Well, seeing as how I am the Internet's pre-eminent loudmouth on all things Iron Man (seriously! Even War Rocket Ajax said so) it behooves (behooven? does behoove?) me to weigh in my thoughts on Iron Man 2, as I am two hours fresh from the theatre having just seeing it on opening day and I can tell the Four Readers out there are dying to know what I thought of it. Spoilers ahoy--we doin' this.
Iron Man 2 picks up six months after the first movie, and Tony Stark is kicking ass and taking names. He has, as he says in the movie "privatised world peace"--an interesting concept I would rather have seen rather than be told about--as it would have been an interesting flipside to his previous monopoly on arming the world. With his fantastic suit or armor he's invincible (as people are years away from duplicating the process that created the suit), overconfident, utterly cheeky, and proves that one can indeed have balls so big that bullets do nothing as he owns the US Senate, arch-rival Justin Hammer (played by Sam Rockwell as a being that exhales sleaze the way you and I exhale carbon dioxide) in one fell swoop.
He's also dying. The arc reactor in his chest is poisoning his blood in a mostly well-thought out subplot that I was eternally grateful was not the Extremis plot as previously speculated (There are people who think the Extremis plotline in the comic was a brilliant spin on Iron Man. These people are completely, absolutely, catastrophically, objectively wrong.) The resolution is a little creaky (a lot, actually) but I'll get to that in a minute, but the way it drives Stark into more risky and alienating behaviour is actually well done and drives the story in a rather Empire Strikes Back "just keeps getting worse for the gang" kinda way.
The crisis point comes when Ivan Vanko, whose father worked with Tony's father (who, in an eternally amusing bit is played by Roger Sterling from Mad Men as Roger Sterling, pretty much) on the arc reactor thing and Swears Revenge on him. The whole attempt to set Vanko and Stark up as products of their fathers and their pasts falls flat here, mostly because Mickey Rourke hunger-dunger-dangs his way through his dialogue in a way that the word "unintelligible" doesn't even begin to cover. But he's effective physically as Whiplash and manages to make the whole "guy with a whip against the guy wearing a walking tank" thing work in a way the comics sure as hell never did.
Insofar as any of his plan was understandable without subtitles, it's pretty smart--Vanko just wants to demonstrate that Stark isn't invincible, and trusts that his many rivals will pounce him at this sign of weakness--he just plans to demonstrate it in public. But things develop that Hammer sees an opportunity to finally crack Stark's design and frees Vanko, who agrees to design an army of drones for him (though he has his Own Reasons, naturally--Hammer never once comes off as the sharpest knife in the drawer in the film. Obadiah "IN A CAVE! WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS! Stane, he ain't.) and bides his time for his final revenge with Stark.
Meanwhile, Stark seems to be taking care of the whole destroying himself thing pretty ably--alienating himself from Pepper Potts (who at least doesn't kill the Big Boss by throwing a switch this time) and finally forcing Jim Rhodes to steal one of his older suits and smack some sense into him in a pretty damn good fight that is pretty damn physical and has some decent fight choreography for something that was sure quite a lot of CGI. Credit where it's due--there's some real heft in the fights and the camera isn't all juddering around and stuff so you can't really make out what's going on. I do call bullshit on the "speed ramping" stuff though: Stop that. It's two thousand god damned ten. You know better.
Anyways, Rhodey delivers the Mark II two the government, which Hammer refits into War Machine, the Drones get built and Stark, with a little help from Nick Fury and The Most Plot-Convenient Box In The World figures out a way to upgrade the arc reactor in such a way as to where it won't kill him.
This bit is actually one of my biggest problems with the movie. Stark works out after seeing a filmed message from his father that he hid the plans for an entirely new element in the design of his expo's grounds. I know what the point of the scene was--Stark never knew his father and never knew how proud he was of him and how he'd bequeathed the future to him--I got all that without the utterly obvious & damn silly device of him hiding the new element on his fucking fairgrounds.
