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As far as comic book movie sequels go, Iron Man 2is pretty super. The movie plays out much better than the trailer and commercials suggest.

Stark tries to start something with Potts
Stark tries to start something with Potts

Next Time, Baby

Picking up right where Iron Man left off, at the news conference during which Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., Sherlock Holmes) announces he is indeed Iron Man, this sequel wastes little time in putting the pedal to the metal.

It’s a busy agenda: Tony has to contend with blood poisoning, although at this stage in his career it’s not due to alcohol. The heart light’s giving him some heart burn and pushing him to the brink of death. In sudden pursuit of his own bucket list, Tony engages in daring activities like racing in the Gran Prix de Monaco.

Compounding his troubles, there’s a giant Russian engineer named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler). His father helped Tony’s father create the arc reactor technology that is currently keeping Tony alive, albeit with apparently deadly consequences. Ivan’s got an ax to grind about how Howard Stark treated his father and he’s coming stateside for some Cyrillic comeuppance.

And Tony also has to fend off the U.S. military’s bloodlust for his iron suit, including a jerky arms-dealing competitor named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, Moon). Even though he’s bored with the liberal agenda, Tony’s not ready to declare World War III. He’s still an extroverted peacenik who’s managed to privatize world peace.

But that’s not all. Tony’s under the watchful eye of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction) and his SHIELD team; they’re evaluating whether or not he’ll fit in with the rest of the group.

Oh. And Tony’s still trying to get into some sorta relationshipish relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, Shallow Hal).

Yeah. There’s never a dull moment in the life of Tony Stark.

Iron Man Rises from the Ashes

Following the unexpected success of Iron Man, there was quite a bit of drama surrounding the early going of this production. Chat boards lit up in disgust over Marvel’s allegedly shoddy treatment of director Jon Favreau, demonstrating a reluctance to bring him on board for another round. And, of course, there was the drama that led to Don Cheadle replacing Terrance Howard as Tony’s best bud, Rhodey Rhodes. Cheadle’s a great actor, but Howard made a better Rhodes.

Given all that and a sense that Marvel was rushing things in order to spike the stock price, it seemed Iron Man 2was fated to be another misguided, cash-in sequel.

Thankfully, that’s not the case. Sole screen scribe, Justin Theroux, has put together quite a piece of work here and spiced it up with moments of great dialogue. Having written Tropic Thunder, which earned Robert Downey, Jr., an Oscar nomination, Theroux mixes it up with a pretty strong story, comic book pizzazz, and a colorful sense of humor that at times, albeit briefly, seems a tad too racy and out of place.

In some respects, what Iron Man 2represents is less of a sequel to Iron Man and more of a prequel to The Avengers, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It certainly gives the characters a bigger world in which to play. Those Avengers, essentially a comic book orgy of super heroes – Marvel’s version of the Justice League of America – are supposed to hit the big screen in 2012 after a roller coaster ride of false starts teasing that included a Tony Stark cameo at the tail end of Louis Leterrier’s abominably dull take on The Incredible Hulk.

Comic book jokes and teases pile up about what Tony refers to as the “super secret boy band.” At one point Tony uses Capt. America’s shield as a balance and fanboys will certainly want to stick around for one more post-credits tease.

No! Not CitiField!

Amid all the action and comic book references, what makes Iron Man 2really tick is a nice investment in the characters, particularly Tony and his relationship with his deceased father. Of course, Tony’s romantic pursuit of Pepper also helps give the movie a nice sense of heart (the blood-pumping kind as opposed to the artificial, arc-reacting variety).

And this series has also proven to be highly adept at incorporating real-world newsies. Last time there was the egregiously obnoxious CNBC mad money man Jim Cramer giving his “sell” advisory on Stark Industries. This time, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly strut their stuff to great effect. Pepper Potts is a pinhead, Bill? C’mon!

Even so, while this is certainly substantially better than just about every superhero sequel of the past 30 years or so, short of The Dark Knight and perhaps Spider-Man 2,there’s still room to kvetch.

For one, the over-the-top prick character that is Justin Hammer backfires. He’s simply a character to hate, not one you can love to hate. More troubling, though, it looks like Stark Expo, a year-long science and technology fest, has taken over all of Flushing Meadows, possibly to the point of having razed the Mets’ year-old CitiField ballpark.

But, hey, Iron Man 2deftly serves its purpose. It kicks off the summer 2010 movie season with plenty of panache and that’s what matters most.