Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), having announced himself as Iron Man at the end of the first film, has become an international celebrity, and at the same time, the world's policeman. As the film opens, Stark himself announces that the world has enjoyed the longest running period of peace in its history, and it just happened to start when Iron Man arrived on the scene. But there's a problem. The miniaturized arc reactor in Tony's chest that prevents shrapnel in his body from killing him is poisoning his blood at an accelerated rate. If he can't find a new way to power his suit, Tony will die sooner rather than later. To make matters worse, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), Russian physicist, wants revenge on the Stark family for perceived wrongs Tony's father visited upon Ivan's father in the 50's and 60's. The U.S. government is putting pressure on Stark to release the Iron Man suit to them, exploiting his relationship with Rhodey Rhodes (Don Cheadle) while fellow industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) vies to make a weapon even more powerful than the Iron Man suit. And most distressing of all, Stark's relationship to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) begins to deteriorate when he names her CEO of his company. Oh, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D., keeps trying to get Iron Man involved with something called "The Avengers Initiative."
There's a lot going on in Iron Man 2. However, director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) keep all the elements on a tight leash, ensuring that at no point does the film feel bloated or overlong. The pacing feels just right, with an appropriate mix of action, character development, and humor. While I quite enjoyed the first Iron Man, I did feel it had issues, especially with the action and the third act. Luckily these shortcomings are wiped away for the follow-up. The action is much tighter and feels appropriately pulse-pounding, while the plot never wavers. In particular, a high speed chase through the skies and Scarlett Johansson's headlong trip down a hallway full of guards are highlights that easily trump anything from the first film.
Despite being a billionaire genius, Tony Stark is still very much human, and Robert Downey Jr. plays him to perfection. If Favreau put any limitations on Downey for the first film, they're gone here, allowing him to dig deep and create a multifaceted portrayal of a man desperately trying to do good without always knowing how. Gwyneth Paltrow steps up even more as Pepper Potts, Tony's former assistant who becomes the head of Stark Enterprises. This may sound odd as we're talking about a comic book movie, but I think this may be Gwyneth's best performance to date. Sam Rockwell is a welcome addition to the cast as the manic Justin Hammer, hellbent on outdoing Tony Stark. Mickey Rourke is solid as Ivan Vanko (thankfully never actually called Whiplash in the film), but he can't steal the show from the three performers above. Don Cheadle is also a welcome change of pace from the lifeless and whiny Terrence Howard. Cheadle gives Rhodes a backbone and a much needed dose of ass-kickery that was missing before. Scarlett Johansson is both gorgeous and deadly as Tony's new personal assistant.
Iron Man 2 isn't completely perfect, however. While it's still got great humor and touching moments, there's nothing in the film that matches scenes like Pepper replacing Tony's arc reactor or Tony testing the various mechanisms of the suit from the first flick. It's not that movie feels like it's lacking anything, but when you look back, you realize those standout scenes aren't present. The final showdown with Vanko also has a feeling of "been there, done that," especially coming after a huge climactic fight sequence. And some people have complained about the inclusion of the Nick Fury scenes, which don't seem to advance the plot (even though they do). Yes, those scenes are partially there to set up the Avengers movie, but let's be honest, this whole enterprise was done to set up the Avengers movie. If you don't like it here, you won't like Thor, Captain America, or even elements of the first Iron Man.
Minor quibbles aside, Iron Man 2 is an impressive move up from Iron Man, with practically everything I could want out of one of these movies. Is it the next Dark Knight? No, but it's not meant to be, and that's a good thing. Iron Man 2 sets up a world where superheroes, not just heroes, can live, love, and fight, and that will become quite important when Thor comes out. Kudos to Favreau, Downey, and everyone else involved for making Iron Man 2 another rock solid comic book sequel.