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Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as the charming and ambitious inventor in Iron Man 2.
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★★★★✩

Iron Man II

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow

Rated PG-13

When I first heard of Iron Man 2, I felt my expectations torn between two conflicting masters. On the one hand, the film is a sequel to Iron Man and contains everything that I love in a movie: robots, explosions, and a protagonist who isn’t Shia LaBoeuf. On the other hand, the movie is a sequel, period. Nothing is better the second time around; from KISS reunion tours to warfare in Iraq, sequels are always a mistake. So not surprisingly, the film fails to live up to its predecessor. If watching Iron Man was like the first prime steak you ever had, then watching Iron Man 2 is like following it up with a veggie burger and a tofu salad.

Iron Man 2 chronicles the continuing adventures of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), celebrity weapons contractor and owner of the film’s eponymous battle armor. In the wake of the events of the first Iron Man film, the overwhelming bad-assness of Stark’s armored suit has enforced world peace by frightening America’s enemies into submission, much like UFC fighter Kimbo Slice’s entrance into any room, anywhere. Iron Man still faces a host of vaguely threatening foes, from the spurned son of a former business partner to rival military contractors. Believing himself poisoned by his own suit, Stark spirals into an existential crisis while falling into the arms of his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose name makes her sound like a culinary-themed adult film star. Somewhere along the line, Samuel L. Jackson arrives and acts as if he’s still filming Snakes on a Plane.

Iron Man 2’s star-packed cast is certainly the best part of the film. The movie is undeniably funny, and benefits from the wealth of star power that it gleefully hurls at the audience’s face. Mickey Rourke does an excellent job embodying all of America’s deepest fears (a terrifying foreigner with facial hair), while Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle both deliver funny and surprisingly deep performances for a traditional superhero flick. The budding love story between Paltrow and Downey Jr. is also handled well; the two carry out a refreshingly chaste relationship (one of many aspects of the film which engineers in the audience can relate to), which helps to add some tension to the movie without becoming vomit inducing.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) seems to do little in the film other than provide blaxploitative comic relief, but I appreciated his unflagging dedication to speaking at the volume of a space shuttle launch. He otherwise exists solely to plug the Avengers franchise, which I can only assume will one day storm the metaphorical beaches of Loews Multiplexes everywhere and begin printing money faster than a failing Third World government. Accompanied by Scarlett Johansson’s slow motion pouting (Gwyneth Paltrow being too old and too good an actress to appropriately pander to comic book fanboys), Jackson meanders through the movie muttering at 8000 decibels about obscure superhero references that only 1 percent of the population can actually understand. While I often enjoy a hearty dosing of Mr. Jackson in a film, whenever he’s onscreen all the yelling makes me feel as if I’m being interrogated or am about to be subjected to a creative form of police brutality.

What really disappointed me about the film, however, was the fact that the film never gets down and dirty to blow things up in a satisfying manner. Perhaps I’ve just been inured to special effects ­— Retina-blowing graphics and shellshock-inducing explosions have become utterly commonplace, and one can hardly watch an hour’s worth of TV commercials without seeing a photorealistic depiction of a Wendy’s sandwich engulfed in napalm. Films like Avatar were the gateway drug to gratuitous sci-fi action, and it’s difficult as a desensitized viewer to go back to a film which doesn’t make you feel like you’ve just survived an aerial bombardment. It takes explosions on the level of destroying Bolivia with a comet made of active volcanos to impress today’s movie-goer, and (spoiler alert) it doesn’t happen.

If you’re looking for a revolutionary superhero movie, this certainly isn’t it. Like a lights-out performance on a first date, the former Iron Man set the bar too high, and the second try feels like an hour of awkward fumbling followed by a series of excuses. If you’re simply looking to be entertained, however, I would certainly recommend it, and if you really enjoy explosions, Robert Downey Jr.’s bizarre facial expressions, and a healthy helping of Sam L. Jackson, then you won’t leave the theater disappointed.