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Iron Man 2: A Love Letter to Ronald Reagan?

America just might have found itself its truest superhero. Who needs Superman when there’s Iron Man 2? Tony Stark isn’t just a patriot and a lifesaver. He’s bold, he’s clever, he’s rich, he’s a capitalist individualist defender of property rights. And he likes to give speeches surrounded by dancing girls.

Iron Man was fun but Iron Man 2 is even better, with a script (by Justin Theroux) so laced with wit that it if you took away the fireballs and just had actors reading it on a bare stage like a Noel Coward piece, it would still be an entertaining evening.

The main flaws of the first film — let’s face it, the finale with Jeff Bridges was a bore, and so was Terrence Howard, the blandest buddy since Robin — are gone in the sequel. This one features nifty fireworks — including a nifty Monte Carlo race scene — plus two excellent yet very different villains (Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke), the superb Don Cheadle stepping in for Howard (who reportedly demanded more money than the producers were willing to pay), just enough Nicky Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to make us want more, and a blowout of an ending.

Oh yeah, and the movie is also a virtual love letter to Ronald Reagan.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., whose performance seems meant to school Christian Bale in the art of playing things loose) finds himself in trouble with a weaselly senator (Garry Shandling). The lawmaker accuses Stark, who has been boasting to the world of his ability to keep the peace, of purposely developing an offensive weapon that he misleadingly calls a defensive weapon.

That this is exactly the argument liberals (and the Soviets) used to excoriate Ronald Reagan and his SDI plan is delicious — but it gets better. As played by Shandling, the senator, who is from Pennsylvania, bears more than a slight resemblance to Arlen Specter, the classic Capitol Hill weasel who called himself a Republican for as long as he found it convenient and is now not only a Democrat but one of the most reliably liberal members of his caucus.

Still better: In front of Congress, which Tony rightly mocks as his intellectual and moral inferiors, he delivers a stout defense of private property when the senator demands that he simply turn over the blueprints to his Iron Man suit. Stark points out that the country is doomed if it has to rely for its defense on the government’s chosen contractor, headed by a corporate tool named Justin Hammer (Rockwell) who thinks he is as smart as Tony but isn’t, quite.

And yet still better: Tony has his own Shepard Fairey-style “Hope” poster. It says “Iron Man” — a cheeky rebuke to an America that can elect a commander in chief who thinks perpetual apologizing is a bargaining position.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, a terrifyingly single-minded Russian named Ivan (Mickey Rourke, who as he did in The Wrestler uses his wrecked looks to excellent effect), whose deceased father had a blood feud against Tony’s late dad (John Slattery of Mad Men), develops his own knockoff Iron Man suit and comes looking for Tony. He finds him, at the Monte Carlo car race that Tony joins on a lark.

But thanks to the twin high-voltage whips that Ivan can use to strip the side off an armored car, Tony, his bodyguard (director Jon Favreau), and his best girl Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) find themselves in danger of being outgunned by this snarling, almost wordless psycho. Naturally Justin Hammer and Ivan soon join forces — as Tony notices with his typical heedless bravado that a flaw in the power source he uses to operate his mechanical heart is slowly, fatally poisoning him.

That’s a lot of story — and I haven’t even mentioned Tony’s mysterious new assistant (Scarlett Johansson). But it all comes through clearly in Theroux’s fast-moving script. The action scenes are robust, especially the finale at the old World’s Fair site in Queens, N.Y., that also inspired the big finish of Men in Black, and Downey makes his many one-liners zing (he tells Nick Fury he doesn’t want to join his “superhero boy band”). Yet Rockwell is his equal, particularly in a hilarious monologue in which he describes his favorite weapons like “Uncle Gazpacho” (so called for the chunky red mess it tends to make of enemies) and “the ex-wife.”

Iron Man 2 is a big, brash, exciting, and brainy adventure, supercharged by its love for core American values. When the liberals huff that Tony Stark is a “lone gunslinger,” you know what he’s thinking: “Senator Weasel can have the rights to my Iron Man suit just as soon as he pries them out of my cold, dead hands.”