Iron Man 2: *** (out of 4)
You can tell that the summer blockbuster season has begun when attending a movie during opening weekend requires you to stand in line for a significant period. From the perspective of an amateur reviewer, this is requires a shift in perspective; the review has to reflect the knowledge that almost everybody that is likely to see a given movie is likely to have either already seen the movie before the reviews can be published (or at least has heard a significant amount of media discussion of the movie's plot and how it did opening weekend). This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does change the game. In my case, I assume that the reader has some idea of whether they're predisposed to see the movie in the first place; rather than try to convince the unconvinced, I'll talk about whether the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do (artistically).
Iron Man 2 is an interesting sequel, in that it spends much of its time directly following up to the events of the first movie. At the end of 2008's Iron Man, Tony Stark revealed to the world that he was, indeed, the titular superhero; and in so doing, he changed the world more than he had by creating the costume in the first place. Instead of just being a regular, mysterious superhero, the world now sees that the suit is merely technology; and, as always, technology is meant to be copied. And so the race is on to reverse-engineer the tech, with Stark in the middle; and while Tony loves the attention, it is putting pressure on him to succeed.
It's an interestingly low-key movie, all told. As in the first movie, there is never a sense that the world itself is in any particular danger; instead, we spend time arguing about defense contracts and personal vendettas. The stakes are still high, but it's a very personal movie, at least in the milieu of superhero stories. Lives are at stake, but only because they're in the way.
As before Robert Downey Jr steals the show. As his personal fame and global importance have increased, Tony Stark's arrogance and impulsive behaviour have grown to match. He feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, and refuses to show it to anybody; the only thing keeping him going is the knowledge that it would be even worse if he didn't. He is both introspective and horribly self-absorbed; when it comes down to it, he is his own worst enemy. This is written with more skill than in the original comics, where this struggle was seen through the prism of alcoholism; and it is certainly well-portrayed, based on the acting skill and background of Downey Jr. The first movie was not just a fluke; this is the role he was born for.
Surprisingly, Tony Stark was not the only well-defined character in the movie. Pepper Potts is a much more organic character this time through; instead of being primarily a foil for Tony's excesses, she is consistently competent, acting both as a personal assistant to Tony and a general manager for a large corporation. Last time we were told that she was an important part of Tony's life; this time, we're shown why.
Other characters are less well-defined. The weakest link is Scarlet Johansson, who turns in a fairly uninspired performance as Black Widow; she looks the part when necessary, but doesn't have the presence to carry the role when out of "costume" and is not given particularly good material to work with. Also weak was Justin Hammer, who, while well-acted by Sam Rockwell, was only shallowly characterized. Better were Vanko (an oddly subtle performance by Mickey Rourke, at least for a character out for revenge) and Happy Hogan (who is given something to do this time); somewhere in between were Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, and Colonel Rhodes (I think I liked Terrence Howard better than Don Cheadle, but both are good, and the bigger problem is that the writing was better for this character in the first movie).
So, that's the characters - how was the rest of the movie? Well, the main story was low-key, as previously mentioned; it was good, but not excellent, and seemed to consist more of a loosely-connected series of set pieces rather than a consistent story. As others have noted, the movie did seem a bit busy; some of the material could probably have been shifted to the side without hurting the overall story. That said, I'm not sure that I could easily identify which pieces should go; so maybe it's not so bad.
A few other points:
There was some really bad science in there - really, really bad. Yes, I shouldn't worry about this much in a movie like this, but it made me cringe. No, you do not make new elements that way! Why did it have to be an element anyway? sigh
The computer user interfaces looked interesting, for the most part. They helped get the idea across that Stark's technology was a few years ahead of everybody else's, without making it look like they were from outer space; this was a nice balance.
Vanko's role was, overall, pretty sketchy. Most of the way through I liked this; the character seemed like a bit of a super-smart thug, and his desire for revenge didn't really extend to hurting bystanders all that much, both of which were at the very least interesting ideas. But it bothered me that he didn't have much of an end-game planned, or at least not much of a sensible one. If you're going to go with super-smart as a character trait, it's nice to follow through.
The product placement made me snicker more than anything. Of course, this was true of the commercials and such as well. Am I really more likely to buy Sun/Oracle products now that they're associated with Iron Man?
Do I really have to talk about the special effects? They were good, and well-integrated. The action set pieces were put together well. If you come for the spectacle, you'll be happy.
Hooray for not being in 3-D!
So, all of that said - what's the overall verdict? Well, the movie does what it sets out to do, even if the details are questionable. I wasn't disappointed, but I also don't think it was as joyous and fun as the first movie. And I still want to see the next movie(s) in the series.
An aside, regarding the large Marvel Movie-verse - I really do like how this is playing out so far. The connections are there, and are clearly telegraphed, but don't need to be played out to be interesting; this feeds my fanboy tendencies, without requiring me to be an expert on decades of Marvel Universe background to understand what's going on. But, more interestingly, this is a new universe, something that hasn't been done before. Yes, all of the major beats are there from several versions of the Marvel-verse, but this time we're doing it without the Big Names: Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and probably others whose rights belong to other companies. This means that some paths can be pursued that are just not feasible in other incarnations; and even if the rights do revert to Marvel at some point, the characters will be coming into the game late. I like the mix-up, it's very Elseworlds-y.