One of the most interesting things about the still-peaking superhero movie craze is its consistent immunity to the sophomore slump. From the Spider-Man and X-Men films to The Dark Knight, the second outing reliably maxes out the franchise's potential, no matter how bad things get later. (I'd throw Blade 2 in there as well, but that may just be me. And once I heard someone say that Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer was pretty okay, but I suspect I'll never know for sure.) It's the nature of the material, creatively and commercially: If the very beginning of the story is the most interesting part, how do you expect to make a series out of it? It's not important that the origin story be great, it's only important—in the movies, at least—that it be first.
The original Iron Man from 2008 is as expositional as any of those other series' opening chapters; it's how actor-turned-director Jon Favreau uses that to his advantage that makes it the best of them. The film is purest escapism (super-powers, super-wealth, super-hotties, etc.) and twice as fun as it needed to be besides, but the smartly tweaked origin story of billionaire tech-playboy Tony Stark's most expensive suit is what props it up. Its focus gives it an effortless pace, and everything comes together from there.
So what happens to the sequel step-up when the first movie already got everything right?
From its earliest moments, Iron Man 2 eagerly draws on residual goodwill. A black-and-white Russian television broadcast revisits Stark's press-conference punchline from the end of the first movie. In announcing to the world that he is Iron Man, Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) inadvertently brings his breakthrough to the attention of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), whose father was disgraced and deported after years of partnership with Tony's own father. Seems Vanko has inherited blueprints for an Arc Reactor alongside a thirst for revenge; he gets the power supply working, hooks it up to two cable whips and presto! A supervillain, with the name "Whiplash," no less. It's a tale as old as time, told before the credits are done rolling.
Stark, meanwhile, attempts to relish his new prestige despite an array of bothersome subplots—the government is pressuring him to turn over the Iron Man armor, a rival industrialist (a wonderfully pathetic Sam Rockwell) maneuvers against him, and the palladium in his life-giving power source is progressively poisoning his body. Also, the counter-espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. is still breathing down his neck, and he has a suspiciously foxy new assistant (Scarlett Johansson), and his daddy never loved him, and his best friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes (noted character actor Don Cheadle) looks way more like noted character actor Don Cheadle than he did in the first movie, when he was played by Terrence Howard. All of this before Whiplash even leaves Russia.
These countless threads end up coming together effectively enough, but they also draw attention to just how unnecessary they are. (Someone's heart was in the right place casting Johansson as Black Widow, but they should have written her a role first.) Justin Theroux's screenplay keeps the dialogue witty and the locations varied, but by reaching too far in every direction with the plot he ignores the fundamentals that made the first film so exceptional, and it becomes clearer that axing a storyline or two early on might have made all the difference.
This isn't to say Iron Man 2 is unpleasantly overstuffed; the excess also means there's quite a lot to recommend about it. Even the least picky viewer, though, may better notice the story's flab by observing what it edges out: Iron Man 2 is perhaps the least action-packed action movie in years. In moving all its parts around for two hours there is plenty of time for Downey to mug for the camera and for Johansson to look dead inside, and precious little left over for Iron Man to bust asses. Why? Because the supervillain spends fully half the movie sequestered in a laboratory, and less than five minutes whipping and lashing it up with Iron Man. Meanwhile, Pepper Potts becomes CEO of Stark Industries, and Tony gets drunk in his suit. That's way better than explosions, right? (Okay, fine, one of those does lead to a few explosions.)
Either way, the superior super-sequel trend is officially bucked. If you enjoyed the first Iron Man, by all means go see the new one; they're similar in most ways, and it's easy to look at the second film's failings as spotlights on what the first could have done wrong but didn't. But when they couldn't do it better, they skipped right to bigger. Now what's left?