'Iron Man 2' is flashy, but comes crashing down

"Jump the shark" and "Nuke the 'fridge." Two Hollywood terms which come to mind when a sequel is released following a successful debut movie.

The first "Iron Man" movie was released in 2008. It had a high "wow factor" to be sure. It was fresh and interesting, a shiny adaptation of the Marvel Comics' character, Iron Man, brought to life by the talented actor Robert Downey Jr.

"Iron Man" 1 delivered the necessary backstory regarding how Iron Man came to be, along with the astonishing technology that turned Tony Stark, industrialist, into a high-flying weapons system. The Iron Man suit defines cool. Plus, it's always a thrill watching a superhero's history unfold, watching as he or she begins to take control of newly discovered and unexpected abilities. Recall Superman, arriving on Earth in the center of a meteor; or Spider-Man, bitten by a spider, grappling with his metamorphosis. It's a rush.

Hence, that first "Iron Man" movie, now in franchise mode, was superb entertainment. The challenge then was how to craft a sequel that would be equally gripping.

Comic book adaptations have become an entertainment staple using familiar characters: Batman, Hulk, X-Men, Superman, Spider-Man, Hellboy, to name a few. And not to forget the recent release of the tongue-in-cheek, derivative movie "Kick Ass."

Which brings us to 2010, and the newly burnished "Iron Man 2." To be certain, as mentioned, creating a sequel can be problematical. For writer Justin Theroux and director Don Favreau, the trick was to find a story that presented a now-established Tony Stark aka Iron Man in a new and interesting way. Plus a new antagonist had to be introduced, an opponent worthy of Stark's incomparable strength, wealth and intelligence.

If not done well, with real imagination, the filmmakers risked "jumping the shark," meaning that the "Iron Man 1" narrative had peaked with the first film and anything thereafter would be, well, predictable and anti-climactic.

The term "jump the shark" is most often used to describe the moment when a TV series or movie franchise begins its downturn and things spin off into absurdity. The intensity and crispness of the first movie (or first season in television) has been dulled, the story has lost its edge and the originality, which made the initial premise appealing, is missing. The film has devolved into the formulaic. It happens.

If "jump the shark" doesn't do justice to the phenomenon, there's always "Nuke the 'fridge," derived from the moment in "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull," the second in the trilogy, when Indy jumps into a lead-lined fridge and survives a nuclear explosion unscathed. The scene was so absurd, so far from the inimitable first film, "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark," that it acquired its own moniker.

So, does "Iron Man 2" "nuke the fridge"? Pretty much. In an effort to make Stark extraordinary and more complex, the writers make him decidedly un-heroic. He's arrogant, hubristic and seemingly consumed with his new found fame and power.

He's not very appealing. In one scene, he arrives before a government oversight committee with studied insouciance, flashing the peace sign, declaring world peace has been privatized, while displaying an ego that is in need of deflating. Though watching Downey Jr. portray even a phone book is always a treat, this second incarnation of Stark, wherein the screenwriter goes for comic relief where no relief is necessary, is strange..

Downey Jr. is, of course, a consummate actor, as is Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, his unacknowledged love interest and solidly competent girl Friday. As for Mickey Roarke, in all his grungy splendor, well, he's passable as a Russian named Ivan Vanko, wingnut scientist and Stark's bad-dude nemesis. Samuel L. Jackson makes an appearance, briefly, as Nick Fury, as does Scarlett Johansson in the role of Natalie, aka Black Widow.

The burden that any sequel carries is one of story. Once Iron Man's history has been revealed, and his superhero talents established, it all comes down to imagination. Does "Iron Man 2" have the right stuff? No. The hardware is wonderful. The suit is still a treat to watch: wax on, wax off. But the rest, the loud climactic battle, the flights at supersonic speeds, all of it is familiar. Fall back position: craft a great screenplay. Otherwise, the thrill is gone.

Babies

French filmmaker Thomas Balmes traveled the world to capture some remarkable footage of babies. Just babies. No voice over, no talking heads, no experts opining about early childhood develpment. The only dialogue is baby dialogue, which means lots of oohing and aahing — and crying. And these kids can cry. The cast is four little guys, so to speak: Hattie, a girl, raised in downtown San Franciso; Bayar, a boy, from the plains of Mongolia; Mari, a girl, residing in a small apartment in Tokyo; and Ponijao, growing up in the Himba tribe on the dusty plains of Nambia.

Balmes, camera rolling, is there for their birth and he is there through the many months as they grow ever more independent. The film is a kind of visual journey that reveals, in so many remarkable ways, our deep commonality. Though the cultures are decidedly different, and the manner of parenting varied, children in all corners of the world are, unequivocally, loved and valued. Mari and Hattie live lives of structure, surrounded by urban technology, infant classes, and mothers who, on occasion, helicopter. In contrast, Bayar and Ponijao crawl freely about, tended by an extended family, or no one at all, Bayar pausing to suckle his mother or take a brief nap. Ponijao makes his way on all four across the grass steppes with animals, goats and cattle about, paying him no mind.

Each of the children, to the delight and concern of the audience, test themselves over and over as the journey to personhood is revealed. Young children are clearly resilient and trusting, and, in their own way, courageous. They move incrementally ever farther away from the embracing arms of their mothers and into a brave new world. Starting with that first wobbly step. And, thanks to Thomas Balmes we're there to witness this deeply human and universal story.

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