Reading Iron Man 2's plot summary, things sound bleak for our characters. But not at all. This is a breezy, light-hearted, inoffensive affair that saunters at a magnetic pace, with emotional discomfiting a far thought. Which is pretty refreshing, to say the least. In fact, Iron Man 2 is the complete of antithesis of recent comic book movies. For one, it certainly isn't darker than its predecessor, absent its slow-burning first half and latched-on social commentary. It also gives itself the poetic license to stretch credulity. This is a movie about a man who flies around in metal suit, blasting away multicolored-haired Russians with electric whips. Realism simply doesn't apply, and thankfully director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Theroux take affectionate liberty with the bonds of belief. Yes, Ivan Vanko can secretly build super technology unbeknownst to his suppliers. And yes, the only way to incapacitate a drunken Tony is to beat the crap out of him in a Iron Man suit. No complaints here!
Iron Man 2 is also very much Iron Man's superior, although partly by default. The first movie was stuck with a pedantic origin story. However, the sequel had no shortage of possible paths to take. Which did it choose? The way you should always go; the road of characterization. Rather than tediously expand upon its universe, Iron Man 2 simply reprises its dramatis personae and sticks them into situations graver than before, upping the ante but reiterating the overall heart and spirit of its predecessor. The characters are well-etched, each snappy exchange rendered with a mature pathos that contrasts with the spurious scenarios that they feature in between of. Iron Man 2 could easily be called a comedy, but the naturalism of the comedy is seamless; you get the sense that it would be impossible to write this movie without having these vibrant characters joke and jeer.
To bring the clever screenplay to life is the phenomenal cast. Robert Downey, Jr., as always, is effortlessly captivating. Charisma defined and an scandalously unsung master of versatility (he's not just playing himself, people!), it's no breaking news that he's still one of the most watchable actors ever. He is the perfect Tony Stark, and a more-than-worthy representative of the thinking man's action star. His chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow as the pragmatic Pepper Pots is electric, and she too turns in a fine performance. Wistful, but by no means a damsel in distress, she is probably the realest character.
The baddies, just as essential as the hero, don't disappoint either. Another wrong from last time round successfully remedied is the lack of genuinely menacing villains. Jeff Bridges honored us with his always-welcome presence in Iron Man, but his warm affability was anything but menacing. This time, however, Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell (oddly, both novices to blockbuster attention) are on duty, offering more than enough bang for your villainy buck. Rourke as Anton Vanko/"Whiplash", supplements a composite of the unintentionally hokey showman, supercilious mastermind, and the seemingly unstoppable behemoth. This effectively fends off one-noteness, and Rourke perfectly embodies the duality of Vanko's deceptively boorish visage and surprisingly vast intellect, while still indulging in the welcome irreverence that comes with the comic book villain (his Russian drawl is humorous but gives him an otherworldly conviction).
Rockwell, on the other hand, is flat-out comic relief as Stark's weaselly rival – though not necessarily a threatening one – Justin Hammer. He is excellent in the part; an absolute delight to watch, whether irascibly mugging in a loss for words with his insubordinate partner Vanko or, in one of the movie's best moments, shamelessly accolading his own (faulty) inventions with juvenile zeal.
Unfortunately, with all these characters butting heads for screen time, co-stars Don Cheadle and Scarlett Johansson as Tony's pal Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes and eventual partner War Machine and alluring temptress of a new assistant Natalie Rushman, respectively, are given the short straw. Both are more than able of carrying a scene, but while the script lavishes Tony with many moments in which to brood his way into some fine character development, and to convey Pepper's many grievances, neither supporting character is as lucky. Cheadle's moments of potential are all obstructed by the War Machine suit, and everything otherwise requires him to lucidly voice reason as a foil to the devil may care Tony. Johansson is a non-event, her Natalie Rushman an amoral nothing role, and her Black Widow guise is not so much daring femme fatale as listless sex symbol. She acts as merely a vessel for fan service, be it in her skintight suit for the general audience or that she represents another stepping stone to an Avengers movie for esoteric comic book fans.
The movie is inter cut between the scenes of terse characterization and octane action. The latter is a dizzying combination of rapid vicissitudes and toe-to-toe skirmishes, high on CGI, low on genuine peril. In fact, Iron Man 2 could quite possibly have been a masterpiece of the genre had it lived up to its first forty minutes of exuberance and intrigue. But once the clumsy pugilism of Iron Man and Whiplash takes place, the movie falls flat. The power play is nonexistent, because it's hard to believe anyone could stand a chance against ol' Shellhead. And if no sense of alarm can be conveyed when Iron Man is caught in an unusually melee showdown, the flight sequences leave no impression. Yes, the special effects are astounding, but it's all for nothing if there's no dramatic undercurrent.
Otherwise, please, don't mistake my raving for fanboy hyperbole; Iron Man 2 is great. It's well-written, well-acted, and simultaneously a loving throwback to comic book norm and a break from recent tradition. It's a rare occurrence to be thankful for, because God knows if this follows the superhero trilogy formula, the third one will suck. Which would tragically make this movie's thrilling departure from cliché null and void.