The first Iron Man ends with wealthy industrialist Stark startling the world with the admission that he is Iron Man. The second film starts with Russian bad guy Ivan Vanko watching that same press conference in a Soviet tenement, even as he also watches his father Anton (Yevgeni Lazarev) die.
Vanko has a vendetta against Stark and angrily stomps to his advanced physics lab (everyone has one in their tenement, right?) and invents the Whiplash weaponry.
Meanwhile, Stark is relishing his fame along with the wealth that being a captain of industry provides — a rich frat boy having a great time of life. He engages in much flirting and witty banter with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his secretary and confidante, as they prepare for Stark Expo 2010. At one point Stark swears to her, “I’m sick of the liberal agenda! It’s boring!” Every good hero needs a nemesis, and it’s fellow industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) playing that role in Iron Man 2. Hammer, it turns out, wants the public to distrust Iron Man as unstable and dangerous. Hammer is a dweeb in the film, though, and when he’s tough and angry late in the story, it’s hard to believe.
The story line I wanted to see was the palladium poisoning that the artificial arc reactor heart is giving Stark. Each time he powers up his suit, he gets a bit weaker and his blood a bit more toxic. While he is concerned about it, he’s too busy being a rich playboy and experimenting with new military gizmos to really self-examine. Maybe that’s asking too much in a big-budget action film, but a smart, thoughtful, self-aware hero would be a nice addition to the cinematic canon.
Scarlett Johansson (as Natalie Rushman, an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent posing as Stark’s legal aide) makes a notable and entertaining appearance in the film, as does Don Cheadle (replacing Terrence Howard as Lt. Col. James Rhodes from the first film), whose action-packed scene ends up with him promoted to Iron Man’s sidekick.
The film gets more mundane once we have the main characters on the screen, with Stark and Rhodie as good guys with a sort of Transformers buddy-movie sensibility, and Whiplash and Hammer as bad guys. Somewhere in the middle is the lithe and sexy Rushman and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a part of the shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D. organization.
Iron Man 2 is a terrifically entertaining film and it’s going to open big and play big for months. Could it have been better, been more than just a loud action film? No question. But even as is, it’s a satisfying cinematic experience.