Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux raise the stakes in all the right ways in Iron Man 2, an exhilarating and funny superhero sequel that keeps multiple plates spinning with commendable dexterity, and places a little gourmet treat on each and every one. Familiar characters grow in ways that are logical, natural, and satisfying; a pair of new villains shine thanks to the charisma of two powerhouse performers; and the action is more kinetic thanks in part to the contributions of Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky, whose frenetic sensibilities help to make the film feel bigger and more thrilling while simultaneously putting emphasis on Tony Stark's increasing mastery of the heavy metal suit.
Of course, there's always the risk that fans of the original will decry the decision to take Iron Man 2 in a more traditional superhero direction after the first film took on such contemporary issues as terrorism and corporate corruption within the context of a comic-book universe; however, anyone who savors the concept of the arch nemesis -- which has been the bread-and-butter of comics since the early days of Superman and Batman -- will no doubt find plenty to cheer about as Tony takes on friend and foes while racing against time to reverse the negative effects that the suit has on his body.
As Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) owns up to being Iron Man before the world press, Anton Vanko lies dying in Russia. Years ago, Anton worked with Tony's father to create a new source of energy. But greed got the best of Anton, and now as he slips away, his son, Ivan (Mickey Rourke), vows to make Tony pay for the sins of his father. Meanwhile, Tony fends off efforts from smarmy Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) and military weapons expert Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) to get him to divulge the secrets of his powerful Iron Man suit. The powers that be are concerned that Tony's technology may fall into the wrong hands -- fears that are soon confirmed when the cocky billionaire entrepreneur is confronted in front of the entire world by Ivan, who has built his own weapon using stolen Stark blueprints. Later, as Lt. Rhodes (Don Cheadle) wrestles with the decision to personally deliver Tony's suit to the military, Ivan finds an unlikely ally in the quest to destroy Iron Man; Stark Industries legal consultant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) reveals her connection to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson); and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) takes on some new responsibilities.
Whereas Iron Man kept things relatively simple by focusing on Tony's origins and his struggle against corporate weasel Obadiah Stane, this sequel carefully opens up a whole new world of possibilities that are alternately tantalizing and foreboding. Screenwriter Theroux seems acutely attuned to what movie fans want from an Iron Man film, and as a result he's penned a script that's both smart and tight while never sacrificing character for action. Unlike many comic-book blockbusters that impatiently rush into the first action sequence for fear that audiences will nod off due to lack of stimulation, Theroux takes the time to capitalize on the revelation that came at the end of part one by showing us exactly where Tony is in the public eye, and precisely how he's responding to the unexpected pressures that have cropped up as a result of his disclosure. And Theroux does it in a way that couldn't be more satisfying; after giving us a taste of the public's reaction to Iron Man in a dynamic opening, he shifts the action to the Senate hearing regarding Tony's technology in a scene that's not only hilarious, but a brilliant introduction to one of the key villains, and a chance to get reacquainted with a new actor in a familiar role. Later, as the multiple storylines begin to unfold, Theroux manages to keep the momentum moving forward while maintaining a masterful balance of playful banter, blistering action, and plot-advancing revelations. By witnessing Tony's struggle with the physical side effects of his innovative energy source and the startling new discovery he makes by reconnecting with the past, we sympathize with a character whose ego always comes first. Also, by exploring the shifting dynamics within Stark Industries, we get to see firsthand how Tony and Pepper's relationship is evolving. And while the introduction of multiple villains has been the kiss of death for more than one superhero film franchise, Theroux forms a connection between the two antagonists that's entirely feasible.
But Theroux isn't the only one firing on all cylinders; director Favreau once again proves his prowess behind the camera by delivering big action sequences that display a genuine understanding of both comic-book and Hollywood aesthetics. His style is by turns boldly traditional and hyper-modern, and by recruiting Tartakovsky as a storyboard artist, Favreau reveals himself to be a director who understands that film is an inherently collaborative medium that benefits from all kinds of input. Likewise, he possesses a keen eye for rhythm and character detail that takes full advantage of the incredibly talented cast. Downey Jr., Rockwell, Rourke, Jackson, and Cheadle all light up the screen each time they appear, ensuring that even the non-action scenes in Iron Man 2 are immensely entertaining -- it's nearly as fun to watch Tony match wits with Justin Hammer and talk shop with Ivan as it is to watch Iron Man and War Machine duke it out in a party-pooping battle-suit brawl. Even Johansson -- an actress known more for her dramatic skills than her physical abilities -- gets a chance to get in on the action. A climactic fight in which her character takes on an entire hallway full of bad guys -- at one point pole-dancing an adversary into submission -- offers proof that the dramatic heavyweight is perfectly capable of getting physical when the situation calls for it.
Iron Man was a rare beast in the world of summer blockbusters -- a film that critics adored, and fans flocked to in droves. Attempting to repeat such a success is a task many filmmakers wouldn't wish on their worst enemy. Thankfully, in both films, Favreau had the good sense to surround himself with gifted artists whose passion matched their abilities. Despite being more traditional in structure and theme than the original, Iron Man 2 offers just about everything anyone could ask for in a superhero spectacular, and then some. It may not be as innovative as its predecessor, but it does manage to make up for that minor shortcoming by surpassing the original in every other respect.