Iron Man 2Green lightRobert Downey Jr. slips back into the metallic superhero suit and whooshes across the planet mouthing off, zapping bad guys and posing for paparazzi in Iron Man 2, the sequel to 2008’s formidable action flick about a filthy rich party-hardy weapons manufacturer who becomes a high-tech savior of the world.

Most superhero flicks are partly about the hero concealing their true identity. Iron Man 2 turns that concept on its head and is instead partly about protagonist Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) embracing his image as a cocksure crime fighting celebrity. “I have successfully privatized world peace,” Stark incongruously announces to a U.S. senate inquiry, and it’s this sort of delicious pigheadedness that defines his character. In the charisma stakes Stark run rings around mild mannered colleagues – your Bruce Waynes, Peter Parkers and Clark Kents.

Early plot points focus on the U.S. government’s attempts to force Stark to hand over his superhero suit. Stark holds his ground, exacerbating a tension between him and fellow high profile American weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). Our slick steely hero may have privatised world peace but he’s also inadvertently inspired others to attempt construction of their own suits, all of whom pose no real threat bar a grimy weather-beaten Russian by the name of Ivan Ranko (Mickey Rourke).

Vanko is the son of a disgraced physicist who worked with Stark’s father on the first “arc reactor,” which means he not only has one helluva bad attitude but some killer trade secrets to boot. Vanko (aka Whiplash) builds an open vest attached to a pair of intimidating super-charged whips capable of slicing cars in half with a simple flick of the wrists. The new enemy on the block teams up with Hammer to try and bring Stark and his souped-up alter-ego down.

Without their masks superhero characters tend to be bland nerdy people, the logic being that a straight-as-a-dial persaonlity balances out a superhero’s gung-ho and gusto. This sort of restraint was never going to be an option with Downey Jr., who couldn’t resist peppering Sherlock Holmes with action hero aplomb and who – despite his undisputed acting abilities – has never sold and probably never attempted to sell the idea that he is capable of attending a party and slinking unnoticed into a dimly lit corner of the room. His charisma-soaked performance in the original Iron Man movie was the glue that united critics in a near universal round of golf claps, and the primary reason for the picture’s overwhelmingly positive response. Director Jon Favreau even had the good sense to allow his actors to adlib some of their lines, an unconventional approach for a blockbuster and a tactic that suited Downey Jr. to a tee.

A lot of the gloss has worn off second time around, though Downey Jr.’s performance is still endlessly watchable and Favreau does a good job repackaging old hat plot devices with the chic nightclub party vibe that washes through both movies.

Mickey Rourke hams it up well as the villain, all grimace and scowl, but his character disappears for large chunks of the running time so his presence doesn’t have the pace and momentum it would have benefited from. His villainy feels too similar to the Jeff Bridges’ dastardly behaviour in the first movie, even with the foreign accent and especially towards the end. The ridiculously photogenic Scarlett Johansson fails to make an impact in a throwaway role as a new assistant to Stark and a budding superhero who will inevitably come back somewhere down the track, in another sequel or perhaps Joss Whedon’s upcoming superhero confederation flick The Avengers, due to hit cinemas in 2012.

Favreau’s sprinkling of action scenes in Iron Man 2 is a little too modest, the time between drinks a little too long. However, for a superhero pic Iron Man 2 has an unusually strong grasp of its protagonist and the slow spots can once again be tapered over by Downey Jr.’s addictive presence. As a popcorn movie no-brainer it certainly does the job.

Iron Man 2’s Australian theatrical release date: April 29, 2010