If anyone hadn't heard, Marvel Films are currently engaged in a speculative project; they make a set of movies featuring most of the original members of the Avengers, and assuming that these work well enough, at some point in the future, they make an actual Avengers movie. Well, Jon Favreau has evidently bought into this idea; Iron Man 2 is set in something much more like the "Marvel universe" than previous Marvel superhero movies, and not just because of the teaser scene after the end titles. Early on, someone tells Tony Stark that he can't continue operating as a lone gunslinger, that he should accept the help that his friends offer him; by the end, we're in Marvel Team-Up territory, with Iron Man and War Machine facing off against a horde of robots while Black Widow infiltrates the enemy HQ.
Yes, Favreau clearly loves him his superheroes, and he's been given the resources to express that love. The fights in this film could come straight out a comic - not just the noisy, dazzling high-tech power armour dogfights, but also Black Widow's deft and hyperkinetic demolition of a whole team of security guards. (Not that Scarlet Johansson's character is ever referenced by that name, and frankly she's pretty superfluous to the plot, except that she defines its parameters while giving us lots of high-speed judo in a catsuit, which is good enough for me.) He also seeds the film with stuff for the geeks; not only does it assume that viewers will have seen the first in the series (fair enough), it assumes that they'll have sat through to the end of the credits on that one, so that when Samuel L. Jackson wanders on set half-way through, he's not given anything as superfluous as an introduction. For that matter, I'm pretty sure that Tony Stark's father was carefully cast and made up to resemble Tony Stark in '60s-era comics.
But lots of directors can do decent super-fights. Where Favreau jumps ahead of the pack is, as in the first film, in the engineering. (Both films seem practically designed to make engineers into very happy bunnies. The heavy product placement of Audi cars fits very, very well indeed; Audi are a marque with huge engineer appeal.) Admittedly, the script tips ever further into comic-book goofiness here, as Stark synthesises a brand new element (gurggh) by improvising a particle accelerator in his lab, aligning it with a spirit level and what appears to be Captain America's shield (yes, really), and then hand-aiming it - but Favreau evidently reckons that, if you're going to do comics, you gotta do goofiness. And the actual physical action of those scenes, as Stark throws himself around his workshop, alternately playing with holographic models and tearing up the floor with a pneumatic drill, reinvents the cinematic mad scientist lab for the 21st century. Anyone planning a movie about a super-genius inventor will need to watch this one first from now on; I just hope that the makers of Doctor Who[?] are paying attention.
But all this narrative density (plus the obligatory tedious Hollywood father-issues sub-plot, damnit) has to have a cost, and what this film has lost that made the first so interesting is a sense of a relationship with real-world politics. At times, Iron Man threatened to say something almost significant about American foreign policy and the "War on Terror"; Iron Man 2 assumes that Stark is doing something worthwhile about these issues at the start, and then looks at what might follow for him personally - which is moderately interesting, but not something that binds so well to the newspaper headlines of our own world. That jump into a full-on "superhero universe" maybe leaves too much behind. Though one might see Stark as symbolising America this time round - ingenious, charismatic, solipsistic, obsessed with independence and free enterprise, terribly opened to attack from all sides when weaker opponents show that he's not actually invulnerable, subject to the demands of a military-industrial complex that cares only for profit...
And because it's still about just Iron Man, the film has problems finding interesting opponents for him; most of his fights are with other people or robots in suits of armour much like his own, which could get quite boring quite fast. (Mickey Rourke's "Ivan Vanko" - briefly referred to as "Whiplash" in the credits, but comics geeks will see him as owing rather more to the Crimson Dynamo - shows his face in his first appearance, but never quite explains how he can be so robust with that much bare flesh showing, and eventually dons proper armour.) The comics solve this by throwing much more colourful, less armoured gadget-users at Iron Man and then ducking the question of how they survive in a stand-up fight against him; this isn't likely to work on film. Meanwhile, Justin Hammer is the story's weak link, an incompetent twit who's somehow become CEO of a major weapons manufacturer - nothing like the suave Cushing-esque Hammer of the comics, and just a pale shadow of the first film's Obadiah Stane.
So, overall - not as good as the first film, no, and probably too specifically aimed at the geek market in the virtues it does retain. But it's still a film about a guy in super-powered armour, with good FX and fight scenes and a few good jokes, that also asks a few questions in passing about responsibility and power.It's probably as good as we deserve.