Stan Lee - the grandmaster of Marvel Comics - concocted the original Iron Man in the early 60's as means to deride and contemplate budding Cold War topics. The comics lead Tony Stark - Lee's take on millionaire war-profiteer, womanizer, and all around mental case, Howard Hughes - was an industrailist and weapons specialist and Lee explored the kinds of roles these guys were playing in the famous arms race. When the characters of Tony Stark, and Iron Man respectively, were modernized for the 2008 film, those themes were updated to the growing role of corporations in war - specifically the War on Terror. What I can say about the films sequel, Iron Man 2, is that the presence of the characters typically subversive bite is mostly crowded out by it's incongruous plot, and pointless, one-note, supporting characters.
We pick up the story of Tony Stark/Iron Man two years after the first film ended. Stark - head of Stark Industries - has officially admitted to the public that he is Iron Man (there's no Bruce Wayne like secret identity here). But he catches a lot of flak for it. The government wants him to turn over the weapon to the military. He refuses. An embittered and homicidal Russian weapons inventor Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) attacks him during a grand prix race in Monaco and the element that powers his electronic heart is poisoning his blood and slowly but surely killing him.
Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has a lot to deal with, but is typically wry and aloof about the whole thing. The character is a paradox: outwardly gregarious and showoffy, but inwardly isolationist. He spends most of his time experimenting in his hi-tech lab with his AI comrades, and his awesomely rendered swirling and dynamic computer images that fill his whole field of vision, and ours.
The film succeeds on the charms of it's principle cast members. Downey Jr. is, as always, quick witted and audacious, and Mickey Rourke as villian Vanko is equally so. From his gold chiseled grill and WWF blonde streaked do, to his thick Russian cadence and swollen mug that seems beaten down by a childhood in Siberia.
Also enjoyable was the work of Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, CEO of Stark Industries main opposition and Tony's personal rival. Hammer is whiny and loquacious with a Jeff Goldblum-esque disposition - complete with large square spectacles and smug toned voice. He's your typical shark-in-suit. A second rate Stark, who's inventions never work, and in his desperation hires the unpredictable and equally unstable Vanko to build him his own army of iron men.
Add the always beguiling Gwenyth Paltrow as Stark's saucy (if somewhat underwritten) love interest Pepper Potts and director Jon Favreau has a pretty decent flick. Where he missteps is his constant attention to underwhelming stock characters. Don Cheadle's James "Rhodey" Rhodes is curiously uninteresting as Starks only government ally. Scarlet Johannson's Natalie Rushman is little more than eye-candy, and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury plays for sequel set up and to look cool in his eyepatch and leather trench coat.
The result of these miscalculations is a flabby and overstuffed narrative. And as the humor continues to work far better than the action, the film becomes continuously more lopsided.
The second Hollywood makeover of Iron Man has been at the cost of it's creators political objectives, but the film's greatest sacrifice(despite it's charms) has to be that of Lee's greatest gift; sufficiently satisfying storytelling.