Jon Favreau's Iron Man 2 is an engaging and entertaining sequel to a somewhat better film. It's slightly flabby and unfocused plotwise, but it delivers the familiar pleasures of the first film while cheerfully and intelligently moving the story forward.
Part of the fun of the first Iron Man film was seeing a hard-to-adapt story take off like a rocket. Now that we know it can be done, the pressure's off a bit, and some of the first thrill of discovery is diminished, but the sequel mostly delivers.
Having liberated his weapons company from the warmongers in the first film, and effectively "privatized world peace" with his Iron Man adventures, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is riding high at the beginning of the new installment. He's hosting a year-long "Stark Expo," sort of a privatized world's fair of technology inspired by his father's expos of yesteryear. He travels to Monaco for an automobile race, and decides to kick the driver aside and pilot his car himself.
But there's trouble on the horizon. Stark's use of the element palladium to power his robot heart is poisoning his blood, and like any cell phone or other rechargeable battery, Stark's is starting to last less and less time with each replacement. Gee, I wonder how we could create imaginary technology to solve this problem? Oh yeah, we can just make it up, cool.
There's another threat coming at Stark from Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian physicist with a longstanding grudge against the Stark family. Like Stark did in the first film to survive, Vanko breaks out the blacksmith tools and circuit boards to create a weapon to take on Stark directly. This leads to a spectacularly dangerous ending to a fun road race.
More Stark enemies view this attack as an opportunity. Arms developer and dealer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, good-campy) breaks Vanko out of jail and gives him pretty much carte blanche to create anti-Stark technologies.
Stark friends Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. team see all of these developments as their own opportunities, to protect as well as manipulate Stark, and "Rhodey" (now played by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard) walks the line between friendship and duty to his country.
While the plot could have been sharper, the film does not fail for it. Downey is again outstanding as Stark, Gwyneth Paltrow's role as Stark's "right-hand woman" Pepper Potts is expanded and effective. Garry Shandling is good as Senator Stern, and Scarlett Johansson as "Natalie Rushman" is fun and her action sequences are the bomb.
Iron Man fans, Downey fans, and general audiences should get a kick out of watching this franchise develop, and begin to intersect with the larger Avengers series planned by Marvel to link up Iron Man, Nick Fury, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk and Thor. Besides the Ang Lee Hulk, officially consigned to continuity purgatory by the newer and stronger version with Edward Norton, each installment so far has been pretty worthwhile and built anticipation for the next. It's a winning formula for the box office and comics and superhero fans. As with the first film, watch all the credits....
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