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'Iron Man 2's' thrills start summer off right

"Iron Man 2" — 4 out of 5 pitchforks

I did not initially recommend the original “Iron Man” when it was released in May 2008, claiming that the movie was anticlimactic and lacking in a compelling villain. An inbox full of hate e-mails for declining the film though prompted me to believe that maybe I made a mistake.

After revisiting the film on DVD, I realized that I had indeed made a catastrophic error. On a second viewing, I appreciated “Iron Man” more for its fast-paced action, wit and the exceptional performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. One of the hardest things for any critic to do is to admit that they gave a movie an incorrect rating. I’m stating for the record now that “Iron Man” was terrific entertainment.

“Iron Man 2” is every bit as fun and humorous, if not more so, as its predecessor — and a considerably better action/comedy than the overblown “Losers,” another adaptation of a graphic novel released a few weeks ago.

Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark, who as you may recall revealed his secret identity of Iron Man to the world at the end of the previous movie. Since then, Iron Man has played a tremendous role in upholding peace between the nations of the world.

Some spectators, however, including a senator played by Gary Shandling and a defense contractor hilariously played by Sam Rockwell, believe that Stark should hand over the Iron Man weapon to the government out of fear that other countries may copy the equipment.

Stark refuses to part with the suit, though, claiming that no other country will develop the technology for another 20 years. Yet shortly after he makes this accusation, a Russian named Ivan Vanko, played by Mickey Rourke, who has developed an arc reactor of his own, attacks Tony. Shortly after the incident, Stark starts to contemplate whether or not be can handle the power of Iron Man.

Downey Jr. once again flawlessly captures the essence of the wisecracking and cocky, yet emotionally repressed Stark in one of the great superhero performances.

But what’s surprising about “Iron Man 2” is the strength of the supporting cast. Gwyneth Paltrow shined in the first “Iron Man” as Pepper Potts, Stark’s dedicated assistant who knows him better than anybody. Here she continues to excel not as a mere damsel like Lois Lane or Mary Jane Watson, but an independent woman who saves Tony from disaster just as much as he saves her.

Another pivotal performance comes from Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard’s replacement as Lt. Col. James Rhodes, who worries that his close friend Tony is going to seriously endanger the world — and himself — if he continues to be Iron Man. There’s also some first-rate work from Scarlett Johansson as Tony’s new assistant, Natalie Rushmore, who may be concealing an alter ego of her own, Jon Favreau, the film’s director who also portrays Tony’s limo driver and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury who desires to recruit Iron Man for a little team known as The Avengers.

The one department that “Iron Man 2” somewhat falls short in is it’s antagonist. Rourke is a significant step up from Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane in the first movie. However, he’s not nearly as menacing or interesting as Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” or Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus in “Spider-Man 2.”

What “Iron Man 2” lacks in a villain though it makes up for in the hero division with another stellar performance from Downey Jr. Besides, it’s probably better that the “Iron Man” franchise isn’t so heavy on villains.

Otherwise we might get something like the original four “Batman” movies or “Spider-Man 3,” which centered more on the bad guys than the title character.

What I appreciate about these two “Iron Man” pictures, and to a greater extent Christopher Nolan’s two “Batman” films, is that the movies have brought superheroes into the real world.

Unlike most superhero movies, which are about good versus evil, the “Iron Man” films tackle issues we face in contemporary America regarding global safety and the people in positions of power.

Along the way “Iron Man 2” delivers more thrills than one could possibly desire in this early summer season. By the hammer of Thor, this is an entertaining movie.

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