I've been trying to think about what to say regarding Favreau's sequel to 2008's most surprising film. Mostly, that it's more of the same, and I mean that in a good and bad way. The film works pretty much the same, full of witty banter, quirky performances, and oddball action sequences that are both thrilling and amusing. And yet, the plot flails in several different directions without a lot of purpose. Great supporting performances don't necessarily even out the sloppy supporting writing, and the has a pulpable lack of vitality -- as if the filmmakers were envisioning more how to please the crowd than pursue the hero. The machinations are on full display, both of the suit and the film.
What I do like about the film is how it thinks about the hero's public person and how one deals with the fame. Tony Stark is, as the film explicitly says, a narcissist. In Iron Man 2, he's also self-destructive (mentally as well as physically), calling the suit a nuclear deterrent. What made the first Iron Man resonate for me (and I like to think a lot of viewers, even if they're not aware), is that it openly thought about the Weapons Age. Iron Man is a hero, but he is a weapon, and in the sequel that weapon seems to have forged a momentary lapse of world peace. Of course, leave it to the Russians (in the form of a tattoo and beautifully Method Mickey Rourke) to mess that up for everyone.
The sequel gives us a genius who's built his own suit and an arms manufacturer who wants to give Stark Industries a run for his money. If Iron Man was about Tony Stark coming to grips with the role of Stark Industries and WMDs, IM2 has him asserting his philosophy against several foils. Thankfully, the sequel also continues to probe his daddy traumas, which I read as an allegory of how we are still trying to reconcile with both the atomic bomb and the Cold War dream of American ideology. Tony Stark is a political beast, as evidenced by his Senate hearings early in the film and his continued involvement with the military, but he's also a celebrity, a show-stopper, one who prances and parades his identity and his technology with little thought of consequence.
Stark is both deterrent and show-off, and Robert Downey Jr. continues to perfectly imagine the tightrope between genius and insanity. Of course, he's the perfect choice to delve into Stark's party animal side. Sam Rockwell, as the arms manufacturer who wants to steal the suit's technology for his own financial gain, is deliciously hammy - a white-collar villain who sees weaponry as a game of dollars-and-cents. And the weaponry in Iron Man 2 is certainly magnificent. The effects are fluid, the suits well-designed, and the action sequences flow without being over-long or too redundant.
Iron Man 2 works, but it doesn't push. It's a pretty, wham-bam movie that fills its obligations and thinks about the superhero in a particular way in regard to new-age weaponry. Of course, that's everything the first movie was, and one gets the sense Jon Favreau and company are more serviceable than daring.