Is Tony Stark—a.k.a. Iron Man—a libertarian hero? An ultra-rich, ultra-cool businessman with a penchant for sci-fi invention, he begins his newest adventure by insinuating, in rowdy a Congressional hearing, that being a U.S. Senator is rather like being a prostitute, and then declaring to the gathered legislators, "You want my property? You can't have it! But I did you a favor. I privatized world peace!" Sure, he invests in wind farms, but he can't bring himself to actually be bothered with them ("I don't care about the liberal agenda anymore," he tells his assistant). A post-human, post-political party boy, he stands for peace, prosperity, and strong liquor.
If only he stood for a little more big-screen originality. Iron Man 2, while light, clever, and frequently fun, is basically a by-the-numbers blockbuster: My copy of Hollywood's Official Sequel Rulebook (eds. Silver and Bruckheimer, 2003) states that if in one film the hero fights a man in a big metal suit, successive films must pit the hero against multiple men in multiple metal suits. Director Jon Favreau (this one, not that one) cheats just a bit—they're drones, not dudes—but the guiding principle is still there: The same, but more!
That means more action, more hardware, and more characters, super-powered and otherwise. With Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, and Gwyneth Paltrow in supporting roles, there are enough familiar faces to populate, well, a comic book universe. All of them hold their own, with Rockwell's simpering Stark-wannabe making the biggest impression. Mickey Rourke, meanwhile, steps in as Ivan Vanko, a mad, tattooed menace who builds both the army of drones and a suit of his own. There's not much to his character besides a couple of grim chuckles, but he's scary enough, in his own way: Sporting golden teeth, dreadlocks, and an endless supply of tattered V-necks, he looks rather like a past-his-prime rock star trying out to be a roadie in the Creed reunion tour.
As with the first film, though, it's Robert Downey Jr.'s giddy portrayal of Stark, the flamboyantly flippant playboy narcissist, that steals the show. It's never quite clear where the line between the actor and the performer really lies; the layers of fiction and reality are hard to peel apart: the brash, brilliant, and self-destructive Stark appears to be Downey's alter-ego in much the way that Iron Man is Stark's. They're both public figures who seem barely concerned by the public, but who manage to thrill and amuse anyway. So pinning down Stark's politics is probably pointless; it's self-satisfaction—no more and no less—that both drives the character and makes him so enjoyable to watch: Strolling out of a Congressional hearing, he tells the media mob, "I appeared at the please of myself. You can always count on me to pleasure myself." But no, really, the pleasure is all ours.