What's that? A superhero movie that's funny? Fear not: Iron Man 2 (I really like the unpretentious title. You want more Iron Man? Here's more. Precisely one more.) is also serious, but it does not see fit to go all dark and dreary. Like the first Iron Man, this one is cool and goofy, and recognizes that a guy flying around in an armored suit is not by itself endlessly amusing, even for the easily amused. Far more interesting is Iron Man's alter ego, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the billionaire industrialist playboy, bad boy and world-class narcissist who, in the first Iron Man (2008), invented that nifty flying suit.
Since then, we learn, the US government has been trying to get its hands on that marvelous Iron Man suit, and Stark has impolitely declined their offer to steal his invention. World peace has broken out, thanks to Iron Man's efficiency as a military deterrent. Stark has been having some trouble with his battery-powered artificial heart, however, which seems to be killing him. Meanwhile, a rival weapons mogul named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is more than willing to give the military what they want - except that what they want is what Stark's got.
Stark's frenemy Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard in the role), an Air Force colonel, finds his loyalties divided between his unpredictable buddy Stark and good ol' Uncle Sam. And if that's not enough agita, a Russian ex-con named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who has long been nursing a grudge against Stark (whose father allegedly betrayed Vanko's father), comes looking for revenge. Vanko's a genius physicist; his own armored suit is equipped with electrical whips - which may not be the most efficient weapons, but they look pretty darn cool as they slice through metal like buttah. (For those keeping score at home, Vanko's a variation on the Whiplash/Blacklash/Crimson Dynamo characters from the comic books.)
Iron Man 2 is loaded with more than enough smashy-smashy boom-boom action sequences; but in between, there's plenty of snappy dialogue penned by Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder). This is particularly true of the exchanges between Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his gal Friday, now elevated to CEO of Stark Industries. Stark and Pepper have a relationship of miscommunication, devotion and frustration (of assorted professional, sexual and romantic kinds), and they're evenly matched in the witty back-and-forth that injects a little romantic comedy into the mostly masculine proceedings.
Director Jon Favreau (who plays Stark's chauffeur/gofer Happy), as he did in Iron Man, emphasizes character over action, and is happy enough to let the stars outshine the hardware. None are as incandescent as Downey, who is a fascinating and eminently watchable creature. Downey makes Stark a fast-talking egomaniac, a techno-genius, a free-market capitalist ("I've successfully privatized world peace," he tells the Senate) and a likable rogue. He's smart, impetuous, mercurial, a textbook case of adult ADHD and just a whole lot more interesting than the plot that requires him periodically to don a mechanized red suit and fly around shooting things. In Iron Man 2, Stark's Daddy issues emerge and he faces his own mortality, but there's no self-pity; he's too busy tinkering with his toys.
Downey spars with a couple of terrific villains in Rockwell's Hammer and Rourke's Vanko. Rockwell combines put-upon huffiness, comedic cluelessness and self-absorption as Hammer, a weapons mogul whose armaments are as ineffectual as he is. The telltale sign of his vanity is the self-tanning stains on the palms of his hands: That stuff's as hard to wash off as the blood of innocents (or so I've heard). Rourke, on the other hand, oozes menace and malevolence as Vanko, an embittered, fleshy, tattooed madman whose appetite for vengeance has left him scarred inside and out. Both Rourke and Downey are enjoying - really enjoying - their resurrected careers, and treating Iron Man 2 with the kind of seriousness that, say, one might expect from the Dark Knight movies. At the same time, though, they're clearly having fun with their characters, because keeping the "comic" in comic book characters is the distinguishing feature of the Iron Man movies.
Iron Man, as the first screen outing for the man in the Iron Man mask, was a fairly straightforward superhero origins story that offered few surprises in the plot department, but had plenty of substance. Iron Man 2 is apparently setting up future complications for Stark and Co., with a plot that sends more telegraphs than it delivers. Scarlett Johanssen's curvaceous SHIELD agent Natalie Romanoff and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury are on hand, but not to do very much...yet. Or so it seems. The trick for Iron Man going forward will be to keep the characters as lively and interesting as they've been so far - to pay enough attention to the mental machinery and not just the gear and gadgets. So far, so good.