★ ★ ★ ☆
I have to say right off the bat that I was not a big fan of the original Iron Man. It was similar to Christopher Nolan's Batman series, but lacked the depth. It was a beta version, at best. To my great surprise (and contrary to the critics), Iron Man 2 surpassed the original in every way imaginable. Not only was it more fun than the original, it was actually quite thought provoking. Though it doesn't delve into the deep philosophical territory of The Dark Knight, it deals with many of the same themes in a more accessible manner. I now see the Iron Man series as a complement to Nolan's Batman series, rather than an inferior competitor.
While the critics were generally positive towards Iron Man 2, they failed to acknowledge it as anything more than an adequate sequel. The sequel was more entertaining, and more insightful. The first installment dealt with the themes of vigilantism, and technological change, but not in a way that was particularly interesting. The second installment builds on both of these themes. While the first movie created the impression that Iron Man could keep the world secure, the second demonstrated the instability of this situation. The problem is that the world isn't static. Not only is Iron Man's technological supremacy fleeting, but he will not be around forever. The great strength of Iron Man 2 is that it is more than just a superhero movie: it is a statement about international relations, and security in general. What we witness is not merely a battle between good and evil, but a genuine arms race.
When critics chided the plot for being "clunky," or "confused," they failed to appreciate this central point: real life is messier than Hollywood fairy tales. The introduction of multiple new characters--many of ambiguous significance--accentuated this point. There is a great deal of uncertainty right up until the end. Who are the real players? Is Iron Man the earth's savior, or is he merely a puppet of SHIELD? And what about Vanko? Is he the most significant villain, or is was he merely the first to put a dent in Iron Man? This made the movie interesting, not muddled.
The critics were right about a couple of things. First, there was no major climactic battle scene. I agree that this was the case, but it is partly related to my previous point. It's hard to have a climactic scene when you don't even really know who the players are. The second thing they pointed out was that the sequel had a much more light hearted tone. Most of them were happy with this. Frankly, so was I. The series was never meant to have the same gravitas as the Batman series, and trying to create that tone would likely have backfired (as it usually does with comic book movies). Injecting some humour into the movie was the right way to go. This suited Robert Downey Junior just fine. I don't personally know RDJ, but Tony Stark was an uncanny portrayal of RDJ's public persona. He not only fit the role, but he genuinely seemed to enjoy himself. While this role didn't approach his masterful portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, it was definitely another home run for RDJ.
Aside from Downey, there were plenty of great casting decisions. Sam Rockwell played a great counterpart to RDJ. While his character evolved dramatically, it never felt contrived. He seemed to grow right into the role. Mickey Rourke was predictably solid, and Samuel Jackson was well cast. My only casting complaint is Scarlett Johansson. I've never found her to be particularly talented, so I assume that she gets her parts based on her appearance. Frankly, there are much more talented actresses who happen to be more attractive. It's no coincidence that the worst scene in the movie was the one where she played the largest role.
Jon Favreau deserves some serious credit. He has created a comic book movie that is both fun, and though provoking. This is a rare, if not unique achievement. He may not be Christopher Nolan, but he sure knows how to entertain an audience.