There is quite a lot riding on this film. Iron Man has become the fledgling Marvel Studios flagship title; part one was the first solo production by the comic-book company, and a gamble on a lesser-known character, an actor-turned-director and a former wreck-head star.
Low expectations led to a very pleasant surprise in the shape of a fun, funny, exciting film which brought RDJ roaring back to the A-list and marked Jon Favreau as a blockbuster camera-pointer to be reckoned with. It also made Marvel an arse-load of cash, enabling them to fully open their stable and release the incoming wild-horses that are "Thor", "Captain America" and the one film to bind them all "The Avengers".
So, can Iron Man 2 continue on the promise of the original? Will raised expectations set an unattainable precedent? Is the Marvel cruise-liner about to spring a leak?
"Iron Man 2"is to "Iron Man" as "The Dark Knight" was to "Batman Begins". Obvious comparison, but the boot fits. Bigger, more intricate, more exciting, with more interesting villains and more for the supporting characters to do.
This isn't to say that Iron Man 2 is "darker" than the first - unusual in today's market, where "dark" is the new black - merely that it is a more complex piece of work, dealing with the repurcussions of the origin story laid out in the first film.
We rejoin the tale with Tony Stark displaying dangerous signs of an Icarus complex, riding a wave of adulation on the back of Iron Man's seemingly unstoppable onslaught on the evils of the world. He runs rings round U.S. senators, is the main attraction at a Stark Industries expo and is basically accting like he's in The Beatles or summat. He is obviously cruising for a bruising; acting as if he is untouchable, claiming that no one can go toe to toe with him. He's getting too big for his shiny hotrod-red boots.
His wake-up call comes in the form of Mickey Rourke's Russian ex-con Ivan Vanko, armed with a wacky cyber-punk bondage get-up. The first action-scene is a long time coming, but when it does arrive, we see that Favreau has come a long way since the first film, pacing the sequence to perfection, balancing spectacle and intimacy and making even the computer-generated smack-downs feel bone-crunching.
From there, we embark on a story of Tony's ever-inflating/deflating ego, Vanko's quest for vengeance and Justin Hammer(Sam Rockwell)'s efforts to usurp Stark as the chief weapons manufacturer in the U.S.
The film is much more of an ensemble than the first, with Downey evenly matched by an entire cast of scene-stealers. Rockwell shines the brightest as the preening, jealous pretender to Stark's throne, Rourke is a brooding, eccentrically formidable presence, Sam Jackson makes the most of his intermittent screentime, Don Cheadle is a fine replacement for Terrence Howard, Favreau gives himself some decent comic-relief moments and Gwyneth Paltrow has an easy, believable chemistry with Downey.
Scarlett Johansson is arguably the weak link, not through any fault of hers, but simply because her character seems like so much window-dressing for most of the runtime. She makes up for this in the final act, however, when she cuts loose and starts spraying cans of whup-ass all over the screen. And, even when she is just window-dressing, she makes you want to run into the shop and buy EVERYTHING.
A lot of us nerds were afraid of "Spider-Man 3"-style, too-many-cooks-syndrome effecting the apparently character-laden story of this film, but there is very little evidence of that. It could be argued that Johansson and Rourke are underserved with screen-time, but each and every principle character is allowed their moment in the spotlight and nobody feels as if they're just there to sell an action figure.
Easily as funny and entertaining, and arguably more exciting and action-packed than the original, this does everything that a sequel should do: more of the same, but different. Bigger, bolder, more confident. Favreau handles most of the action in a similarly improved manner to the first showdown (on a Monte Carlo race-track), with the only disappointment being a slightly muted and brief "final battle", following a spectacular and chaotic "almost final battle".
It might be a little too long, with one too many storylines jostling for attention (a subplot about Tony having to come up with an alternate power-source for his suit - due to radiation poisoning or some gubbins - travels dangerously close to uninteresting), but you really don't have to wait long for another laugh or cheer to arise.
On the strength of this film, Marvel's stall will be set out for a good amount of time yet. Avengers: Assemble!
People make a lot of phone-calls in this film. Actually, I don't remember those shots of Rockwell and Johansson being in the movie. Deleted scenes?