Entertaining, but not really up to the standards of the first movie. At its best, it’s another jaunty entry in the always entertaining Robert-Downey-Jr.-is-a-charming-fuckup-who-eventually-redeems-himself-through-witty-banter canon. The pace in the second act is surprisingly ambling, giving plenty of room for the requisite bantering and somehow not feeling too busy despite the plethora of characters and references they had to pack in. You can almost hear the screenwriters in a back room somewhere doing lines and screaming, “And the Black Widow! Shit! We need to introduce the Black Widow before the Avengers movie comes out!”
(Speaking of the Black Widow: Did they just decide it wasn’t worth even trying to get Scarlett Johansson to do a Russian accent? Granted, Johansson was, like, six when the Cold War ended, but taking away her background as a Russian defector turned her into just another bendy super-spy in a catsuit.)
But despite the plot’s creaky machinations, it was just nice to see good actors with good chemistry do good work. It’s a sad state of affairs when a big-budget blockbuster can be noteworthy just for having characters with personalities, but that’s where we are. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwenyth Paltrow have great chemistry, although the latter spends so much of the movie alternating through various stages of livid, with no real room for sexual tension, that the inevitable climactic kiss feels more like another item on the checklist than an organic moment. Mickey Rourke is suitably menacing, Sam Rockwell is funny if sort of one-note, Samuel L. Jackson is extremely Samuel L. Jackson, and Don Cheadle is such an abrupt upgrade from Terrence Howard that it’s like if Christopher Nolan had replaced Katie Holmes with a young Marlon Brando in his second Batman movie.
Point is, they all turn in solid work, at least until the third act. That portion of the movie is just a bunch of explosions and CGI metal crashing into each other, a sustained jackhammer of spectacle designed to beat you into a stupor over the course of fifteen minutes or four hours or however long it lasted. There’s not much in the way of mounting tension, because the big finale already starts dialed up to 11; and as a result, the whole thing feels less like a climax than like director Jon Favreau suddenly remembered he had an explosions quota to fulfill.
The fact that I got such a kick out of the Captain America shield’s little cameo (diminishing returns though with the post-credits Thor shout-out) really drives home this movie’s greatest strength and greatest weakness: the Easter eggs and clever asides are significantly more satisfying than all the sort of blah plot stuff.