Iron Man was cool. I like to think it was the world's first rock n' roll superhero movie, one so confident in its performances and style that it could afford a little swagger. Iron Man 2 does not swagger.
No, from the outset, it's an entirely different beast. There are flashes of bravado, but gone is the sense of boundless bravado and cocksure manner that defined the first film. This is a different movie, one burdened by a larger cast, bigger expectations and its role as the driving force behind Marvel's ultimate destination, a movie based on its superhero team The Avengers.
Before you start with the heavy sighs, though, I never said this was a bad thing...
Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting - The fight sequences in the first Iron Man were either brief or obscured by breaking glass and the darkness of night. Iron Man 2 puts its bigger budget to good use, showing several instances of proper, metal-on-metal combat, including an amazing finale that in the course of 15 minutes makes you forget most of the things you didn't quite like about the sequel.
Don Cheadle - Don Cheadle is a great actor. But as a replacement for the smart-mouthed Terrence Howard in the role of James Rhodes? I had my doubts. The guy is just too dry. But he turns this to his advantage, changing the role of Rhodes from Tony's smart-mouth foil to his wryly funny sidekick. The laughs are fewer, but by the end of the film Cheadle has done a much better job than most would have predicted.
Design Work - One of the things I loved about Iron Man was its strong sense of design, from Tony's beachfront mansion to his believable computer tech to the look of the Adi Granov's take on the suit itself. The second film outdoes this, calmly upping the ante with better software, amazing robot designs (the suitcase suit being a highlight) and a keen sense of how to make everything look fancy and futuristic but still make it look real. I especially loved the design of the Hammer Drones.
Black Widow - The actual screentime devoted to Black Widow is minimal. Which is a shame, because Scarlett Johansson looks amazing in that suit.
Still Got It - There aren't any single moments like the "no gang signs" exchange or Iron Man's attack on an Afghan village that really stand out as explosive, memorable scenes in Iron Man 2. It's just not as punchy as the first film. That's not to say it's a flat or boring film however, as it still comes across as a flashy flick, one that's able to leverage its cast to present a superhero movie that's second only to the original in its confidence.
Scarlett Johansson - She was amazing in the suit. But out of it? She was annoying as hell, spending the entire movie pouting and looking very uncomfortable stumbling around in dresses that were three sizes too small for her and shoes that were 2-4 inches too high.
Too Much - I'm not going to really spoil anything here, but SHIELD plays an expanded role in this film. With Tony's decline, Pepper's new role, the introduction of Natasha, Rhodes' War Machine, the arrival of Hammer, more screen-time for director Jon Favreau and the presence of a villain, it's just too much going on, and many of the characters' development suffers as a result. Rhodes especially.
Lullaby - Despite there being too much going on, there are 2-3 lengthy, key scenes in Iron Man 2, most revolving around Tony's personal crisis, that stop the movie dead in its tracks. It's like a slap in the face; you're strapped in on a thrill ride of robots punching and sexy women and loud music and then BAM, Tony is sad and the music stops and everything just grinds to a halt. I'm sure this kind of development had to be done at some stage in Marvel's films, but it just jars when compared to the rest of the film.
You'll notice above that nearly every point references the second movie's performance compared to that of the first. It's cruel, I know, but that's what happens when you're not just a sequel, but the sequel to one of the biggest and best superhero movies ever made.
Iron Man 2 isn't as good a film as its predecessor. Its performances aren't as memorable, its plot a little too plodding. But that doesn't make it a bad film! When you're in a class as crowded as the superhero genre is these days, coming in a close second to the first Iron man in terms of punch and style is a great achievement, especially when you consider the track record of most other Hollywood sequels these days.