It's not that "Iron Man 2" is a bad film, or even a poor example of the contemporary "Marvel Film" style. I sense that my disappointment with the movie, which grew progressively as the film unspooled last night, was heightened by my great enjoyment of the original "Iron Man" movie, along with a general awareness that comic book films, as a genre, have essentially fallen into a rut. "Iron Man 2" follows the formula just fine, I suppose, but it's not surprising, innovative or inspired. It doesn't enhance my appreciation for or understanding of the Tony Stark/Iron Man character. Though the action is executed well enough, it's never more than par for the course for this kind of film, and it didn't really even seem to try to exceed or upset my expectations.10 years after "X-Men" massively renewed the general public's interest in seeing Marvel characters on the big screen, it's time someone threw us a curveball with one of these movies. I feel like we've now established that it's possible to adapt a comic book into a genuinely original, exciting cinematic experience. Now it's time to figure out how to take these stories in another direction, to make the material feel fresh again. Obviously, we've seen this story before...I'm not saying anyone needs to reinvent the wheel here, and there's only so much you can do with these Stan Lee backstories. But does the movie have to make it so OBVIOUS that we've seen this story before? The plot: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a conflicted hero whose own fame and powers may prove to be his undoing. So in order to save the world, he's going to first have to save himself, along with a woman wearing a body-hugging, largely ridiculous outfit (Scarlett Johansson). You know, for a change. Stark's facing challenges on a number of fronts, actually. His corporate arch-rival, weapons maker Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), has hired a brilliant but insane Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke), to create an "Iron Man"-inspired robot army. At the same time, Stark has discovered that the arc reactor in his chest, the device that's not only powering his Iron Man suit but also keeping his heart healthy, has started poisoning his blood, threatening his life unless he can find a cure. Also at the same time, he's being investigated by a cynical Senator (Garry Shandling...for real...), watched closely by the agents of SHIELD (including Samuel L Jackson's Nick Fury) and hounded by his friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, stepping in for Terrence Howard) because he won't turn the Iron Man suit over to the US Government. Whew. It sounds packed with incident, but all of these stories develop in a pretty labored, exposition-heavy fashion, making the movie feel surprisingly tedious. The first movie also had a lot of conflict and different plotlines going on, but Favreau and his various screenwriters (5 are credited in total) approached them with a loose, comic attitude. There was a lot coming at Tony Stark, but it wasn't really about terrorists or Jeff Bridges' evil plot or Gwyneth Paltrow's reticence to get involved with her boss romantically. It was at heart a simple, entertaining romp about a very snarky guy named Tony Stark becoming Iron Man, and whenever the narrative threatened to get bogged down in plot details, they'd throw in a couple of jokes to smooth over the rough spots and keep everyone's attention. The sequel doesn't seem to know where to focus amidst all the chaos, and Justin Theroux's screenplay lacks a lot of the witty rejoinders that populated the first movie. (The decision to have the once-charming rogue Tony Stark think that he's dying for the entire film, and therefore too depressed to behave like his usual "self-aware selfish prick" persona, was a poor one. Downey Jr's usual snarky joie de vivre doesn't really mesh well with chronic depression. So the whole film becomes something of a slog.) We get a lot of new characters, but Sam Rockwell as the sleazily incompetent Hammer is the only one who makes any sort of real impression. He's easily the funniest character, and Favreau wisely gave Rockwell enough room to sort of overplay the role and infuse it with a lot of his trademark goofiness. (His little silly dance while presenting his new weapons at the Stark Expo is one of the very few moments in the film that feels personal and human.) I'm not sure why they decided to make Hammer so glaringly poor at building weapons. Sure, the film gets some cheap jokes out of the fact that his inventions never work, but he'd be a lot more threatening as a nemesis if he was able to build something - anything - that could actually hurt Iron Man, right? This is important, as the shockingly lame performance by Mickey Rourke as the villainous Whiplash renders Hammer the film's lone serious antagonist. Rourke clearly connected with the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson in "The Wrestler" only 2 years back, but he's sleepwalking through "Iron Man 2." Not only do we never for a second believe his character could possibly be a brilliant physicist, but there's honestly not a single scene in the film where I genuinely invested in the character's reality on any level. It's just Mickey Rourke with a variety of stupid-looking haircuts, fake prison tats and a bad Russian accent, not a real character who presents any sort of actual immediate challenge to Iron Man. I've always liked Rourke as an actor and want to root for him now that he's experiencing this big career revival, but I can't excuse the mess that he makes of the Whiplash character here. (It's not entirely his fault...The design on the character and his electrified whip weapon is sub-standard all-around. He looks like a homeless Star Trek villain.) Other characters don't fare much better. Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts, one of the great surprises of the first film, seems on the verge of tears for this entire movie. I wanted to give her a hug and a muffin, and maybe tell her to take a nap, but not watch her in a film. Don Cheadle makes zero impact as James Rhodes, and it almost feels like Favreau purposefully keeps him sidelined during the bulk of the movie. Like he was embarrassed that they swapped out actors between films, and kept him in the margins so no one would notice. I forgot he was in this for 20 minute stretches at a time. Scarlett Johansson shows up to look hot but has essentially no character, and after her big "reveal" at about the halfway point in the film, she remains in the movie without anything to actually say or do. Sometimes, she's just in the background to be hot, or make for a better publicity still or something. It's obvious they just threw her in here as a further teaser for the forthcoming "Avengers" movie and didn't really think about whether she had a role to play in this story. Actually, now that I think about it, this whole movie sort of feels like a promo for "The Avengers." Even the final post-credit scene (which I won't spoil here) serves more as an "Avengers" teaser than a capper for the movie we've actually just watched. I know Marvel execs and creative types (and maybe even fans) are all excited to have all these interconnected movies coming up, leading up to a massive "Avengers" film, but the rest of us still want the individual movies to entertain on their own merits, not as commercials for the REAL movie coming in a few years. It would be a shame if they muted the public's interest in the "Avengers" movie when it finally arrives by releasing a string of lazy, middling shitkickers beforehand. Okay, so I feel like I'm harping on the film now and being overly critical. There's good scenes and fun little asides to be had here. The main action set pieces, particularly the final fight with Stark and Rhodes facing off against Hammer's robot army, work well and the Industrial Light and Magic effects are solid. Sam Jackson's clearly enjoying the chance to play Nick Fury, and has a lot of chemistry with Downey Jr. As I said, it's not a bad film. It's just a mediocre one, and coming on the heels of arguably my favorite Marvel film to date, that's a big letdown.