Two years ago, we got an unexpected treat in the form of Iron Man, which came from out of nowhere (movies based on Marvel comics had been sort of bad for quite a while, nobody involved on either side of the camera had a proven record in effects-driven action films, the trailers were completely awful) to prove itself one of the most altogether enjoyable summer films in ages. As big-budget filmmakers learned the joys of grit and grimness, most of the respectable tentpole films in the last decade have relied on some combination of angst and joyless violence to earn their bones, while the ones that tried instead to be lighthearted and pleasing usually come across as empty-headed, noisy, and asinine. Rare indeed is the film that could be effortlessly delightful, demanding little but that we agree to sit and be wowed by shiny CGI and snarky dialogue. And this is what Iron Man was: a completely and utterly fun summer movie that sacrificed not a whit of intelligence or craftsmanship on account of it.

Iron Man 2 however, is not.

Hold on, now, I'm not going off calling it a bad movie, not as such. But it is, pretty undeniably, a worse movie that its predecessor, a statement that I take to be almost more an objective truth than an expression of opinion, unless your response after viewing the first one was to grouse, "it was okay, but it really could have used a few more momentum-crushing subplots." Also, the sequel subs in Don Cheadle for Terrence Howard, and introduces Sam Rockwell giving a performance better than just about every supporting character in the original. So hardcore character actor fetishists might also like the new movie more.

Opening, briefly, at the very same moment that Iron Man ended, seen from a new perspective, Iron Man 2 tells so many damn stories that I don't know which one to call the A-plot: billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), now revealed to all the world as the superhero inside the Iron Man suit, is sparring with the U.S. government over ownership of his amazing new technology (a potentially rich & brainy theme that is ignored almost completely except as a source of jokes), leading his good friend Jim Rhodes (Cheadle) torn between his duties as an Army officer and a BFF; a Russian ex-con named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), whose father was royally screwed by Stark's father back in the 1960s, has developed his own variation of the Iron Man technology and fashioned himself a body-mounted electronic whip, bringing him to the attention of Stark's arch-competitor, Justin Hammer (Rockwell); Stark continues to banter with his secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), while also lusting after his new assistant, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson); and Stark's life-saving battery, all that keeps his heart running, is leaching poison into his body, and he's feverishly searching for a cure. I think that about does it. No, wait, the mysterious Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of the mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. is busy skittering about on the sidelines, planting hints for the half-dozen or so sequels and crypto-sequels coming out in the next two years.

If it sounds like I've described a whole lot of scenarios without saying what happens, that's because very little does happen. 124 minutes is a perfectly generous amount of time for a summer movie, but there's only so much you can cram even into that much space; and the Iron Man 2 creative team, including returning director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Theroux (whose single prior writing credit was for the biting, brilliant comedy Tropic Thunder; but to me he shall always be "the guy from INLAND EMPIRE"), have their hands too full of exposition to actually do much storytelling. Hell, they don't even have much time to put all that much superhero action in their superhero movie: not that I had a stopwatch, but if someone told me that there wasn't even a total of 15 minutes of ass-kicking and shit-blowing-up, I'd believe them without hesitation. This, at least, isn't necessarily a huge problem: the consensus around the last one generally seems to be that the best parts were all character-driven (more to the point, Robert Downey, Jr. driven), so an increase on character moments at the expense of superhero mayhem isn't necessarily a crime.

Besides, the action sequences we do get aren't so fantastic that I found myself clamoring for more. Only one is awful (a dreadful hallway fight featuring Natalie knocking out a bunch of security guards with some super-trendy shutter angle manipulation that makes it look like the camera is having an epileptic seizure), but generally speaking, Favreau never does anything well when he can get by with "well enough". This scene is cut choppily; this scene has too much slow-motion; this scene is oddly choreographed; so on and on. It's all perfectly amusing and entertaining enough for a lazy summer day, but not amusing and entertaining enough, especially after the first one. Think of it this way: both films are like sparkling wine, fun to let the bubbles pop in your mouth as you get drunk, but where Iron Man was fine champagne, Iron Man 2 is cheap Asti.

That applies to the character scenes as well, which is after all what you're left with when all the action is stripped away. It's still a lot of fun to watch: Downey is only barely worse than he was before, and that has a lot to do with a screenplay that gives him fewer chances to be a cocksure asshole. Happily, Rockwell steps up to the plate on that count, smarming with that patented Rockwell smarm that nobody else can do half as well. But there's overall just a bit less life to everything: the banter between Pepper and Stark no longer feels like the flirtation of two people who aren't necessarily attracted to each other, but like a screenwriter's very best approximation of flirtation, and Stark's misadventures in the lab are infinitely less agreeably silly than before.

There are a few ideas that play really well, scattered throughout. The representation of Stark's father as a sort of parody Walt Disney with a parody EPCOT charmed me, as did a great scene where Hammer rattles off weapon specs to Army brass. Nor is there anything that's fully unenjoyable: but it's a weak, wan joy that we can wring from the film. This is only the most passable kind of franchise-extender, good enough that you'll come back for Part 3, but not good enough that you'd feel the need to watch it again except out of some nobly misguided feeling of completionism. Two years ago, I felt of Iron Man that it got the summer off on a really strong foot; now, Iron Man 2 just seems to confirm my worst fears that this is going to be an even more washed-out, unexciting movie season that usual.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 1)
Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)
The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008)
Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010)
Thor (Branagh, 2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011)
The Avengers (Whedon, 2012)