Following the successful opening weekend of 2008's Iron Man, Marvel Studios merrily marched out it's manifesto of the handful of films kicking off "Phase 1". The slate even included ambitious release dates, including Iron Man 2. So high in the skies were audiences willing to go with Marvel that no one ever questioned whether the formula of this particular ore could be smelted again.
Time has not been the kindest to Tony Stark's second installment (not counting the cameo of Incredible Hulk!). This isn't because of evolving effects technology or the pitfalls that hamper most sequels. The fans turned against it a little, even though it was relatively well received at the time. Marvel were careful to bring us something different in it's next installments; with Thor, adding something more mystical and Captain America: The First Avenger, offering us something a little more wholesome. It may be this diversity that left Iron Man 2 falling a little further down moviegoers populists of the MCU. While it's certainly muddled in parts with a light whiff of post-shoot story tinkering, it's still a solid installment. There's even things we take for granted that later solidified the mythos of the MCU - see Fury's casual disclosure of Howard Stark's founding of SHIELD and the introduction of Natasha Romanov as Black Widow.
Unable to turn Tony's world upside down by imprisoning him and releasing him with a new outlook, Ol' Shell Head watches it crumble around him. If a rival upstart looking to knock Tony from his perch, just after he hands the company to Pepper, wasn't enough, the arc reactor keeping Tony alive is slowly killing him with palladium poisoning. Although it's certainly a grim prospect it's as much an extension of Stark as Last Crusade was to Indiana Jones - and this is not just thanks to daddy issues. Once you've already established your hero, you can put them through the mill and see how many licks they can take. The comic books were always at their most enthralling when our heroes reach their lowest ebb, so it seems only fitting that at the height of his desperation tony hits the liquor, a la the lauded "Demon in a Bottle" arc. However, as this isn't Lars Von Trier's Iron Man 2, Favreau keeps it light.
The reason Iron Man was so refreshing in 2008 was it's seemingly improvised delivery. Less chaotic and more spontaneous, the character's naturally reacting to one another completely removed any superhero template fatigue. Iron Man 2 capitalises on this with wonderful character moments that add complexity while still peppering fun to the proceedings. Tony's verbal trouncing at the senate hearing is deliciously naughty. Better still is the exchange with Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer wooing Mickey Rourke's Ivan Vanko. Hammer's pitch is faux confidence dripped in desperation. His vanity is highlighted in both the pretentious set-up in the hangar and the fake tan caked on his palms. It makes for a satisfying attention to detail whether you catch each detail or not.
But it's not all character study and minutiae - there's some great action set pieces. Considering the purpose of the melee in Monaco is to knock Tony from his perch, it's a joy to watch the Man in a Can go toe-to-toe without the bells and whistles afforded the less portable armors. As messy as the final battle with Rhodey and the Hammer-oids is, it's choca-block full with wish fulfillment. Tony pin-wheeling through the World Fair's globe, in the middle of the Expo, to dispatch hammer drones is imaginative and still gives a glimpse into how man and machine work together.
As the credits roll and you wait for the post-credit sequence, we dare you not to feel entertained and exhilarated. Although it's an early is chapter, it's satisfying to watch a Marvel movie unafraid to get by on it's own steam without leaning on the association of the super-world going on around it. The tantalising self-referencing is something audiences have now become accustomed to, but at this point it's quite refreshing and go back to an installment more concerned adding something to it's predecessor than another brick in the shared cinematic wall.
4* - Beamin' in a bottle
Others in the series:
The Incredible Hulk
Captain America: The First Avenger
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
The Guardians of the Galaxy
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Captain America: Civil War