If you've never visited the Unisphere, you should. A sprawling plaza in Queens, N.Y., is the site of the 12-story model Earth, a vestige of the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair. It's wonderful. It also is the key to a profound secret of physics, hidden in plain view. That, anyway, is a premise of Iron Man 2, the charmingly goofy superhero movie that brings back Robert Downey Jr.'s antsy, winningly eccentric performance as the title badass.
Downey plays the wealthy industrialist Tony Stark, who has secured world peace thanks to his Iron Man suit. Like any superhero, Iron Man has a nemesis. He is Ivan Vanko, a Russian scientist so smart that he can do his high-tech work with the primitive tools Siberia has to offer, the welder and the forge. Stark is the source of a family resentment for Ivan, played by Mickey Rourke, who with this brooding performance successfully continues a comeback at least as unlikely as Betty White's.
Iron Man 2 is action cinema in the James Bond mode, complete with sleek cars, sleek women (Scarlett Johansson has a dazzling fight sequence that is something of a non sequitur) and far-flung locales. One of the latter is Monaco, where Tony drives a Formula One car in the Gran Prix, to the exasperation of the Stark company's newly appointed boss, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, whose scenes with Downey are funny and memorable). On the course Stark meets Vanko, who has fashioned a suit as deadly as the Iron Man getup. He uses fiery tendrils to slice a car like truffle mousse.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military appropriates one of Stark's Iron Man suits, which is to be outfitted with weapons by the corporation of Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), Stark's ethically challenged competitor in the munitions trade. Rockwell is working too hard in this comic role, chewing too much scenery, especially compared to Downey and Rourke's cool glibness.
Pivotal sequences take place at the Stark Expo, a dazzling temporary theme park set at the fair site in Queens. The expo recalls a vision of Tony's long-deceased industrialist father, Howard Stark (John Slattery), a character seemingly inspired by elements of the Walt Disney myth. Like Disney, Howard lovingly prepares dioramas of wonderful parks, and he speaks from the grave in a filmed personal message, as Disney is said to have done in a debunked legend.
There are gestures here at tantalizing ideas about fathers and sons, the entertainment business, the nature of war and politics. There is in fact a lot of talking in this action movie, which may disappoint moviegoers primed for constant mayhem. Even so, these ideas aren't really developed.
But the special effects are fun, including an airborne computer interface Steve Jobs presumably is contemplating for the next iPad. The sense of fun and play is pervasive, actually. I'm thinking especially of a delirious party scene in which beautiful women hurl watermelons that a drunken Iron Man shoots down like clay pigeons. It's as odd as it sounds. I could watch it for hours.