It is a truth universally acknowledged that sequels to wildly successful summer blockbusters have very high expectations on them. When something strikes a chord with audiences and critics alike like 2008's Iron Man did, people will be waiting with baited breath to see what comes next and they will want it to blow the first installment in the franchise out of the water, Empire-style. So the question that really begs asking is "Does Iron Man 2 live up to its incredible hype?"
The question we should all really be asking though is "Can Scarlett Johansson wear a catsuit in every movie she appears in?" And if Hollywood wants anymore of my money ever it should shout "YES! DEAR GOD, YES!"
In terms of living up to hype, the question is probably best answered with changing the subject to ScarJo in a catsuit because any real discussion of the merits of Iron Man 2 comes down to that or else becomes an exercise in avoiding some glaring mediocrity in an attempt to extract some very good elements out of the film. The truth is, ask anyone you know if they liked Iron Man 2 and they'll probably say something along the lines of "Well..." to start their opinion. This is a movie that inspires "Well..."s in conversations, so keep that in mind.
Iron Man 2 picks up six months after its predecessor left off. Tony Stark has gone public with his role as the eponymous armored superhero and is basking in the augmentation to his already considerable fame. He's being hounded by the United States government to hand over the Iron Man suit while at the same time realizing that the arc reactor in his chest that saved his life at the beginning of the first movie is also slowly killing him. But he's not gonna let that break his stride, he's not gonna let that slow him down, he's gonna go on being a famous international playboy the same as he always has because he's the type to grin and bear it and face death with a grin. Or he's developed an ego-driven death wish or something like that.
With all this bullshit piling up on Stark's plate of life, he also has to deal with a disgruntled Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke, who appears to be playing himself) with an axe to grind with the Stark family, and a slimy business rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who would like to see harm done to our hero if it means edging him out in the arms manufacturing game.
I guess I should start with what I didn't like. Someone with more film criticism clout than myself (I want to say it was someone at /Film) made the astute observation that Iron Man 2 is sort of like the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest of superhero movies: it seems overstuffed with subplots and goings on to the point where it sacrifices silly things like plot and character (not to mention that characters irrevocably betray each other and then reconcile with little effort). What is genuinely surprising in this case is that even with this valid point there are still only three real action set pieces.
Iron Man 2 almost feels like it could be done as a stage play; for a summer action tentpole it’s unusually talky. Now this is a weird criticism to make, even I'm not entirely comfortable with it but sometimes during my viewing of this movie I just really wanted more explosions and less instances of Tony Stark speaking to people to convey that he's something of an asshole.
Catsuits notwithstanding, Robert Downey Jr. remains the best thing about this movie. Much like the first entry in the series, RDJ gives another inspired performance and remains the best cast of the comic book movie protagonists. It just seems that because he is so damn good and people love his character the Powers That Be decided that it would be fine to just let him run wild for an hour and a half and then deal with things like tying up the story in a slapdash manner.
What did I like? The cast is amazing, everyone gives great performances all around. Worth noting above all is Sam Rockwell who really tears it up here. Justin Hammer is something akin to Tony Stark's non-union Mexican equivalent and he plays it great; nothing is better than a supervillain with an inferiority complex living off the protagonist’s sloppy seconds and Rockwell hits it out of the park, as usual.
The action scenes, when they happen, are also quite good. Compared to Iron Man's so-so Iron Monger finale, the team up with Don Cheadle's (upgrade!) War Machine (I love palette swaps: Scorpion and Sub-Zero, Ryu and Ken, Mario and Luigi, Iron Man and War Machine) is awesome. My sold out audience was mostly silent for most of the movie but when the good guys teamed up in the final fight against a swarm of evil robots they were cheering.
Most importantly of all, Roger Sterling himself John Slattery shows up in archival footage as Tony Stark's dad, Howard, who was basically the Walt Disney of arms dealers. He is awesome.
All in all, Iron Man 2 is a mixed bag and something of a minor disappointment. It is without a doubt a bridge movie; I can only imagine that the oft-promised Avengers movie on the horizon will more than make up for it.
Final verdict (with catsuit): 39 Congos
Without catsuit: Like, no fucking Congos, man.
With only catsuits: 1000 Congos!