One of the reasons I preferred “Iron Man I” to “The Dark Knight” — that other superhero blockbuster from 2008 — was that it was lighter, brighter, more fun. Sure, the Batman flick was a fine piece of filmmaking, but it was too dark, too complicated, too–well, as the Joker himself might have noted, too SERIOUS.

Now, “Iron Man II” has exploded onto our screens, and, in the hands of returning director Jon Favreau, it’s still got all the depth of a curbside puddle, all the razzmatazz of the comic book.

Unfortunately, it’s also got a couple of disappointing villains, some truly cringe-worthy scenes, and the kind of lame repartee between Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) and his pals that’s supposed to sound witty, but instead comes across as just a whole lot of improvised filler.

In other words, unlike the Armored Avenger’s remarkably accurate laser blasts, it misses the mark by a mile.

Reprising his role as Stark, Robert Downey Jr. is, once again, the master of the underplayed moment, the throwaway line, the lightning-fast quip. He’s still fun to watch, although — as usual — it’s when he’s zooming around in the old red-and-gold that the movie really (and literally) takes off.

Acclaimed film vet Don Cheadle is Colonel Jim Rhodes, Tony’s best friend and confidant who eventually dons a second suit of armor and joins Tony as the aptly-named, weapons-laden War Machine. Cheadle does his best, but it’s hard to watch him play second banana here and not believe he’s merely slumming. (It could be argued that Downey is, too, and has been since the first installment, but at least he gets to play the lead.)

If anyone is truly slumming, though, it’s Mickey Rourke as Russian-physicist-turned-Stark-nemesis Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash. Obsessed with killing Stark after the death of his father (whom he is convinced Stark’s own father destroyed) he builds a suit to rival Tony’s and goes after him with a vengeance. Unfortunately, fresh off his turn in “The Wrestler”, this time around Rourke is all puffy face, corny Boris Badanov accent, and mysterious lopsided smile. He hasn’t much to do here, and even less to say; indeed, we see so little of him after awhile that he might as well have been written out of the script altogether.

Faring even worse is Sam Rockwell as Stark’s business rival and eventual Whiplash booster Justin Hammer, an arrogant, fast-talking little twerp who made us wish that Steve Buscemi had been offered the role… and accepted it. Buscemi, at least, would have given the character just the right amount of crazed malevolence. Rockwell merely comes across as a spoiled brat with a Napoleonic complex who thinks he has all the power in the world because he’s managed to bully a few kids out of their lunch money. In the first movie, uber-villain Jeff Bridges had an aura of menace about him, a gravitas; Hammer is the kind of smarmy bad guy you just want to slap all the way back to his limo.

Gwyneth Paltrow does what she can as Tony’s assistant–and, early on, hand-picked successor — Pepper Potts; Scarlett Johansson has little to do but look beautiful — and then, super-tough — as Tony’s new assistant, who eventually turns out to have as many kick-ass moves as… well, that foul-mouthed little girl from “Kick-Ass”; and director Favreau even injects himself into the action occasionally as Tony’s obedient chauffeur, Happy Hogan.

Tony, every inch the rock star and media darling, turns a Senate hearing on weapons-making into his own personal circus (if anyone in real life behaved that way, they would have locked him up and thrown away the key)… in full battle regalia, he gets drunk at a party (his “secret identity” is actually no secret, at all) and Rhodes, as War Machine, has to step in and save him… SHIELD head honcho Nick Fury (an underutilized Samuel L. Jackson) actually meets with Tony at a donut shop, of all places… the silliness just never ends.

Bottom line: Who would have thought this once-promising franchise would be showing signs of rust so soon?

FILM REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien