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Justin Theroux puts a shine on our favorite shellhead in 'Iron Man 2'

This year, the summer season starts not on Memorial Day, and not the week before, but on Mother's Day weekend.

It starts when " Iron Man 2" says it does: May 7.

When you have a franchise as beloved and potent as this one, you get to set the terms of engagement.

Director Jon Favreau and his new screenwriter, Justin Theroux, have tried hard not to squander audiences' loyalty to the wicked-smart superhero Robert Downey Jr. introduced in the first "Iron Man."

Mistrust of government, turmoil in Russia, corporate espionage — all the elements of our daily headlines are given a cheeky spin in the new adventures of our favorite shellhead.

Theroux says that when he grew up in Washington, the wheelings and dealings on Capitol Hill sometimes felt as far away as Hollywood. "My real exposure to politics was joining whatever protest was happening on the Mall on any given weekend."

But when it came to writing "Iron Man 2," he and Favreau couldn't resist setting Tony Stark in front of a Senate committee. Theroux thinks that part of the "Iron Man" series' allure is its irreverent, observant take on contemporary realities. What would happen if a billionaire inventor and high-tech manufacturer like Stark canceled his usual weapons contracts and introduced a peerless new peacemaker in Iron Man?

Of course, Congress would order him to explain why he's keeping his armor to himself rather than sharing it with the U.S. military.

Downey's take on the Marvel Comics character has won hearts and minds because he retains his hair-trigger comic reflexes, no matter how volatile the circumstances. He makes you feel that a huge component of Stark's genius, as well as Downey's, is a sense of the absurd.

Thanks partly to what Theroux calls "the playful and wonderful way" Downey has with the character. Iron Man becomes a superhero who consciously fights the cliches of superheroism. Theroux notes that from the beginning of the series, what makes Iron Man a superhero "is a flaw: a heart defect." The first movie is about the way he strengthens his heart, literally and metaphorically, with the help of his friends — and his breakthrough miniaturized arc reactor.

"He is flesh and blood," says Theroux. "Here's a guy who's got a bajillion dollars and is good-looking and a playboy, but he feels very human and very lovable. He's had a lot of success, but he's also been very alone. He has flaws like the rest of us. We all can relate to him."

The gift that the first "Iron Man" handed Theroux as a screenwriter was the climactic line: "I am Iron Man."

Stark unveiling his secret identity was a daring act for a movie superhero (and for Favreau). As Theroux puts it, Stark no longer had to be "one of those guys who disappears into a phone booth and changes and pops out speaking in a deeper voice." He could retain his scintillating personality "when he's flying around and doing extraordinary things. Imagine Clark Kent going into the Daily Planet and saying that he's Superman. That's what the first movie gave us."

Theroux says this gift allowed him and Favreau to circumvent "sequelitis."

"Origin stories are usually the best stories. Peter Parker gets bit by a spider and starts climbing up the wall. Tony Stark develops his armor and punches through a cave. That's the fantasy we all crave. But when he says, ‘I am Iron Man,' he no longer is a split personality. He must deal with the realities of saying that."

Stark's admission opened up a comic-dramatic cornucopia. "We now have a guy who is a real-world celebrity saying, ‘I am Iron Man.' He basically says, ‘I can take care of everybody and do it by myself.' But everyone wants what he's got." Some people may want it "for virtuous purposes. If we could use this armor on the battlefield and save American lives, shouldn't we do it? But Tony is saying, ‘Rely on me, trust me, I can handle it. I'm the equalizer. If I have it, it's safe.' It's like the threat and promise of the atomic bomb. When there's an arms race for this technology, he must bear the responsibility."

Theroux is an actor and director as well as a writer. As a performer he's made a specialty out of finding the comedy in show-biz types, like the seductive, slippery actor in "Broken English" and the with-it director in "Mulholland Dr." He brought the same skill to co-writing Ben Stiller's lampoon of Hollywood war movies, " Tropic Thunder," which made Downey a true believer in his scripts.

He says that collaborating with Downey is always unorthodox. "He's got so much voltage flying off him all the time. You've got to grab the tail of the alligator and stick with it. He has an amazing pyrotechnic way of working." Theroux found himself "writing multiple versions of many scenes. Robert would ingest those scenes and spit the lines out in the order that he wanted them." Favreau was "playing tight end. He was setting the parameters so we wouldn't go off story and the film would keep its flow."

Theroux says the moviemakers enjoy the paradox that "even in the sort of divisive, politically charged environment we have today, both sides lay claim to Iron Man's character. The Red States say that he's pro-American might, pro-American power. The Blue States say he is an anti-weapons peacenik."

"Iron Man 2" should continue the controversy. Mickey Rourke as the Russian antagonist, Ivan Vanko, aka "Whiplash," conjures memories of Dolph Lundgren as the Soviet superchamp in "Rocky IV." Theroux admits, "On the surface, it's a Cold War conceit, that this Russian guy would be the bad guy." But Vanko's story has deep roots in "Iron Man" mythology. It refers to Anton Vanko, the "Crimson Dynamo" of the comic books, who designed armor that gave him control over electrical power. In the comics, he defected from the Soviet Union to work for Stark and died defending his new country from Soviet agents. In Theroux's version, Anton Vanko dies penniless and disgraced, nursed only by Ivan, his son. Ivan believes that Anton, not Tony's father, Howard Stark, should have gotten credit for pioneering arc reactors. Ivan creates his own super-villain rig, with ultra-potent whips as his weapons.

The new scenario does reflect the unpredictable ways that Iron Curtain history has cropped up in the New Russia. But what snapped the subplot into place for Theroux were questions organic to the "Iron Man" saga. "What if there was another guy on the planet who was just as smart as Tony and had an equally intelligent father? What if he was not given the same resources and [in Russian prisons] felt the pain of the lash? What if he deeply loved his father, and rightly or wrongly thinks that Howard Stark killed his father and that Tony Stark is living off his father's technology? The best super-villains may be crazy, but their craziness is rooted in reason."

The same goes for the best superheroes. Like Robert Downey's Iron Man.

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