Short Review: Everything they did right in the first movie, they did wrong in this one.
In this follow up to Iron Man, director Jon Favreau comes down with a serious case of the sophomore blues. The original film had a sarcastic edge that smoothed out a clunky but still enjoyable plot. The origin story of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) introduced an externally belligerent/internally weak man who finds the cure for his mid-life crisis. In the original Stark is forced to beat down his past self, personified by his business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). This outing avoids all of that messy character stuff and focuses on lots of loud noises, flashing lights and Scarlett Johansson in a body sock.
Tony Stark returns having achieved world peace thanks to his use of the Iron Man suit. At least, that is what we're told. We never get to actually see him protect the world. It's all explained in a Senate hearing. This makes Stark's hero work an abstract. This in turn makes it meaningless. If it is not on the screen, it doesn't exist for the audience.
The screenplay by Justin Theroux clearly explains that the world is at peace in the opening moments. One would then expect that in turn this world peace would be threatened. Nope. Stark is attacked by Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian physicist with a grudge. Vanko's personal vendetta is funded by Stark's weapons manufacturer rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). World peace is never actually threatened. The only things threatened in this story are the egos of a bunch of scummy super-geniuses. This does not make for a riveting central conflict.
This lack of stakes is the main reason the film fails so completely. Theroux doesn't paint himself into narrative corners, he paints himself out of the whole room. He is so busy introducing characters for the upcoming Avengers movie and fumbling with technological presentations that he almost doesn't have time shoehorn in any actual characterization.
There are numerous scriptural issues that make the story fall flat. This is evidenced in Stark giving up his company in the first act. Once he does this he has literally nothing to lose. At no time does he find it critical to get his company back. It is just something that happens. If it has no deeper value, why does Theroux involve it in the film?
At one point Hammer tells Vanko to take Stark's "legacy" from him. How does the audience know when his "legacy" is taken away? We are given a statement of action by the villains and it involves a motive no less intangible than them saying they're going to hurt Stark's feelings. This is poor writing.
Vanko's whole motivation is a vacuum. Favreau gives us enough to understand that Vanko is fueled by revenge, but this revenge is hollow because we don't understand its cause. This results in Vanko being little more than another hurdle Stark must overcome instead of a villain to confront. (Spoiler warning) This is why at the end, Stark so easily overcomes Vanko and his droid army and why Vanko's death has zero dramatic punch. He is a non-entity. (Spoiler done)
The film also lacks any symbolism or meaning. In the original we were given the cheesy, but effective symbol of Stark's heart. Does Tony Stark have a heart? Yes, and its sitting in this little glass box. It is a symbol that is referred to and played upon throughout the entire film.
In this film, Favreau sets up a similar conceit. Stark is literally being poisoned by his suit. While the suit gives him fame and glory, it is also making him more toxic (both literally and figuratively). This is a solid metaphor and it is strongly established early on. It is then left unused.
One would hope that when they set up in the first act that Tony Stark and Iron Man are one in the same and that he gains so much through wearing the suit, that in the end he would have to discard the suit in order to complete his heroic task. This would make Stark the real Iron Man and make the suit his accessory, instead of it being the other way around. No such luck.
Overall, this version of the film is an incomplete draft of what should have been a more enjoyable production. It stinks of something that was rushed to market. This is not a good movie. Its not even a passable one. The film ultimately becomes an elongated teaser trailer for the upcoming The Avengers movie, hitting screens in 2012.