OK, let's deal with the elephant in the room and get the big question out of the way. Is Iron Man 2 any good? Is it as good as the first film? Yes, and yes. It's not quite Spider-Man 2 good, but as sequels go, it's better than most.
As the first blockbuster of the 2010 summer season, there's a lot riding on Iron Man's shiny metal shoulders. But with the origin story out of the way, the second film can get straight down to business. And there's a lot of business going on. First up, the US government – in the person of smarmy Senator Stern (a rather chubby Shandling) – is demanding that Stark (Downey Jr) hand over the powerful weapon that is the Iron Man suit. If that's not enough, Tony has to deal with the fact that the power unit inside his chest is slowly poisoning his blood. Meanwhile, the government is trying to create its own suit with the help of Stark's business rival, Justin Hammer (Rockwell) – and Tony's buddy Jim Rhodes (portrayed by Cheadle this time, replacing Terence Howard) is roped in to help. And a new foe emerges – the mysterious and dangerous Ivan Vanko (Rourke), who holds a lifelong grudge against the Stark family.
There are a lot of plot threads to juggle, but Favreau does so with a deftness that belies his limited experience behind the camera (he'd only directed three films before he helmed the first Iron Man). He's ably assisted by a sparkling script from Theroux, who nicely blends the humour, drama and action. Once again, Downey Jr owns the film. He plays Stark with equal measures of smarm, class, bravado, showmanship, selfishness and fear. The biggest asset he brings to the role, though, is believability. And he's more than ably assisted by a stellar cast that all turn in outstanding performances. Tough-guy Rourke is suitably menacing as Vanko/Whiplash, proving a real threat to Stark/Iron Man. Rockwell almost steals the whole show as Hammer, a ruthless industrialist who wants nothing more than to bring down Tony Stark. Paltrow is more palatable as Pepper Potts this time round, and is given a lot more to do. Johansson smoulders as the Black Widow (let's hope she returns for the third film!) and Sam Jackson is back as SHIELD leader Nick Fury, starting to put in place the set-up for The Avengers.
Iron Man 2 is fun, funny and exciting. It clocks in at a little over two hours, but is never dull. There are plenty of nice little touches for comic book fans (keep an eye out for Captain America's shield), but it's not so fan-boyish that general audiences will feel left out. Favreau has managed to deliver a sequel that is easily the equal of the original film – let's hope he can do it again in a couple of years with Iron Man 3.
SECOND OPINION | Doug Cooper ★ I beg to differ. Iron Man 2 is stodgy, overstuffed, boring and underwhelming. It suffers from the lack of a strong and forceful villain. Mickey Rourke's evil entrance on the Monaco racetrack is terrific but he then has little to do for the rest of the movie, appearing mostly to conduct behind the scenes machinations on his computer. What's fun about that? The film then gets sidetracked with various plot contrivances involving Rockwell as a conniving businessman, Cheadle as the military buddy dealing with him and battling with Stark, momentarily trashing his stylish home, while Samuel L Jackson's role should've been cut completely. Why can't this movie simply operate as a self contained film? Why should our time be wasted with the setting up of another Marvel movie franchise? Iron Man 2 is hohum hokum devoid of any tension or excitement – on a par with the dire Spider-Man 3.