Iron Man 2
I never thought I'd say it, but I really think it's true: The best part of Iron Man 2 is Gwyneth Paltrow.
That's a bit of a surprise, given that this franchise stars Robert Downey Jr. in all his snarky, scene-stealing, unabashed Downey-ness, and that this sequel features a highly-publicized, creepily sinister turn by Mickey Rourke (as the villain Whiplash)—to say nothing of the fact that, in the first film, Paltrow's role was fairly minor, serving more as a plot device than as a rounded character. She only has slightly more screen time here, yet her character, Pepper Potts, serves to summarize just about everything that's great about these two films—and the areas in which this sequel makes small strides forward from its predecessor.
Pepper is the personal assistant to Tony Stark (Downey), a cocky billionaire inventor who moonlights not-so-secretly-anymore as the world-saving techno-hero Iron Man. She's as close to Stark as he will allow her to be—which is to say, not very, but she knows him better than anyone, and for some reason, she still seems pretty nuts about the narcissistic jerk. There's always been romantic tension between the two, and here it bubbles over into some wickedly funny scenes in which the two of them play off each other with one deadpan barb after another. The sparks that fly in these scenes are the film's greatest special effect.
And that's saying something: This movie has a lot of cool CG work, and the action sequences are every bit as thrilling as those in the first. But the vigorous work between Paltrow and Downey emphasizes the greatest asset that this cast—and director Jon Favreau—brings to the Iron Man movies, and that's their childlike enthusiasm.
This franchise has never given any indication of wanting to be something as grave or as meaningful as Christopher Nolan's recent Batman movies, or even as socially and politically aware as the X-Men flicks. There are some throwaway lines here in which Whiplash (Rourke) hints at deeper personal and political ramifications for what Stark is doing—how his world-saving exploits have left a trail of dead behind him—but the movie seems to grow bored of this theme long before it offers anything substantive to say about it.
And that's probably for the best. Leave the politics and the big statements to other superhero franchises; Favreau's films want nothing more than to give the most blockbuster bang for buck, to be the comic-bookiest of all the big superhero franchises.
They cram as much plot into this second episode as they can—big happenings for Stark and his company, plus plenty of new characters and plot threads—while still keeping things to a relatively streamlined two-hour running time. One of the first scenes is of our hero defending himself—in typical over-the-top fashion—during a Senate hearing, in which an old curmudgeon tries and fails to seize the Iron Man suit for the U.S. defense department. That subplot that runs through the movie, but splinters off in other directions too: Stark spars with a rival weapons designer named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), does battle with the grubby but devilish Whiplash, and finds himself increasingly entangled with the mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. group, even as he seeks to unravel a decades-old mystery involving his late father's most secret invention. Oh yeah: Did I mention that he's dying of metal poisoning from wearing the suit too much?