Robery Downey Jr. shines as Tony Stark in <em>Iron Man 2</em>, a slick blockbuster sequel that is equal parts tongue-in-cheek humor and teched-out action.

Parenthetically speaking, there may have been an added circumstantial attraction in catching the pre-summer’s first blockbuster event, Iron Man 2, at the newly reopened drive-in in town. What more perfect flick could have launched the Santa Barbara Drive-In’s opening weekend than an over-hyped and cleverly retooled sequel to a Marvel superhero flick? The sum effect was kitsch squared, in which one self-referential cultural popcorn sensation (onscreen) met another (venue).

In this case, the 2 part of the Iron Man movie franchise is a positive attribute, just as other comic book-ish sequels and prequels—i.e., The Dark Knight—have exploited the potential to rough up or reinvent the earnestness of the original film. As craftily assembled and paced by director Jon Favreau, Iron Man 2 wears its irony on the sleeve, in many ways, while not skimping on the technical overkill and high-energy conflicts we expect. By film’s end, with its inevitable showdown of foes in their wizardry, the gamers among us might feel reflexive spasms in their controller-seeking hands.

But there’s much more than just filler between the cinematic pyrotechnics, thanks to a clever narrative involving a Russian contender to Iron Man’s supremacy, played by Mickey Rourke. Meanwhile, Downey, in his out-of-costume mode as a capitalist monopolist Tony Stark, makes cocky pronouncements: “I am Iron Man,” he boasts proudly, before the opening credits, and he then tells a Senate subcommittee, “I have successfully privatized world peace.” Successful private enterprise, of course, invites powerful competitors and wannabe dethroners, and Iron Man 2’s got ‘em.

Among the ironic twists here is the film’s central casting itself, as Robert Downey Jr. and Mickey Rourke—famous rehab habitués in real life—appear as computer-savvy superheroes. In one funny scene, our hero channels the Robert Downey Jr. within, getting liquored up and donning his empowering costume to unleash party tricks.

In keeping with the latter-day rethinking of the story, women play key roles on the periphery, between Gwyneth Paltrow’s order-keeping tasks as CEO of Stark Enterprises, and Scarlett Johansson’s supreme powers for kicking ass and taking no prisoners, in addition to her readily apparent wiles as the resident hottie in the film.

As to whether or not Iron Man sobers up and mans up, and saves the day and/or the world again, we’ll leave that plot detail unreported here. From a filmic vantage point, though, Favreau’s IM2 achieves its own neat kind of artistic resolution. The movie manages to deliver both the CGI-powered cartoon über-pow and knowing, self-deflating ironies all along the way, adding ironic rabbit-ear quotation marks around “Iron Man,” even as we soak up the blockbuster-y excess of it all.


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