s it possible for Iron Man 2 to be a better comic-book adaptation than its progenitor without necessarily being a better film? Director Jon Favreau's first installment in the Iron Man franchise was tightly focused, briskly paced, and perfectly acted, while his sprawling, overstuffed sequel is pieced together like a two-hour trailer.
But Iron Man 2 has got everything a fanboy could want, including weird science, witty banter, fantastic action sequences, Mickey Rourke as a Russian baddie with impossibly dirty fingernails, and Scarlett Johansson in a black cat suit. The sequel also benefits from Sam Rockwell's deliciously smarmy take on Justin Hammer, an inept arms dealer who waves the American flag with one hand while selling weapons technology to Iran with the other.
The sequel picks up where the original left off. Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy who invented his fancy iron suit as a means of saving his own life, continues to use his technology to fight enemies. But Stark's got demons and daddy issues and a problem with the bottle — all of which are threatening his ability to responsibly transform himself into a weapon as powerful as the Iron Man. We also discover that Stark has a secret dilemma. The technology that keeps his damaged heart beating is also killing him, and he compensates for his impending death with increasingly erratic behavior, such as Grand Prix racing and drunken antics.
The U.S. government wants Stark to hand over the "Iron Man weapon," and although Stark claims to have successfully privatized world peace, rogue nations are working to develop their own Iron Man armor. Meanwhile in Russia, Ivan Vanko develops similar technology to transform himself into Whiplash and to seek revenge against Stark Enterprises, the organization he blames for the death of his father.
As with the first Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr.'s Stark is impossible not to watch. Only this time around it's less of a one-man show. Rourke's Vanko/Whiplash is a man of few words, all of them meaningful. Sullen, tight-lipped, and extremely competent, Vanko is a perfect toothpick-chewing counterpoint to Downey's hyperactive Stark. Musclebound and covered in tattoos, Rourke's Vanko is a much more appropriate and compelling super-villain than Jeff Bridges' Obadiah Stane.
When it's just being a sequel, Iron Man 2 gets everything right. Its shortcomings stem from the fact that the movie also functions as a setup for a future Avengers film. Neither Samuel Jackson nor Scarlett Johansson bring very much to the characters of Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff, a super-spy also known as the Black Widow.
The Fury/Black Widow story lines are distractions that seem to belong to another film, and Jackson's over-the-top dialogue and ham-fisted acting is cartoonish even in a film about a guy who flies around in a metal suit fighting crime. Johansson is particularly disappointing since the Black Widow is an undercover agent with a gift for languages. That should provide the actress playing her with a chance to play multiple characters. But whether she's kicking ass in her form-fitting cat suit or passing herself off as a new hire at Stark Enterprises, Johansson only plays one character: herself.
If Iron Man 2 isn't an improvement over the original, it's worth mentioning that the whole enterprise is an improvement over the comic-book series. Tony Stark has always been a fascinating study, but Iron Man's villains are possibly the lamest in the entire Marvel universe. The films have provided writers with an opportunity to capitalize on everything that was always great about Stark's personality and to improve the characters around him.
This installment expands the role of Stark's assistant, Pepper Potts, and Gwyneth Paltrow proves to be an excellent sparring partner for Downey. And fans will not be the least bit disappointed to see an intoxicated Iron Man going toe-to-toe with his best friend, Col. Jim Rhodes. Neither will they be disappointed when Iron Man and War Machine go back-to-back to take on an army of robot drones.
It's difficult to say whether or not Don Cheadle is an improvement over Terrence Howard, who originated the part of "Rhodey." But like Paltrow and Rourke, Cheadle is an actor who doesn't disappear on the screen when Downey shifts into high gear.