she did her own stunt work. In the production notes, Johansson explained how she prepared for her part as Black Widow.

“Black Widow is an expert in hand-to-hand combat, she’s a mixed martial artist, has a dance and gymnastics background, so she combines all of these aspects into one kick-ass fighting machine. So I dedicated myself to putting in the hours, repetitions, and training with the stunt team until I felt comfortable that I could sell each particular move.”

“Iron Man 2” (Let’s give it a score of 7.) should please all fans of the first film even though it’s not quite on a par with it. Nevertheless, Downey, Paltrow, Rourke, and Johansson are good enough to guarantee that the sequel should be an ironclad hit.


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