A movie franchise can take us by surprise only once, and by that measure, Iron Man 2 is a preordained letdown.
But so much of what gave the first film its gas — the sass, the pizzazz, the ironic amusement of cast and script at the very idea of a rich, party- animal arms dealer (Robert Downey Jr.) remaking himself and the world with an ultimate-weapon armored suit — is still here. If the morality, the pathos of death, the tenderness of the would-be romance between Tony Stark/Iron Man and his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), are missing, Iron Man 2 is still a fun ride.
Tony is out of the metal closet as Iron Man, and he's feeling his oats, cracking to Congress that "I've successfully privatized world peace," and "You're welcome."
The military wants the armored suit. His Air Force pal, Rhodey (Terrence Howard in the first film, a funnier, more dangerous Don Cheadle in this one), is downright insistent.
There are health consequences to Tony having an arc reactor planted in his chest, there's a new temptress temp (Scarlett Johansson) trying to lure him away from Pepper, and an arms dealer rival (Sam Rockwell, funny) wanting to top Tony in the armored-suit business.
From the film's first moments, we know there's a brawny, tattooed Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke, surprisingly right) harboring a grudge and the blueprints necessary to create his own arc reactor, his own killer suit. Call him Whiplash.
It's a messier movie than the first one, with more characters, more plot lines and yet more metal mano-a-mano melees. Director Jon Favreau (playing Tony's driver) is still more interested in the ride than the destination, thus, his camera leers at dancing girls, party girls and Johansson. The fights and chases lack the "Wow," there's little heart, and the ending is a serious anti-climax.
The franchise attracted great supporting talent. Samuel L. Jackson is back as Nick Fury, still recruiting the Iron Man for his super-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. agency. Rockwell has the right timing for a movie in which actors talk all over one another, throwing away punch lines because they have hundreds to spare. Garry Shandling makes a funny U.S. senator.
But at this point, Iron Man is starting to feel mechanical, a piece of business Marvel needs to transact to get to that next piece of business. Which is to say, stay past the credits for the biggest anti-climax of all.