The summer of 2010 is nearly upon us and here to ring in the blistering heat is the first official blockbuster of the season, “Iron Man 2”. After the gigantic success of “Iron Man” in 2008, the inevitable sequel was quickly announced by Marvel Studios. So, with only two short years to piece together the continuing story of billionaire Tony Stark and his alter-ego Iron Man, director Jon Favreau and company quickly began working on what could possibly be one of the biggest movies, if not the biggest of the year. With expectations surrounding this follow-up understandably high, “Iron Man 2” would definitely need to up the stakes and the spectacle in order to meet audience demand. But have no fear true believer (just a little nod to Stan Lee there); this movie succeeds brilliantly on all counts.

“Iron Man 2” picks up six months after the events of the previous film. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is beginning to feel the pressure of living the life of a publicly known superhero. With his behavior growing more and more erratic, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) begin to wonder if Tony’s days as Iron Man need to come to a close. Meanwhile, a new threat is emerging onto the scene, Ivan Vanko a.k.a. Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), seeking to destroy Tony Stark for sins of the father, so to speak. Plus, a rival weapons manufacturer, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), is trying to create his own version of the Iron Man armor, and will stop at nothing to achieve his ambitious goal. With so much at stake, Tony will have to look inside himself to rediscover the man behind the armor, and in a sense re-forge the Iron Man.

The first film featured a terrific blend of action, comedy (well-written and smart, not so much tongue-in-cheek), drama, and stunning visual effects to bring the hero to life. With “Iron Man 2” the action is even more intense, with bigger special effects sequences, but this time the comedy takes more of a backseat to make room for a much more dramatic storyline. Put all of these elements together and mix them just right and you’ve got yourself a recipe for another successful superhero jaunt.

The action sequences in the original were fast-paced and well-executed pieces of summer movie fun. However, the action in this film blows away everything that was done before with considerable ease. If you thought that there wasn’t enough armored action the first-go-round, then “Iron Man 2” should definitely meet your needs. If nothing else, the final 30 minutes of the movie will leave even the most ardent action junkie satisfied for quite some time.

Assisting in creating the incredible action scenes is some truly impressive visual effects work courtesy once more from Industrial Light and Magic. The visuals’ seamless blend with the live action elements makes the futuristic aspects of the movie more believable rather than if the CGI had been over-the-top. Case in point, the holographic imagery Stark uses when associating/working with JARVIS in the lab. This obvious usage of CGI while very apparent doesn’t seem all that removed from our reality, to the point that one could easily see this tech being available in the not so distant future. Not to mention all of the CGI intensive moments featuring Iron Man and War Machine in action are so exciting, and for comic book lovers, seeing the duo fighting side-by-side is simply incredible. Their scenes alone make it worth watching on the big screen at least one time.

Of course, the glue holding all of the exciting visuals and thrilling action sequences together is the solid screenplay written by Justin Theroux (“Tropic Thunder”), featuring elements loosely based upon the acclaimed “Demon in a Bottle” storyline from the comic books. As I stated earlier, the original film featured plenty of humor, wit, and sarcasm (primarily from Tony), this installment opts for a more mature tone which is very appropriate given the upheavals occurring in Tony’s life after his proclamation of, “I am Iron Man.” So, for those of you hoping for the same light-hearted fare, sorry not this time, and honestly the movie works well without it.

Now, there are some that felt this darker tinged story, especially in the first half of the movie, causes this entry to not feel as fun or entertaining as its predecessor. Personally, I felt the thematic shift was a natural progression for the character (not to mention keeping in-line with the comic book source material), and had the humor remained front-and-center then the story would have fallen flat on its face. While I do understand the detractors’ point of view, the lesser success of the two “Fantastic Four” movies should serve as a prime example of allowing for too much humor, thus, overshadowing the potential for good dramatic storytelling. Thankfully, screenwriter Justin Theroux and director Jon Favreau managed to avoid the aforementioned movies’ pratfall, and the drama was allowed a chance to thrive.