This is a great excuse for a new suit of armour (now with Big Triangle) and a final showdown with War Machine and the Drones on the Expo's grounds. Y'see, Vanko having figured out how to seize control of them all in an effort to . . .y'know I'm not sure what the whole point of having Hammer's Drones shoot up Stark's expo really was, and as Vanko spent more time learning hacking than he did elocution, so I can only speculate it was a general "blow up his spot" kinda thing. He was very upset about his bird maybe--I really couldn't tell you.
The fight between War Machine, Iron Man, and the Drones is a good bit of business and plays a lot better than the Iron Monger fight from the first movie did, as the multiple Drones allow for a little variety and a good long fight wherein none of the principals takes their mask off just in case the people watching are too dumb to remember who's who (I really hate this cliche, and it took me out of the fight at the end of the first movie) which has a good Crowning Moment of Awesome for Iron Man (You'll know it when you see it) and culminates with a big fight with Whiplash in his new upgraded armor.
That part I'm not so crazy about. Having read some ancillary stuff about the making of the movie, the creators of the film were anxious to avoid a fight that looked too much like the Iron Monger fight, but that's pretty much what they ended up doing. It's not bad (and has a pretty cool resolution) it's just . . .a little disappointing.
You may have noticed I haven't talked much about Nick Fury or the Black Widow being in this movie. That's because they don't really do that much--the Widow gets to kick a little ass in an ultimately futile (but amusing) bit in the third act and Nick Fury shows up to nudge the plot along, shoehorn some stuff about the Avengers movie to come, and generally be Samuel L. Jedi for a little bit.
I know everyone's nerded out about the Avengers teases that were in the movie, and . . .yeah, wonderful. It's great they're trying to link a bunch of movies together and I hope it works, but trying to do all that within Iron Man 2 meant there were a lot of bits that didn't really work for this movie that just called attention to themselves. I laud them for what they're trying to do, but really . . .it needs to be a bit more invisible to be more enjoyable, and I'm looking right at that damn post-credits bit.
Anyhow, thankfully the movie finishes on a nice callback to the Senate stuff from the beginning of the movie and we're off until Iron Man 3 hits in 2012 or whenever.
A major quibble (for me, anyways)--the score is atrocious compared to the first one. I liked how the Iron Man theme gradually "built" through every iteration of the armour was a cool little extra touch and I missed that this time out, John Debney's score is generic, obvious and too damn loud in the bits of the score that aren't AC/DC's greatest hits collection (and seriously--given how obviously mercenary having AC/DCs song jammed willy-nilly on the soundtrack, y'all didn't even try to get "War Machine?" How hard could it have been--I mean, KISS will come to my house for $100.) and it really lets the movie down when it should be at a more epic pitch. I know we're well past the days of good purpose-built scores, but when done properly, they add a lot to the movie.
It may sound like I didn't like the movie as much as the first one and . . .well, I didn't. But only narrowly so--I've told people it's an A to the first movie's A+--The armor battles are suitably epic, the suitcase armour was awesome as hell, and the movie's weaker bits are fortunately eased by Robert Downey Jr's considerable charm and amused cheekiness in the face of . . .er, everything. The rest of the cast mostly acquits themselves well--no one really stands out, but no surprise there--Downey pretty much owned the first movie also, didn't he?
In short, it's pretty good, and doesn't suffer from a dramatic slide in quality as sequels often do (and before you bring up Spider-Man 2, I remind you that people who believe Spider-Man 2 was a great movie are also utterly, tragically and catastrophically wrong) and advances the first story in some interesting ways without having to leech off of "iconic" stories from the comics (not least of which because there aren't any). The idea of Stark's Iron Man tech touching off an arms race (or an Armour War?) is a good one, and hopefully it'll be carried through to a logical conclusion in the third movie.
It's not what it was, but it'll do.