The other day, a friend of mine was complaining about the fact that every movie out this summer is part of a franchise. This happens every summer, but it seems particularly egregious in 2010: Toy Story 3, Sex and the City 2, Twilight: Eclipse, Predators, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, and Step Up 3D. Shrek 4 is so desperate for a premise, our green hero travels back to a time before he met Fiona and has to set right what he accidentally makes wrong (it’s just like Quantum Leap, but with a real ass for a sidekick). Who wants to see that? Actually, everybody. Sequels are Hollywood’s biggest source of revenue. They might be churned out like cotton candy at a carnival, but they come with a built-in audience. After Titanic and Avatar (which already has a sequel or two in the works), most of the top-grossing movies of all time are parts of franchises: The Dark Knight (No. 3 at $533 million); Shrek 2 (No. 5 at $441 million); Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (No. 8 at $423 million)—and I’m not even counting all the offspring of Star Wars.
So it was with slightly clenched teeth that I went to see Iron Man 2. Not because I wasn’t a fan of the original—I liked it—but I also really couldn’t remember it. When I invited a guest to come, and he hadn’t seen the first one, that hardly seemed to matter. This isn’t Casablanca. “It’s more like an amusement-park ride,” I said. Turns out I was only partially right; no amusement-park ride I’ve ever been on has delivered this much adrenaline. Iron Man 2 is the best sequel Hollywood has released since Spider-Man 2. It is exactly what mass entertainment should be: a cool, breezy movie that makes you feel like a kid again. If you already happen to be a kid, you’ll be even happier.
The first Iron Man introduced us to Tony Stark, the billionaire played by Robert Downey Jr. who is injured in Afghanistan, builds himself up like Robo-Cop (or the Rocketeer), and saves us from various catastrophes. The major addition to this Iron Man is Mickey Rourke. Rourke is now in the midst of a full-on comeback after The Wrestler, and not for a second does he disappoint as the villain, Ivan Vanko, a creepy Russian scientist who builds a suit with electric tentacles for arms. It’s not just his suit that’s electric—one look at his scowl, and you feel as if you’ve been struck by lightning. This, naturally, gives our hero a worthy antagonist. It also means a number of pass-the-popcorn fight sequences that are among the best we’ve seen in comic-book movies, particularly the final big sequence with an army of evil Iron Men.
The anchor of the film, however, is Downey, who is having a later-career renaissance of his own. He earned an Oscar nomination for Tropic Thunder and launched Sherlock Holmes, but I prefer him in Iron Man. There’s nobody better at belting out one-liners, and he gives the entire film a sort of jittery, nervous energy that feels like improv. He loosens up Gwyneth Paltrow (no small feat) as his love interest and goes head to head with Don Cheadle, who replaces Terrence Howard’s Lieutenant Colonel Rhodey. To be fair, there’s not much even Downey can do with Scarlett Johansson’s bland spy babe, but who cares? Iron Man 2 is so fierce, it leaves you with only one question: how long before Iron Man 3?