As I watched Iron Man 2, one phrase went through my head. It's the compliment the male characters paid to one another in director Jon Favreau's first film, Swingers: "You're so money."
Iron Man 2: You're so money.
I don't mean garish or gaudy or without a sense of humor. But in all the superhero leagues in all the world, Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark has the swankiest pad: a cliffside Malibu mansion that would make Bruce Wayne drool with envy. In his cool, low-lit lab, a computer with a smooth British voice supplies his needs, while sexy A-list foils like Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson sashay in and out.
Viewers might ask: Can money buy a good movie? Not always -- but in this case, yes. Iron Man 2 is a smart piece of work; it doesn't have the emotional heft of Superman 2 and Spider-Man 2, those two twos that outclassed their ones. But Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux have paced it like a screwball comedy, with fast-talking dames and ping-pong zingers that show off Downey's expert timing. After promoting Paltrow's Pepper Potts to CEO, he needs a new assistant -- and Johansson's Natalie Rushman, from the legal department, looks super promising.
Iron Man 2 does have a plot, and it's functional. It starts where the first film ended, with Stark admitting publicly to being the guy in the metal suit flying around battling baddies. Iron Man peddled a bogus but appealing fantasy: that an American from a family that made its fortune selling weapons to kill people in far-off countries could himself become a weapon -- for peace! So you could, if inclined, applaud the anti-military-industrialist-complex message but also cheer for a superhero who's the product of military-industrialist ingenuity. Either way, America is so money.
At first, Iron Man 2 adds a new wrinkle. Stark gets subpoenaed by a Congress that resents his boast of having "successfully privatized world peace." But his chief Senate antagonist, played by Garry Shandling, turns out to be the puppet of unscrupulous rival weapons-maker Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell with the perfect ratio of unctuousness to menace. So the politics, in the end, are moot, and we're left with special effects fighting other special effects.
To be fair, they're sensational, and we never lose sight of the characters behind them. Stark has a plug in his chest made from the element palladium that keeps him alive -- but is also poisoning him. So his feats are double-edged: the more superheroic, the greater the cost to the superhero. Plus, he's facing off against a Russian supervillain, Mickey Rourke's Ivan Vanko, who has a chip on his shoulder the size of an asteroid. Even in prison, it's clear Vanko has the upper hand. Stark has no idea where Vanko got the technology for his own electrified supersuit -- or how the two men are linked.
Mickey Rourke's recent re-emergence is a beautiful thing, the way Dennis Hopper's was after Blue Velvet. They're actors who entered death spirals of excess and were resurrected, though much the worse for wear, and are equal parts inspiring and scary.
As Vanko, Rourke sports messy tattoos and a mouthful of metal from which he spits blood -- smiling, of course. Decked out as "Whiplash," he throws out arms extended by long and lethal electric tendrils. He gives Iron Man 2 a badly needed sting -- a glimpse of personal demons a movie so money can't buy.