This Iron Man seems to retract, to move the superhero off of the global stage and bring him back to a smaller one. Even though Tony Stark is now an international celebrity and acts more like a rockstar than business mogul, the story seems more local or, perhaps, more personal than Favreu's 2008 installment was.
Mickey Rourke's villain, Ivan Vanko, seems more intent on showing up and destroying Iron Man (to avenge his inventor father's legacy which, he feels, was stolen by Tony Stark's dad) than in controlling the world. Justin Hammer, Stark's business competitor, covets his faame and also wants to bring his rival down.
Ivan shows up at a racing event and uses electrified whips in an attempt to exterminate Stark. Ivan's captured but Hammer breaks him out of prison, hoping that Vanko can help him build his own iron man suit, dwarfing Stark's success. Ivan's brains and braun combine with Hammer's money to challenge Stark's omnipotence, but Stark has other concerns: he's dying.
The chest implants he uses to stay alive corrode quickly, poisoning his blood stream in the process. He can't live without them, but his blood toxicity is reaching lethal levels the longer he depends on them.
While the contrast between Iron Man's invincibility and Tony's human mortality might make the story more compelling, since Tony doesn't share his fragile fate with the person who is closest to him, assistant Pepper Potts, it's hard to take his impending death seriously. The writers seemed to have tamped down the global scope of action for this sequel, to focus on the individuals, but the relationships are handled so superficially that they hardly seem worth the effort.
Consumed with his health problems, Tony drinks and parties too hard, alienating Pepper, who takes over his company during his decline.
Ever jealous and suspicious of superheroes, the government demands that Tony hand over the iron man suits to Uncle Sam. Stark refuses and is supported by his Lieutenant friend, James Rhodes, but as Tony becomes increasingly reckless and irresponsible, Rhodes feels that his fear has been misplaced. He takes one of the iron man suits reluctantly feeling that it might be better off in government hands than in Tony's destructive ones, after all.
Meanwhile, Pepper hires an assistant for Tony, Natasha Romanoff, an undercover superhero herself. Romanoff is working for Nick Fury, scouting Tony Stark for a group assignment they're working on. Their main purpose in the film is to set up Paramount's next blockbuster, The Avengers. With all of this going on, Tony's dying seems somewhat inconsequential. If he could have shared his fear and vulnerability with Pepper, in exchanges where they did more than trade quips, the movie might have developed a pathos that could only have enhanced the action and special effects. That never happened and what you're left with is two hours of hollow charm and chaos.
Pepper's ignorance of his condition is somewhat suspect, since Natasha and Rhodes quickly surmise that he is terminally ill just by looking at the broken blood vessels spread across his neck and chest. It's unclear how he manages to conceal these from Pepper, who is with him a lot more than they are. She's either unobservant or unconcerned. We care most about the characters when they care for each other. Based on the first movie, the audience knows where Pepper's heart lies, but this script doesn't. She feels hurt and ostracized when, prior to handing the entire company over to her, he begins selling his art collection without first consulting her and begins courting even more danger than usual. However, since whatever is plaguing him obviously hasn't changed his feelings for her, when he finally tries to explain himself, you'd think she'd drop her defensive anger and hear him out.
When Stark comes to Pepper's(formerly his) office bearing strawberries as a peace offering, she shuts him out angrily. It's uncharacteristic. They never would have formed the bond that brought them to this point, if she'd always been that blind to his unspoken needs. She's kept out of the loop to further the plot, but the result is quite the opposite.
In an effort to recruit Stark for the Avengers mission, Fury gives him old tapes Tony's father made. Through the vintage video, Tony clichedly learns that his distant dad did love him after all, but the revelation hardly seems to make an impression on him. The footage does give him the clues he needs to design a new element that will keep him alive without destroying his body.
With death no longer looming over his head, Tony slowly begins to pull hismelf together. Rhodes regrets taking the suit, realizing that the military, guided by Justin Hammer, is actually in arch enemy Ivan Vanko's control. Finally united again, Rhodes and Tony spend the last 25 minutes of the movie defeating Vanko. The final fight is not spectacular and, despite the fact that it starts at a crowded event, it takes place largely in one building. Because whole populations, cities and nations are not involved, the effects almost seem low budget.
The film lacked heat and heart. Yes, there was humor and the cast was delightful enough to carry the movie on one liners alone, had the dialogue been sharp or quickfire enough. Alas, it was not.
The movie does ask if iron man's power is more dangerous in the narcissistic Tony's uncorrupt, but unstable hands than in the possession of a world power, but it never bothers to seriously explore the answer. Sure, Tony wrests back control in the end, but even then it seems that the lesser of two evils has prevailed, not justice. Of course, such a moral quandary might make an interesting plot, one which, while suggested, was never pursued in this film.