Iron Man 2 does something that isn't always a given when it comes to sequels: it doesn't embarrass itself. Conversely it also doesn't distinguish itself a whole lot.
Here's the film's trailer, which I'd promptly like to have stricken from the record since it looks awesome and, as such, is completely counter-intuitive to my argument.
The follow up to 2008's triumphant super-hero opus sees our hero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) dealing with a slew of new variables. Elements within the U.S. Government are growing increasingly twitchy that a self-indulgent, egotistical playboy is in sole custody of the Iron Man armor. A rival industrialist named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is trying to accelerate and commercialize the same technology. A psychotic super-villain calling himself Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) comes out of the woodwork with a grudge against the Stark name. As if that wasn't enough, Tony discovers that he's slowly being killed by the the very same arc reactor which powers his crippled heart.
Additional wild cards come into play when Tony makes Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) C.E.O. of Stark Industries, allows the enigmatic Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) into his inner circle, hits the bottle pretty hard during a champagne supernova birthday bash, butts heads with formal military pal James Rhodes and tries to glean the motivations of mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
As you can see, a lot of STUFF happens in Iron Man 2 but it often plays out like a checklist of what the film-makers wanted to shoe-horn into the picture versus what should organically emerge from a well-crafted story.
Jon Favreau needs to thank the casting gods every day for making Robert Downey Jr. available to him. Even if the titular hero only appeared for five minutes at the end of the film, it would still be worth watching just to see Downey being put through his paces as Tony Stark. His scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow are a showcase for well-delivered verbal sparring, but this is overused somewhat and threatens to become as annoying as an average episode of the Gilmore Girls.
In IM2 the always-awesome Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as James "Rhodey" Rhodes (rumor has it that Howard rubbed director Jon Favreau the wrong way at some point). It's likely that my lack on interest in the character here isn't due to any failing on Cheadle's part and more of a symptom of how underwritten the role seems to be.
Mickey Rourke is pretty intense as Whiplash/Ivan Vanko but his marble-mouthed deliveries and inexplicable penchant for birds seems more like the peccadilloes of a certain eccentric actor versus something that was scripted. Scarlett Johansson makes ample use of her brief screen time and wows us with a self-assured turn and a heaping side-order of ass-kickery.
The real plum performance, however, comes from Sam Rockwell as the smarmy, slimy Justin Hammer. He's portrayed a lot younger in the film versus the comics but I really don't mind this since Hammer now functions as a weaker and more ethically unsound version of Tony Stark. Rockwell has a blast with the part and the audience also has fun counting down the seconds towards his inevitable comeuppance.
Favreau does improve on the flying sequences and manages to orchestrate some high-octane action beats as well. The final battle is fun and dynamic but looks kind of dark and muddled. It also feels underwhelmingly truncated; a pall that regrettably seems to hang over the rest of the film as well.
In fact, I can't help but feel as if large chunks of the movie were excised. For example, promotional material exists which references a love interest for Pepper Potts and the scene in which she tosses Tony's Iron Man helmet out of the cargo plane is no-where to be seen. It wouldn't surprise me that Favreau thought that the film was becoming too much of a product by committee and got a tad "snip-happy" in the editing bay, perhaps fearing a "too many cooks"/Spiderman 3 scenario.
Indeed Iron Man 2 doesn't quite have the sleek look and "new armor smell" of its predecessor but the movie is still held together by the presence of Robert Downey Jr at the helm as well as its unabashed commitment to providing some genuinely geeky fun.