When CGI technology became mainstream enough for all the movie studios to get their own toys, the superheroes were set free. Oh sure, Richard Donner didn't need fancy computer tricks to make you believe Superman existed, but really, the technology required to deliver a convincing Spider-Man, Hulk, or X-Men only recently arrived on the scene -- which is how we get so many cheeseball flicks like Ghost Rider, and (sometimes) an unexpectedly great adaptation like Jon Favreau's Iron Man.

But since Tony Stark is not nearly as mainstream as Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, or Peter Parker, there was no guarantee that the Iron Man movie would strike a chord with general audiences. Well, it did. As a matter of fact, Iron Man presently stands as the fourth highest-grossing Marvel adaptation so far (behind all three of the Spidey flicks), and that explains why we're looking at a sequel precisely two years later. But with screenwriter changes, casting switches, and a more hurried production schedule ... how would Iron Man 2 turn out?

Pretty darn solid, this Iron Man fan is happy to say, although not without a few minor-yet-nagging reservations. As pedantic as it sounds, if you dug the first one a lot, you'll enjoy this one too -- just a little bit less, I suspect.
In true comic book form, Iron Man 2 picks up precisely where the last issue movie left off, and Tony's now-memorable "coming out" speech is being witnessed by a dying man. This guy, it turns out, used to be Tony's dad's research partner -- but once that's established, the old guy dies. (Weird timing.) This inspires his lunatic genius son (Mickey Rourke) to use all his skills to create a suit that will rival the now-famous "iron" one belonging to Tony Stark.

Mr. Stark, for his part, is quite enjoying his role as "the man who privatized world peace," and dismisses his detractors (like a pompous senator and a fast-talking competitor) with a wink and a quip. He has recently turned Stark Industries over to his ever-loyal assistant Pepper Potts, he's knee-deep in responsibilities both personal and professional, and -- oh, by the way -- he's dying. Rather rapidly, according to the nifty "blood test" timer that Stark keeps handy at all times.

Full-bore comic book fodder all the way, and it's a good thing that director Jon Favreau (Elf) and screenwriter Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) keep giving their ensemble cast members fun (and funny) things to say -- because the simple truth is that Iron Man 2 is hardly a wall-to-wall action-fest. In fact, aside from a brief (and slightly silly) sequence at a car race and a not-very-dangerous battle between Stark and his frustrated pal Rhodey, ALL of the Iron Man 2 action is saved for Act III. Fortunately Act III is a whole lot of fun and, better yet, Acts I and II are no worse off for being so light on the mayhem.

Downey deserves much of the credit for keeping Iron Man 2 so much fun, even when it's mired in its frequent chatty bits. The actor's trademark sardonic charm is, again, in full effect -- and while much of the Iron Man 2 praise will go to the effects and action crews, one feels a large sense of gratitude for the casting directors. Mr. Downey would probably be amusing just talking to himself for two hours, but his frequent and fast-paced bicker sessions with Gwyneth Paltrow (as Ms. Potts) are really quite entertaining. It's tough to get annoyed by a lack of action scenes when the banter frequently reminds you of old-fashioned screwball comedies.

Replacing Jeff Bridges in the head baddie department is Mickey Rourke, who certainly strikes an imposing figure and has no problem conveying a comic-book villain, but is given little to work with aside from an intellect and technological know-how that's pretty tough to swallow, all things considered. Faring much better as "boss villain" Justin Hammer is Sam Rockwell, who is asked to play sort of a sleazy mirror image of Tony Stark, and has a whole lot of fun doing it. Don Cheadle takes over the Rhodey role from Terrence Howard, and delivers a character who's both a potential sidekick and an interesting guy in his own right.

Sam Jackson pops up in a few scenes, if only to remind Tony (and the audience) that we'll one day see a big, crazy flick in which Iron Man, Nick Fury, Captain America, and a bunch of other costumed crusaders team up! One can only hope that Iron Man 2 newcomer Scarlett Johansson stays with the franchise, because she adds a great little touch of playful sexiness to this flick -- and of course she gets to kick some serious ass in one crazy scene. Hell, even director Favreau (reprising his role as bodyguard Happy Hogan) throws himself a funny little action scene. Also back: Leslie Bibb (in one funny sequence) as a Vanity Fair reporter, Clark Gregg as a mysterious "S.H.I.E.L.D." agent, and Paul Bettany as the voice of Stark's long-suffering computer. Hey, it's the little touches that the fans appreciate.

Simple answer? Nope, it's not better than the first flick. But while I didn't really expect it to be, any film (even one with a "2" in the title) deserves to be judged on its own merits. As such, I have no problem recommending Iron Man 2 to anyone looking for a (mostly) mindless comic book sequel that comes from a team of filmmakers intent on keeping the fans happy -- while trying to avoid doling out the exact same popcorn flick fodder. So while Iron Man 2 doesn't break any fresh ground (like its predecessor did), it's still impressive enough for a flick to be called "a worthwhile sequel to a superior film," and Iron Man 2 is certainly that.

For another take on Iron Man 2, see Todd Gilchrist's review
categories Reviews, Cinematical