Let's call this one the victory lap.

"Iron Man" was no guaranteed hit before the weekend it opened.  There were people predicting failure for that film even after it opened, even after it started to turn into a word-of-mouth-must-see, not just a box-office success but a genuinely loved pop culture moment.  The first movie's got its weak points, but it also has a ridiculous energy to it, and I unabashedly loved it when I reviewed it for Ain't It Cool.

"Iron Man 2" is, in every possible way, issue two of a comic book.  It doesn't have to spend time setting up the origin of the character, and it doesn't feel the need to resolve every single story thread introduced in this one film.  There's a sense that everyone's settling into this series and thinking big.  It is just as confident as the first film, and incredibly aggressive in the way it handles story and characterization.  The pre-title sequence picks up mere seconds after the ending of the first film, and introduces Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), an embittered Russian with family ties that make Tony Stark a perfect target for his rage.  By the time the main title appears onscreen, everything's already in motion, and then we're right into the Stark Expo, where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) takes the stage.

Do you remember on shows like "Happy Days" when the fan favorite character like Fonzie would make their first entrance and the audience would go nuts for so long that the actor would have to stop and wait for a moment and acknowledge all the applause?  Well, that's the first ten minutes or so of this film after that opening title, as we're dropped into the daily life of Tony Stark, Public Superhero.  He's at odds with the US Government, who want the suit, and he's at odds with Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), another weapons manufacturer who hates that Stark is everything Hammer wants to be.  He's at odds with Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), who is desperately trying to hold his company together even as his attention is being pulled in a thousand different directions.  And he's at odds with his own body, which is failing him as the chest implant that powers him and that powers the suit slowly fails, poisoning him even as it keeps him alive.  This is not a movie in which there's only single threat to Tony Stark or to the world, but in which he faces almost constant threats, and in which he's never given a moment to relax.

Jon Favreau has gotten even better at building his action sequences, and he stages a few showstoppers this time.  Once Ivan Vanko finally builds his prototype Whiplash suit and debuts it during a Monaco street race, the stakes start to escalate for Tony quickly.  It's a relentlessly paced film, and the action scenes aren't just one style over and over.  I actually think one of the best in the film takes place between Iron Man and Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who shows up at Tony's birthday party only to find him drunk and dangerous, using the suit to show off.  Rhodey has no choice but to suit up himself and stop Tony, and what starts as an intervention with armor turns into a brutal encounter in which long-simmering resentments suddenly blow up.  It's a perfect example of the way this film manages to keep even the most outsized action scenes focused on character, with plenty of small, quirky flourishes.

The first "Iron Man" ended with a post-credits scene involving the introduction of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and a quick mention of "The Avengers," and since then, there has been a lot of speculation and conversation about Marvel's game plan of eventually building one giant movie featuring Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor.  The building blocks have never been more apparent than they are here, with Fury playing an actual role in the film and not just dropped into the post-credits sting.  His organization SHIELD also plays a greatly increased role this time, and there are clues dropped to the role that Tony's father Howard (played briefly by John Slattery, famed for his work in "Mad Men") had in founding SHIELD decades earlier.  Both Captain America and Thor are overtly referenced in this film, and my guess is that we're going to see these references work directly into the films that Marvel has in the works for next summer.  It's a fascinating gamble, and I talked to people after the film who were just annoyed by the whole thing, but I think it's like watching part of a big, crazy mini-series.  I don't feel cheated at all by these clues.  "Iron Man 2" works as a complete film without any of these "Avengers"-oriented moments, but they add to the overall texture of the piece in some really rewarding ways.  One of the questions fans have had about the film is what role Natalie Rushman aka The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) would play in the film, and how she'd play into the larger continuity.  I think it's a very smart, simple use of the character, and I'll wager we see her show up in several other movies in the Marvel universe in the next few years.

Besides... Scar-Jo in IMAX?  Pretty much a Christmas gift.  Ka-pow.

Don Cheadle's work here demonstrates a much better chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. than Terrence Howard did as Rhodes in the original, so I'm guessing this will be a casting switch that fans barely notice.  Maybe it's because Rhodes has a better part this time, but everyone in the film registers with strong work.  Sam Rockwell plays Justin Hammer as the funhouse mirror image of Tony Stark, and he plays more scenes with Mickey Rourke as Vanko than anyone else.  The two of them give off a real air of danger, and they make an imposing threat to hang the film on.  Even Clark Gregg, returning as Agent Coulson from the first film, has a few choice moments, which is good since we're going to see him in "Thor" next year.  Paltrow and Downey come off as the Nick and Nora Charles of the Marvel universe with their lightning fast volleys of frustration shot through with affection, and there's an actual arc to their relationship here, etched in subtle but effective exchanges. 

Films like this often come down to moments... are there moments in this movie I want to see again immediately?  Yes.  In fact, I'm leaving town this morning to do exactly that... see it again.  And I'm taking my wife with me, because the first film sort of blew her mind.  She didn't realize she (Robertdowneyjr) liked Iron Man so much as (Robertdowneyjr) a character, and it was so much fun (Robertodowneyjr) for her to watch.  Ahem.  I get it.  That's what they're selling.  That's the show.  Him in the suit and him out of the suit is equally compelling to me in this film.  I like Stark.  I get him.  He's tapdancing.  He's living a certain version of himself in public.  There's a POV sequence here (including a great cameo) that gives you an idea of what it's like in the helmet... only it's not the Iron Man helmet... it's the Tony Stark helmet.  And more than that, it's the Robert Downey Jr. helmet.  It's him that you're taking the ride with.  And he doesn't get to hide behind a Bruce Wayne persona.  When Tony Stark makes a public ass of himself, he does property damage because of his suit, and everyone knows it's him.  They're nowhere near "Demon In A Bottle" here, but they certainly make Tony stupid and human and genuine as well as heroic and comic book cool.

ILM's work is more impressive this time out, precisely because it's hard to tell where the real suit stops and the CG suit begins, and Matthew Libatique's cinematography is richer, more vibrant.  I have the same complaint about the score this time that I had about the first film... I still don't think there's an "Iron Man" theme that works.  It's sound and fury and almost entirely forgettable.  Still, if my one big complaint about the film is that I don't care for the score, that's a pretty good sign.  I thought even without the shock of the new on its side, "Iron Man 2" works as a blast of pure confidence and charisma, absolutely effective, and I expect audiences are going to devour the film when it reaches theaters May 7th.

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You can e-mail me at drew@hitfix.com or follow me on Twitter, where I'm DrewAtHitFix.