I'm Joe Morgenstern, the film critic of The Wall Street Journal.
Tony Stark creates a new element in "Iron Man 2," though it's no big deal. Robert Downey Jr.'s zillionaire genius, who was revealed to be Iron Man at the end of the previous film, simply builds himself an in-home particle accelerator, fires it up and then bango, he's got a...new element. This sequel, unfortunately, settles for a new alloy of old elements - less iron, lots more lead and tin.
It isn't Downey's fault. He's so clever and smart that he can take one of the notions in the script - Tony's unseemly lust for fame - and turn it into charmingly self-ironic grandiosity. But there's only so much a star can do. The distinction of the first "Iron Man" was its bipolar grace, a gift for swinging between elegant action sequences and the intimate and touching drama of Tony's conversion from an arrogant arms merchant into a global savior with an all-too-human soul. The franchise owners, Marvel Studies, have stayed with the same director, Jon Favreau, and the same love interest, Pepper Potts, who's played by Gwyneth Paltrow. But intimacy has vanished from the relationship between Tony and Pepper, and grace has been stricken from the movie as a whole. In its place there's Downey as Atlas, carrying the weight of an unwieldy plot on his buff physique, plus the digital dictum that governs most action-adventure sequels these days - whatever effects can be used will be used, to excess.
That plot is really just a string of random notions, two of them involving villains, when one really good bad guy would have done the trick. Sam Rockwell gives a lively, wry performance as Justin Hammer, a rival arms magnate who wants to steal priceless secrets from Stark Industries and sell his own cyborg weaponry to the government. Mickey Rourke is Ivan Vanko, the tattooed and toothpick-chomping son of a Russian physicist, and a weapons designer in his own right who's determined to avenge the wrongs done to his family by Tony Stark's father.
Rourke is a startling physical presence, just as he was in "The Wrestler," but he's the cyborg equivalent of a punch-drunk heavyweight when it comes to mortal combat. Here again, though, it isn't his fault. The supposedly epic battles between Iron Man and Ivan in his battle gear are staged with minimal ingenuity. And those confrontations are part of a clutter that plagues the production. Instead of two antagonists, three, since Tony's friend, Colonel "Rhodey" Roads, is either battling Iron Man to keep him on the straight and narrow, or fighting alongside him against Ivan. (This time Rhodey is played by Don Cheadle instead of Terence Howard.) The clutter includes Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow - she looks uncomfortable playing a rubber-suited seductress with no clear style or function - and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. Nick's function is cryptic too, but Jackson looks like he doesn't give a damn.
I'm Joe Morgenster, and I'll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.