PLOT: Arms-maker Tony Stark discovers he has competition.
BOTTOM LINE: Not as fresh as the first time, but a respectable popcorn movie.
CAST: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson
World-conquering madman? It's been done. Terrorism? Too sensitive. Complicated plot to lure major countries into an apocalyptic missile exchange? No, but warmer.
The makers of "Iron Man 2" have found their plot in the Cold War, an era of mutually assured destruction that felt like history until Iran began raising fresh fears. This being a superhero movie, however, the arms race isn't for nukes but for shiny metal suits.
"Iron Man 2" begins not with a pyrotechnic battle but with a congressional hearing, an increasingly familiar arena these days. Weapons mogul Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), now publicly known as Iron Man, is refusing to share his body-armor technology with the government, while competing weapons-maker Justin Hammer, played by a delightfully annoying Sam Rockwell, wants to be the contractor of choice.
Iran actually appears in a cameo as itself, a rogue state whose suits don't quite work. But one man has figured it out. His name is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), and his gold teeth and Russian accent are distinctly pre-perestroika.
As in the first "Iron Man," the main attraction here isn't the plot but Downey, who again uses snark and charm to lubricate this slightly rusty Marvel hero. But there also are pathos (Stark's palladium-powered heart is poisoning him), bathos (his distant father, played by John Slattery of "Mad Men," appears in a crucial scene) and the merest suggestion of sex (Scarlett Johansson plays the curvaceous Black Widow).
The best scenes are still the ones with Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow (as Stark's charm-resistant assistant, Pepper Potts), or just Downey alone. The rest feels like padding, which is something a sleek-suited superhero shouldn't need.