Thank God for Mickey Rourke.
As tattooed Russian physicist Ivan Vanko, Rourke single-handedly saves Iron Man 2, because he is as dangerous and threatening to Iron Man as The Joker was to Batman, and almost as implacable. And yet we like him.
The advance word was right. Iron Man 2 is about the villains. Sam Rockwell is slimy, hateful arms dealer Justin Hammer, and we share Vanko's contempt for him, while enjoying Rockwell's delight in entertaining us. He's fun.
Less so are Robert Downey, Jr. as billionaire Tony Stark/Iron Man and the silent but deadly Scarlett Johansson. But I must say the women get short shrift here, as Gwenyth Paltrow's thankless Pepper Potts is a humorless school marm squeezed into skinny suits. Potts and Stark have no chemistry at all this time, because he's made her his boss while he fights to fix the toxic timebomb in the middle of his chest. Downey's playing with the dichotomy between Stark the powerful public figure cum super hero going up against the establishment, and the lonely human desperately trying to save his own life. It's like Superman and kryptonite; have director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Theroux made Iron Man too vulnerable?
While Favreau is a stylish director who keeps things moving, Iron Man 2 suffers from too many characters crowding for space in a ridiculously deluxe universe (another reason why Vanko and his mechanic's dirty fingers are a relief). It feels as though the new entrants, including Don Cheadle as Lt. Col. James Rhodey, worked hard to own their characters, while the rest of the ensemble was in retread mode. The entire subplot involving Johansson and Nick Fury (Sam Jackson) is a muddled set-up for the next installment. Unlike the last film, which was as tightly wound as a perfect clock, this movie spirals in too many directions at once.
But guess what? Critics won't make a dent in this E-ride entertainment. (Of course, Harry Knowles loves it.) Even if this Iron Man isn't as good as the last one, it's plenty good enough. And it's a lot better than the crap Hollywod has been shoveling out lately. It will still be the blockbuster to beat this summer. But bring on Toy Story 3. It has a shot. And I can't wait to see what Rourke does with Ghenghis Khan.