The 'summer' movie season is starting with a bang: the sequel to a 2008 blockbuster that brings back Robert Downey, Jr. in the dual roles of billionaire playboy and rocket-powered super-hero leaping from the pages of Marvel Comics; and there are new faces and figures including Mickey Rourke as the next nemesis and Scarlett Johansson playing a sidekick with dangerous curves in "Iron Man 2."
In the first "Iron Man," weapons manufacturer Tony Stark has an epiphany when he winds up on the wrong end of some of his deadly products. With his money and scientific genius, he creates an almost indestructible, flying, metal suit of armor. With it he enforces peace agreements around the world; but the suit becomes a political football.
But while Stark tries to fend off the politicians and rival arms manufacturers, he comes face-to-face with a new menace: a super-hero with a suit of his own, armed with deadly plasma whips. For this character - Russian physicist Ivan Vanko - the battle is about honor and respect.
Mickey Rourke is Ivan Vanko (alias "Whiplash"); and Robert Downey Jr. is, once again, both "Iron Man" and Tony Stark in the sequel that Downey hopes audiences will like as much as they did the original.
"We just labored really hard to say, okay, we're audience members who made the first 'Iron Man' successful and we're smart, which is kind of why we were drawn to it; so what do we expect? So we kept putting ourselves in audience seats [and] for me the mental and emotional aspects and development of Tony were, to me, a lot more …it's strange to say 'personal,' because it is not necessarily relating to my life; but just the mythology of saying you are something and being that something are entirely different," he said.
While Tony and his ever-loyal assistant Pepper Potts (played again by Gwyneth Paltrow) continue to banter with barely-concealed romantic tension, enter Natalie - a lovely company lawyer who has a secret identity of her own: the slinky Black Widow, dazzling in a skin-tight cat-suit and deadly in her determination to protect her boss.
She's played by Scarlett Johansson.
"I've never really seen a film of this genre where the sex appeal of the female characters came second," she said. "Of course, they are sexy characters. When you have a sexy secretary or a girl swinging around by her ankles in a cat-suit, that is innately sexy; but the fact is they are intelligent, ambitious, motivated …and to be just a pawn in the story of a whole bunch of men fighting it out, rolling around and getting down-and-dirty, while there you are just a vision in a tight cat-suit is just a boring thing."
"I think it is a smart thing to have women who are capable and intelligent because it appeals to women," said Gwyneth Paltrow, who believes the strong female characters make "Iron Man 2" an action film for both sexes.
"So it is not only a film for 15-year-old boys. It can relate to a lot of people on a lot of levels and a lot of my girlfriends like it because of the romance," she said. "My character is quick and she is articulate; and I think it makes it so that when you take your kid, if you're a mom, it's really fun for to you to watch as well. So it's nice to see women who have aspirations and are smart and sexy all at the same time."
Jon Favreau is back as director (and also plays the onscreen role of Stark's bodyguard 'Happy' Hogan). A fan of the original Marvel comics, Favreau says the sequel faces the dual challenges of meeting the expectations of fellow fans as well as winning over audiences who just want a good action movie.
"We really tried to keep narrative flows going so it didn't get too convoluted, because I lose track of that stuff," he said. "Especially in sequels as the franchises get more complex, I don't always remember what happened in the last movie. Not for nothing, I like to watch the stuff blow up; but I'm not going to do homework before I go see a sequel to be up on everything; so we tried to keep that simple."
Screenwriter Justin Theroux adapted "Iron Man 2" from the comic books. The cast also features Don Cheadle as Air Force colonel "Rhodey" Rhodes - taking on the role played by Terence Howard in the first film. Sam Rockwell plays a rival, and far less scrupulous, weapons manufacturer; and Samuel L. Jackson makes an appearance as Nick Fury, teasing a future "Avengers" project that will match several other Marvel super-heroes with "Iron Man."