Don't mess with this!
Iron Man 2 is the continuation of the story of Tony Stark and his super powered suit of combat armor. Having revealed to the world that he is a walking nuclear deterrent, Stark is getting a lot of flak from the US government, the US military, the US press, the US people, and so on. In addition to this, he has recently discovered that the blue reactor in his chest is actually poisoning him, and his time on Earth is limited. So, he's been behaving a little erratically, straining his relationship with his friend, Col. James Rhodes, and his assistant/love interest, Pepper Potts. Plus, that shady government agency, S.H.I.E.L.D, and their badass leader, Nick Fury, are still pestering Stark in order to recruit him. Throw in a tech savvy, vengeance seeking Russian with a penchant for bullwhips, a slimy, conniving business rival, and, well, Tony Stark has fallen on hard times. If that confused you, don't worry. Iron Man 2 suffers from what I like to call the "Emo Parker Syndrome", that is, too many plots being shoved into one movie in much of the same way that Spider-Man 3 was righteously screwed. Iron Man 2 does a much better job of managing all this exposition by keeping the overall narrative specifically focused on Stark. He is the center of the movie, no doubt about that. It's not the most interesting story, but it didn't really need to be. The point of this movie was to set up the upcoming installments from the Marvel universe, like Captain America, and Thor, all leading up to The Avengers. In that sense, it does a great job; there are tons of wink-wink moments that fanboys will love. It is a bit disappointing that it didn't do much to set up Iron Man 3, but, again, it's not a huge qualm. It's no Dark Knight, but it's no Fantastic Four, which is fine by me.
Most of the principle cast from the first movie returns. Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark, and he does just as good a job as he did in the last go around. He's funny, touching, and all around excellent. Gwyneth Paltrow is Pepper, and, once again, the banter between her and Downey Jr. is the best thing in the film. Don Cheadle plays Rhodes, taking over for Terrence Howard. I don't really know how I feel about this one. I think they both did good jobs, but, I don't really have a preference. Cheadle just didn't do anything to stand out, apart from become War Machine and kick a ton of ass in the finale. He's not bad though. Mickey Rourke plays the main villain, Ivan Vanko, aka, Whiplash. He's extremely campy, not all that intimidating, but still effective. Sam Rockwell is superb as the slimy Justin Hammer, Stark's main business competitor, who does some shady deals with Vanko. Samuel L. Jackson has his cameo as Nick Fury expanded into a real role here. He's, well, Samuel L. Jackson. What's not to like? And then there's Scarlett Johansson. She does not really serve that much of purpose here. Really, all she is, is eye candy. But, it's Scarlett Friggin' Johansson, so, this is damn good eye candy! She is really hot in this movie! The performances here are just as good as they were in the first go around, with Downey and Paltrow still heading the charge.
Director Jon Favreau follows the same pattern that he did for the first movie, that being, characters come first, then action, then villains. The fact that the villains are given as much time to develop is a bit of a problem, but it's not huge. This franchise isn't as reliant on it's villains as, say, Batman, Spider-Man, or X-Men is. The focus is always on Downey, and, since he easily drives the movie, it is always interesting. One thing that is drastically different this time around is the level of action. Remember how the finale in the first one, which saw Iron Man go up against, well, a bigger Iron Man, left a lot to be desired? Well, that's not the case here. All the action is significantly ramped up and much more exciting. The sequence on the Monaco raceway is a highlight, as is the prolonged, final scene, which sees Iron Man and War Machine going up against an army of drones commanded by Vanko. It's intense, visually dynamic, and both Downey and Cheadle get to do some seriously cool shit in them. But, once again, the main focus of the film is on the characters, and it's still the strongest aspect. This is one of the best written superhero franchises, certainly the best under the Marvel brand. The characters are all given the necessary space to be developed and fleshed out, so that, when big events occur, we feel for the people on the screen and what they are going through.
My main qualm with the movie is that it feels very similar to the first. The filmmakers took everything that was good, made it better, but didn't really change the formula at all. It's not a huge complaint though, when the formula is this good. Iron Man 2 starts off summer on a rock solid note, and successfully sets up future movies in the universe. Like I said, it's not The Dark Knight, but, for stylish, fun superhero shenanigans, it's hard to beat! A-