Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man 2

Francois Duhamel/Paramount Pictures

Review in a Hurry: It may not pack the same surprise as the first one, but with a half-dozen major characters and subplots, this sequel feels like an actual Marvel comic set in a superheroic universe.

The Bigger Picture: It worked pretty well for Spider-Man's second big-screen outing, so now Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) also gets to face a villain with extended mechanical appendages—Mickey Rourke's Whiplash, who comes across like Doctor Octopus as played by Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises.

And it's ironic: Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, might just have the most believable personality of any onscreen superhero—unlike, say, Bruce Wayne, he actually enjoys his money, power and sex life. But the movies he's in are gradually setting the stage for a plainly unreal world, one in which many heroes exist and have different agendas.

Frankly, it's a refreshing change from your standard superschtick in which the main hero goes through predictable paces in a world where nobody has apparently even conceived of costumed saviors.

So yes, there are big honking references in Iron Man 2 to forthcoming, familiar characters (be sure to sit through the end credits), but they are, so far, just a tasty side dish, as Stark has his plate full not just with Whiplash, but also the corrupt and occasionally inept arms dealer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).

Meanwhile, badass supersecret agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has an agenda of his own, and it might just involve Stark's sexy new assistant Natalie (Scarlett Johansson).

But none of that matters if Stark can't solve the blood poisoning that his mechanical heart is causing...or beat back the self-destructive impulses that come alongside the threat of death. Not to mention the interference from the U.S. government, who want the Iron Man suit for themselves, and in attempting to get it, test the allegiance of Stark's best pal, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, effortlessly replacing Terrence Howard in the role with the tongue-in-cheek opening line, "It's me, I'm here, deal with it").

Also on the in-joke front: Rourke—known for being so attached to his recently deceased pet pooch that he used to insist it appear in all his movies—is here given a bizarre fixation on a pet cockatoo.

Part of the fun of Iron Man 2, directed again by Jon Favreau, is the fact that every single significant role is given to a different powerhouse actor who has fun with it.

For comic book fans, however, the real joy is the way it juggles the various players and developing über-story without excessively pandering to noobs...just like the books that inspired it.

Yes, sometimes there's a bit too much story at the expense of the action. But when was the last time you had that complaint about a big event movie?

The 180—a Second Opinion: Scenes in which a character looks to the sky and yells "NOOOOOOO!" upon learning of somebody's death ought to be banned. Starting the movie with one sets an unnecessarily worrisome tone.

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