Of course, the story would be nothing without the incredible cast assembled to breathe life into these iconic characters. Leading the assemblage once more is Hollywood’s most successful comeback kid, Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. Robert appears to be relishing the opportunity to reprise what could easily be called his most recognizable role. Robert once again brings his smooth talking, hyper-active personality to the character, but with a darker edge than previously seen. Portraying a man on the edge of losing his way, Robert’s terrific performance was most likely influenced by his own infamous past. Even with the darker thematic elements, Downey, Jr. manages to keep things interesting and from sinking too far down during the film’s gloomy, yet necessary moments.

In the supporting roles we find actress Gwyneth Paltrow returning as Pepper Potts. While Gwyneth easily holds her own opposite Robert, and their scenes are always rife with a playful tension and chemistry; sadly, it felt like her role was somewhat diminished from that of the original film. Even though she was featured throughout the entire duration, often times she seemed to be more of an afterthought to the scenes. Obviously, in a film with such a large cast, fitting everyone in with equal time is a difficult task, so I do understand that some judicious editing had to be done. Also, I’m not saying that having a little less Pepper Potts results in a less enjoyable movie, not in the least bit. I was just surprised more than anything to see her character on the backburner.

The character of Lt. Col. James Rhodes, portrayed this time by Don Cheadle (“Traitor”) replacing Terrence Howard, is much more involved in not only the story, but also the action sequences, due to his donning of the War Machine armor. I was curious as to what I was going to think of Don Cheadle as Rhodes compared to Terrence, since I enjoyed his portrayal in the first movie. However, after seeing the movie I was left wishing Cheadle would have portrayed the character in both films. As good of an actor as Terrence Howard is, Don Cheadle really looked like he fit the part, and played the role perfectly both in and out of the armor. Cheadle just came off as a harder, more militaristic man in his portrayal, whereas Terrence seemed more on the softer side and slightly out of place in the role by comparison. It’s too bad we can’t go back and do some re-shoots to insert Don Cheadle into the original movie for better continuity.

Several new characters joined the cast of the expanding Marvel movie universe as we were introduced to Stark Industries’ main business rival Justin Hammer, the villainous Ivan Vanko, and undercover spy Natasha Romanoff. Sam Rockwell (“Moon”) is perfectly sniveling and smarmy as Justin Hammer. He’s a man who, like Tony Stark, is recognized for his weapons manufacturing, but unlike Stark he has no qualms about eliminating whoever gets in his way. As the film’s primary villain, Ivan Vanko a.k.a. Whiplash, Mickey Rourke (“Sin City”) is creepy, brilliant, cold, and calculating in every aspect of his plot for vengeance against the Stark family and their business empire.

Now, Mickey Rourke may be a strange guy in the real world, and some could even argue a bit unstable, but one thing is for certain, he is one great actor. His performance was spot on every step of the way. For instance, unlike so many American actors, he never once appeared to struggle to maintain his character’s Russian accent throughout the whole duration. This character will not garner him the accolades that his role in “The Wrestler” did, but he should be recognized all the same for continually putting terrific work on display every time he hits the screen.

Rounding out the newcomers is Scarlett Johansson (“The Island”) as Natasha Romanoff, otherwise known as the Black Widow in the comic book world. Scarlett establishes her character in a humorous moment early on as being much more than what she seems, and from there we are given a character that is smart, sexy, and above all, lethal. After seeing her in this movie, I can’t wait to see more of Scarlett’s take on the Black Widow in future installments of this series or maybe even in some of the other Marvel franchises that are in the works.

Lastly, Samuel L. Jackson returns once more as the Director of S.H.I.E.LD., Nick Fury. At the end of the previous film, we are introduced to Nick Fury, albeit ever so briefly. Thankfully, this time around he is given a little bit more screen time, popping up every once in a while over the course of the movie. Samuel is clearly enjoying his role as the Marvel Universe’s top spy, and is leaving fans wanting to see more of his character in the future films.

So, when all is said and done, without a doubt “Iron Man 2” easily lives up to all the hype. Boasting an engaging story that is filled with terrific characters, plenty of new plot developments, and incredible action scenes that are brimming with stunning CGI; director Jon Favreau’s follow-up delivers in every way imaginable and even manages to surpass its predecessor. Not a bad day’s work for a superhero.

“Iron Man 2” is rated PG-13 for violence and language.