Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer
Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko
Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff
Don Cheadle as Lt. Col. James 'Rhodey' Rhodes
Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
John Slattery as Howard Stark
Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson
Paul Bettany as Jarvis
Gary Shandling as Senator Stern
Most sequels offer you one of two choices in their approach: either bigger, louder and faster (the most popular choice), or smaller with a focus on characters over plot. Both of these choices offer certain costs and benefits. One gives you more bang for your buck but tends to be empty and heartless. The other will offer a surfeit of heart but with so little actually happening that you can't help but feel unsatisfied. The ideal sequel will balance the two, upping the ante in threat and using it as an opportunity to deepen its characters and story.
"Iron Man 2" isn't an ideal sequel but it is good, fixing most of the problems of the first movie without giving up what made it work to begin with.
To be fair, much of what made the first film work was Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, and that's still true in the sequel. Better yet, director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux ("Tropic Thunder") have given him some real problems to struggle with instead of just being charming and funny.
Because Tony Stark is dying. The materials in the power core that keeps him alive are also deadly poisonous, it turns out, and Tony can't find a cure. With the end starting to look nigh, Tony has turned his attention to his legacy, finding a good person to run his company and pick up his Iron Man mantle after he's gone. Unfortunately there's a dark side to his legacy as well in the form of mad Russian scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who has figured out how to weaponize Stark's power system and wants nothing more than to wipe Stark out once and for all.
They say you have to make one of these films to learn how to make one of these films and Favreau has certainly taken that lesson to heart, adding a great deal of style and panache to "Iron Man's" already impressive repertoire. What was good about the first "Iron Man" is still good about the sequel and in many cases noticeably better. As good as Downey's original performance was it is aided considerably by having to deal with the reality that he may not have cheated death after all, just put it off for a little bit. The quest sends him not just to cement his legacy but also an incentive to increase his already manic and unpredictable lifestyle--like spontaneously taking his Formula One driver's place before the Monaco Grand Prix--which is the part of Stark that Downey really excels at.
It's also a step above the original in terms of pure craft. While the original was solid but unassuming, the sequel looks every inch the big budget film it is. Matthew Libatique, who shot one of the best looking movies of the 2000s--"The Fountain"--has substantially upped his game from the first film. The Monaco sequence in particular is gorgeous and illustrates in microcosm what makes "Iron Man 2" so successful. It's extremely well paced, quick and funny and light on its feet before turning a sharp corner as Vanko attacks Stark on the racetrack while he is alone and unarmed. Even in the middle of a large action sequence Favreau keeps his eye solidly on his characters and working hard to make solid use of everyone, not just Downey, as his erstwhile Girl and Guy Friday's--Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Happy Hogan (Favreau)--drive against traffic in a Formula One race to get Stark's armor to him.
In fact, almost every character gets significantly more to do, from Pepper struggling with running the company to Stark's best friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle) being forced to decide where his loyalties lie, to Stark or the US Air Force. New characters, like Sam Rockwell's unctuous Justin Hammer (a sort of anti-Tony Stark) are just as good, and yet for the most part they don't overwhelm the film.
However, while Favreau et al. have solved a lot of the problems of the first film, several of them still remain, not least its propensity to climax without warning. A great deal of work has been put into building up the action sequences, with Industrial Light & Magic putting in some fantastic effects work, only to have them suddenly finish. It's not as noticeable as in the first film but it's still there, particularly in any sequence involving Vanko.
More insidious, it's starting to develop the 'comic book universe' problem. These premade stories come packed with large amounts of ready made stories and characters, and plenty of fans who want to see them on screen. Inevitably this seems to turn to introducing characters just to introduce them, letting them eat screen time that would be better spent somewhere else. It's most noticeable in Scarlet Johansson's Natasha Romanoff, who while well executed serves no important purpose. She moves the plot along, but there's nothing she does that couldn't be done by another, already existing character. However she does eat up valuable screen time that might be better used by Rhodey who is not around near enough considering how important he is to the climax. He's the only character who still feels underdeveloped.
It's also risking getting stuck in a rut. Because there are as yet no super powered people for Iron Man to fight, he keeps getting stuck fighting iterations of 'other guys in Iron Man armor' and there's only so many times you can go to that well.
Still, "Iron Man 2" is far, far better than it is weak. Action junkies may find the middle more than a little slow as it dwells quite a bit on his existential dilemma, but that's also where many of the film's best moments lie. "Iron Man 2" is one of those rare films with something for everyone, good characters, excellent presentation and well-designed adventure elements. Worth every penny.