It would be an overstatement to say that the first “Iron Man” was a revelation, but for the purposes of this review let's just go with it. The film had style, energy, surprising substance and, at its center, a star-making performance by Robert Downey Jr. It is a tough act to follow and while “Iron Man 2” doesn't quite match it, it is still a vastly entertaining film.
There's a lot going on in this sequel. Tony Stark (Downey), the billionaire playboy turned hero, revealed that he was Iron Man at the end of the first film and in the six months that have passed since he has more or less brought about world peace. All is not right for Stark, though.
The film opens with Mickey Rourke's Ivan Vanko working on creating his own suit. Vanko believes that Stark stole his father's work and he is out for revenge, that great motivating factor for so many villains. In the comic book the character's alias was Whiplash, but he is never addressed as such in the film.
In addition, the government, led by a smarmy senator played by Garry Shandling, wants Stark's suit, and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a competitor in the weapons industry, is desperately trying to make his own Iron Man suit. Hammer is so desperate in fact he enlists Vanko after watching him bang up Iron Man pretty badly in a fantastic action set piece set at the Monaco Grand Prix.
Oh, but there's more. The device that is keeping Stark alive is also slowly killing him. Stark has promoted his former assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to CEO and his new assistant (Scarlett Johansson) has her own agenda. Best bud Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) may be turning against his friend.
Samuel L. Jackson pops in for a couple scenes. These scenes are worked into the plot in a way that helps point Stark in the direction of a cure to his ailing health, but are really only here to help set up an Avengers movie, which will unite several Marvel comic book heroes in one film. Screenwriter Justin Theroux deserves credit though for finding a way to work what could've been perfunctory scenes into the film in a way that drives the movie forward.
The density of the plot probably seems overwhelming on the page, but it all makes sense on the screen and, as with the first film, that's largely due to the strong central performance by Downey. In the first film Downey struggled with Stark's growing pains of a sprouting conscience, here he struggles with mortality. It is just enough substance to give the film a little weight and Downey plays it for real.
This isn't to say the Downey isn't also very funny. Theroux's script is full of many great one-liners, and I'm sure Downey came up with a few of us own. Downey can delivery a fast paced, sarcastic quip like no one else. His idiosyncratic edge gives life to the whole movie.
Rourke, who has that same sort of quirky intensity, is fantastic as the villain because he underplays so well. Comic book villains are often played broad and cartoonish, but Rourke keeps the character brooding and quiet. He doesn't have much dialogue, but he says more with a slightly arched eyebrow than he ever could with a lengthy monologue.
Rockwell has been playing variations on his persona here since his big break as the baddie in 2000's “Charlie's Angels” and he does snarky villainy better than just about anyone. Rourke and Rockwell have an excellent dynamic together. Rockwell thinks he's the guy in control, but Rourke knows better.
Paltrow gets to once again banter feistily with Downey, although it gets somewhat lost in the mix this time. Johansson and Cheadle get to join in the action in the finale where director Jon Faverau, who has a fun supporting role as Stark's driver, delivers the sort of spectacle you expect in a big summer movie.
But for a blockbuster film, “Iron Man 2” is actually light on the big action set pieces and instead focuses on character interaction and that's a good thing. Downey is given plenty of new people interact with and watching him mix it up with a group of actors this good is a whole lot of fun.