The previously infallible rule about comic-book superhero movies assumed that if the first film is good, the second would be even better. With all those pesky introductions out of the way, filmmakers are free to play with the universe they have created, liberating their characters from their original stories and delving more fully into their world. Part I establishes the ground rules. Part II gives permission to play on a broader, more complex canvas.
This formula has applied to every successful comic-book franchise I can think of - Spider-Man, X-Men, Superman, Batman - until the curious case of Iron Man 2. All the main players are back (with the exception of Terrence Howard, who was replaced by Don Cheadle), the budget is bigger, and the somewhat irreverent tone of the first picture remains intact, courtesy of Robert Downey Jr., who remains funny and engaging as Tony Stark, the billionaire with a bad ticker and a super-cool suit of armor.
The main problem with Iron Man 2 lies in the script by actor-turned-screenwriter Justin Theroux (he played the temperamental director in Mulholland Dr.). Instead of amping up the stakes and furthering the relationships among the characters - such as Stark's simmering flirtations with his trusty personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has been promoted to CEO of Stark Enterprises - Iron Man 2 recycles most of the elements from the first film, to dwindling returns. You keep waiting for the film to kick into third or even second gear, but it never happens.
Once again, Stark must squirrel away into his lab to build a replacement for his weak ticker (the one he built in the first film turns out to have had toxic side-effects). Once again there is a baddie, Ivan Vanko (a wasted Mickey Rourke) who wants to build a robot evil enough to turn Iron Man into scrap metal. Aside from Vanko, the film's chief villain is a weapons manufacturer (Sam Rockwell) who wants to do what Stark won't: Supply the U.S. military with the technology Stark wants to keep for himself.
Director Jon Favreau, who continues to get better at big-budget gloss, keeps the film interesting on a visual level, but there's only so much he can do with a screenplay saddled with more dialogue than a Merchant/Ivory picture about repressed British people sipping tea and munching on crumpets. Iron Man 2 is one seriously talky movie: With the exception of an early scene in which Vanko disrupts a car race with his electrical whips, which can slice through anything like light sabers, there is no action whatsover - I mean none - until the climactic 20 minutes (and even that is stolen from the leading man by a fantastic Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, aka The Black Widow to Marvel Comics fans) .
But unlike Avatar, which rewarded your patience with a stupendous action setpiece, the wait this time simply isn't worth it. I'm all for movies that take their time developing their characters, but this is ridiculous. Iron Man 2 is more of a set-up for the upcoming Avengers picture than a stand-alone adventure - a puzzling and unexpected disappointment, considering how fresh and entertaining the first picture was. The summer movie season gets started with a fat dud.
Iron Man 2 (** out of ****) opens Friday May 7.
Spoiler note: If you sit through the end credits, you'll be rewarded with a brief coda (SPOILERS AHEAD!) in which Thor's hammer makes an appearance. The scene is not worth the wait.