Iron Man 2 isn't so much a sequel as it is a continuation of a narrative. It's clear from its opening seconds, which replay Tony Stark's (Robert Downey, Jr.) final words from the first film, that we're jumping in medias res. Director Jon Favreau and the team at Marvel never underestimate their audience. They don't bother reintroducing characters, rehashing plot points or slowing down one iota to let the audience catch its breath. It's Stark's film and the frenetic pacing is a view into the man's harried lifestyle.
The first half of the film crisscrosses the globe like a Bond film, from Moscow to Malibu to Monaco, checking in on the ever-expanding threats to Stark/Iron Man. It's an all-out assault from adversaries known and unknown alike. Tony's livelihood is jeopardized by the U.S. government that formally employed him. On the hunt for a rich weapons contract, rival manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) coerces Senator Stern (a greasy Garry Shandling) to head a congressional investigation of Stark's Iron Man tech and manipulates his friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to testify against him. Ivan Venko (Mickey Rourke), also in cahoots with Hammer, has designs of his own on Stark, hellbent on exacting revenge because unbeknownst to Tony, Venko's father helped Tony's dad (John Slattery) develop the arc reactor technology that created Iron Man and saved Stark's life. Also bugging Tony are Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the director of the superhero cadre S.H.I.E.L.D. and his satellite agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) who cozies up to Stark under the guise of Natalie Rushman, his new assistant. And if those oblique conspiratorial machinations weren't enough for the Iron Man to handle, the homefront is no less challenging. Tony's in constant self-torture mode, unable to manage his burgeoning affection for trusty assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). He promotes her to Stark Industries CEO both because she deserves it, he can't handle the business side anymore, and he sees the opportunity to impress/confess to Pepper how much he needs her. Of course, his plan backfires.
Phew! With all these converging threads of chaos descending on one man, it's no wonder Stark cracks up a bit in the film. The lighthearted, optimistic redemption narrative from Iron Man is long gone. Iron Man 2 is full of Tony trying desperately to untangle the messy webs he himself has created. Senses of guilt, responsibility, legacy and the inherent Stark pride and bravado he refused to tempter conspire to ruin Tony almost before the film proper begins. When Tony learns that the palladium used the power the arc reactor keeping him alive is now killing him, you get the sense that Stark both likes and accepts it as cosmic punishment for taking on more than perhaps one man ever should. Downey captures Stark's casual suicidal bent in one particularly insightful scene. Stark stands in front of a mirror, examining the high tech track marks on his chest. He refuses to confide in anyone he's dying, opting to take on the problem on his own. Downey deadpans, "Got any more bad ideas?" It's a moment of ironic self-realization. You get the feeling that Downey's been there before. It's a hint of close-to-the-bone realism rare in a typically fantastic and escapist genre.
That the next scene cuts to Stark suiting up to race his own Formula One car at the Monaco Grand Prix doesn't undercut the dramatic tension of the mirror scene, it enriches it. Favreau's film, with Downey at the helm, embraces the messy contradictions in Tony Stark's character. It's a film, and a performance, whose whip-smart banter and disarming charm belie a deeper existential malaise. At times the film may feel disjointed, gearing up in fits and starts as we cut back and forth between the dangers encircling Tony, within and without. I don't see this as a weakness, but an interesting strategy in character subjectivity. Tony's on unsure footing, and so are we. We may be laughing but the comedy is as much Tony's own defense mechanism as it is the true tone of the film.
But all of this--all of this subtext and character depth is superfluous, if you want it to be. Like all great entertainments, Iron Man 2 functions on two levels. Stark's own self-destructive depressive impulses do not extend to the look of the film, unlike the dark environs of Batman's Gotham. The film is bright and poppy with amped up action scenes and a crowd-pleasing climactic battle. One visual highlight is Tony's basement lab, populated, courtesy of the geniuses at Industrial Light and Magic, with some of the most gorgeous holographic visual effects I've ever scene. ILM and Favreau really have outdone themselves, topping their efforts in Iron Man.
The film's highlight, and the turning point for Tony, occurs in the lab when Stark manages to start pulling himself out of his depression by simply getting down to work. With a postmodern Protestant work ethic, Stark finds salvation in invention and it's a marvel to watch. It's a training montage for intellectuals, as you watch Stark solve the problems in his world not with fists, not in tights, but with a jackhammer, a wrench and the periodic table of elements. You really get a sense of the redemptive power of technology and feel a kinship with Tony on that basis. It's a scene that underscores the magnetism of Tony Stark, as opposed to Iron Man. Not that Iron Man isn't a cool or likable superhero, but the fact that Tony Stark is such an appealing alter-ego certainly contributes to the two films' incredible success.
In the end, it's futile to compare Iron Man 2 to Iron Man. While Iron Man can be taken on its own, a film that's very much of a piece and a singular entertainment, Iron Man 2 is best viewed on a continuum. It's a Marvel Universe movie, the next chapter in the Iron Man narrative and a stepping stone film on the road to The Avengers. That's not a bad thing, it's just a different thing. However, in my estimation, it's a very, very good thing. Iron Man 2 is big, ambitious, smart and satisfying entertainment. It's not contained; it's messy. But it's messy with a purpose. There's a heart and brain behind the film. Unlike so much empty summer entertainment these days, the film strives to say something about a character, to imbue him with human frailties while simultaneously embracing the natural charisma and heroism that endeared him to the audience in the first place (Spider-Man 3, I'm looking at you...). Unlike The Dark Knight, Iron Man 2 never undersells its primary superheroic draw--Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. Despite the preponderance of villains, this isn't a villain picture. Iron Man 2 believes in its hero, against all the narcissistic, alcoholic, self-destructive odds. Favreau and Downey have pulled off something of a coup is getting us all to love this character, and I love them for it. It's rare a mass audience is treated with such mutual respect and delivered a smart and entertaining summer film. If it does turn out to be the highest grossing film of the season, Iron Man 2 will have earned that accolade with no complaint from me.