The first Iron Man took people by surprise in that it was actually pretty darn good. After the catastrophe that was the Fantastic Four franchise, this was nothing short of a miracle. Was Marvel finally ready to take on more challenges? Make more decent superhero films?
With Robert Downey Jr. officially back in everyone's good books after his career tumbled despite taking on the Charlie Chaplin role in Richard Attenborough's critically acclaimed biopic, a decent run in Ally MacBeal and the fact he's one of the most talented actors around, this sequel was able to give the actor a little more creative freedom and allowed the franchise to go wild and have some fun. Tony Stark goes through quite a few ups and downs in this movie as he starts to enjoy his fame as the self-proclaimed Iron Man a bit too much, even defying U.S. officials in typical cocky, flashy fashion before losing control completely and finding refuge in alcoholism following a bad run-in with new baddie Whiplash (Mickey Rourke). The arc reactor keeping him alive is also slowly poisoning him and one of his suits falls into the wrong hands, which adds to his woes.
Luckily for him, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and they help him with his slow climb back to being a hero, not to mention obviously setting up The Avengers. The main reason why a lot of people were turned off by this sequel is the fact it's definitely much lighter in tone than its predecessor and, therefore, much sillier. Rourke's Whiplash is intimidating, for sure, but soon enough Sam Rockwell becomes the central villain and he's like an evil version of Tony Stark so far more upbeat in contrast. Add to that Garry Shandling as the disapproving Senator Stern and Jon Favreau doing his comic relief shtick and you've got yourself more of a straight-up comedy than a serious comic-book movie. That said, I would argue that the humour is clever and funny enough to keep the film charming and entertaining throughout.
Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Rhodey/War Machine, which is a bit jarring at first, and Johansson doesn't look like she's nailed her character quite yet so Black Widow unfortunately comes off as little more than eye candy. Otherwise, the cast is pretty flawless: Downey Jr. is having the time of his life as Stark, Rourke creates an odd yet compelling villain, Rockwell pretty much steals every scene he's in and Gwyneth Paltrow gets a lot more to do as Pepper Potts, who gets to handle more responsibilities. The action sequences are as impressive and involving as they needed to be, the race car scene especially, and Favreau handles the whole "drunk Tony" plot really well. Oh, also Stan Lee cameos as Larry King, which is frankly genius.
Iron Man 2 still gets a bad rep but it's arguably the most fun Iron Man film to date and it's far better than its follow-up at least. Armed with a great cast and a sharp, very funny script, this sequel takes the first film and expands it into something bigger and more light-hearted yet still just as effective, aptly introducing War Machine and building-up the first Avengers movie in the process.