‘Iron Man’ franchise clanks to halt in sequel

That which flies high must also come crashing down — even a superhero in a gravity-defying red-and-gold metal suit. The fun of the first “Iron Man” picture is matched by the boredom of the second, which screeches into theaters to kick off the summer movie season this weekend.

“Iron Man 2” returns much of the creative team from the first film, most notably including star Robert Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau. And yet this movie spends most of its time idling, setting up a story line that isn’t very interesting to begin with.

As much as it’s about anything, “Iron Man 2” reveals that Tony Stark, the billionaire manufacturer who invented the seemingly indestructible Iron Man suit, is slowly dying. The retractable gizmo in his chest is leaching something into his bloodstream, and if he doesn’t find a fix, he’ll be toast.

Meanwhile, a Russian criminal named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) tinkers around with his own version of the Iron Man technology, while a weapons magnate (Sam Rockwell) pursues the same goal.

For a half-hour or so, the movie kicks along nicely and a sequence at the Monaco Grand Prix brings together Vanko with Stark in an agreeably nasty way.

But then “Iron Man 2” goes into a deadly stall, with a minimum of action and even less wit. Hollywood is bringing together an inter-connected franchise with the various Marvel Comics characters (Captain America and Thor have their own vehicles coming in 2011, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury hangs around in this one), so part of the movie is introducing that meta-plotline — which very nearly kills the picture we’re actually watching.

Fanboys will want to stick around for a post-credits teaser, on that last point. Or you can just read the spoilers online, which will give the same effect.

Robert Downey Jr. is the original Irony Man, and his jokey manner helped keep the first film skipping along. Most of the freshness is gone, except when Downey is trading overlapping dialogue with Gwyneth Paltrow, who returns as his long-suffering assistant, Pepper Potts.

Scarlett Johansson arrives as a new Stark associate, but she’s window dressing here, and Garry Shandling smirks by as a U.S. senator. Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard in the role of Stark’s military buddy, and you can’t help but wonder whether his casting had something to do with him being the same height as Downey.

Rourke should provide some crazy-man oomph, but saddled with a highly questionable Russian accent (yet somehow sporting the same grubby wardrobe he carries from project to project), he can’t gain much traction here.

“Iron Man 2” stays in the doldrums so long you begin to sense the movie is growing toxic along with Tony Stark, gradually fading before our eyes. The climactic battle is so tame it made me yearn for the gross excess of a Michael Bay film — a sure sign of something gone wrong.

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