As determined as I was not to, I have to admit I enjoyed watching "Iron Man 2." It's fun even if it never quite triumphs over its greatest challenge: Iron Man 1.
The original film's greatest asset - aside from the loose-canon charms of Robert Downey Jr. and the irresistibly cinematic Gwyneth Paltrow - was the element of surprise. Obviously, you can't get lightning like that strike twice in the same place not that makers of sequels care about such things.
Still, as the kickoff for summer at the box office, where testosterone-fueled special effects rule and it's advisable to check your brain at the door, "Iron Man 2" entertains for the same reasons the first one did: Good acting. Eccentric characters. A human dimension that makes you wish they'd spend more time with it, and less with the FX.
In the title role, Downey has transformed past weaknesses into new strengths. When he plays action heroes, there's an added air of mystery: Will he or won't he self-destruct before the final credits?
The role of Tony Stark - the narcissistic arms-dealing billionaire who has now become America's greatest weapon - fits Downey as well as the red-metal suit. Having privatized peace and refusing to turn over the blueprint to the government gives him license to see how obnoxious, self-absorbed, and usually quite amusing, he can make Tony.
The mechanized heart/battery pumping toxins into his system adds one more level of ambivalence to this Hamlet of action heroes. He preens and swaggers from Vegas-style trade shows to congressional hearings - but in private reads the medical monitor reminding him that his "heart" is killing him.
Gwyneth Paltrow - the secret weapon behind the first "Iron Man's" megasuccess - also gives more than a sequel deserves. In the role of Pepper Potts, the Oscar winner once again displays unmatched powers to seduce the camera, finding ways of blurring melodrama into legitimate acting, pushing every scene she's in to its emotional limits.
With Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Gary Shandling and Samuel L. Jackson making the supporting ranks more fascinating than you might expect, you wonder if the real star of the show might be director Jon Favreau, pulling the strings to make everyone else dance.
There's cleverness in the dialogue and edginess in the characters, offering brief reminders that human imperfection is so much more fun to watch than the latest techno gizmos shooting it out.
The glimmerings of human frailty - Rockwell's insecure billionaire's bluster, Rourke's sinister sadism clothed in tattoos and a Russian accent, along with Downey's quirks and Paltrow's occasional tendency to let her emotions get the best of her - almost compensate for all the time the movie spends being mindless. A lot of this is carried out out by robotic Iron Man clones, who don't even have faces under the helmets.
Could the producers be cynically sneaking them in as metaphors, body doubles for the film's audience? Surely not. Unlike many action blockbusters, smart fights dumb to at least a draw this time. But it makes you realize "Iron Man 2" is at its best in the scenes with less iron, more man.
Luckily, film audiences have a spectrum of heroes to choose from this weekend. A brand-new "Robin Hood" is taking his place among his iconic screen forbearers, this one featuring the considerable talents of Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett and Ridley Scott behind the camera.
Early reports have been glowing for its deft marriage of 12th-century history with 21st-century filmmaking, not to mention the chemical reaction you get just reading the names Crowe and Blanchett in the same sentence.
Closer to home, "Princess Kaiulani" teaches its own history lesson, one both familiar and heartbreaking to island audiences. This Hawaii International Film Festival audience-award winner features "The New World's" Q'orianka Kilcher in the title role. It's an independent production, but you'd never know it from the vibrant cinematography and historical detail in its trailer.
Then again, since the beginning of the year, visual entertainment has gone from being something passive you just watched to something more interactive on the Valley Isle.
The filmed-on-Maui episode of the hit sitcom "Modern Family" aired last night on ABC. Adam Sandler's "Just Go With It" and the Maui-grown "Get a Job" are still filming here this week.
For hundreds of Mauians who have worked on extras on these shoots, it's not hard to spot movie stars among us these days.
All they have to do is look in the mirror.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.