Back when I bought far more music than I buy now—back when everyone bought vinyl, for heaven's sake—I realized that there was an interesting anecdotal phenomenon I referred to as the "sophomore effect." It seemed to me that an aspiring artist spent years trying to get their first album (that's a bigger version of a CD for you young'uns) in the hands of a record company. Endless nights at horrible little clubs, interminable practices, and hundreds of ideas written on scraps of paper as the artist tried to put together something to wow the money people in the industry. (You'll notice this idea is not entirely based on reality—I have no idea what a musical artist's life is like; I only know what I have seen on TV and in movies.) And then they hit it, and they have a years-wide repertoire of music to choose from to put on that first album.
The real test comes in the creation of the second album, where they have far less time to produce quality work—sometimes a year, sometimes less. And pressure! Suddenly you have a contract, and it's not as much about love of the art as it is, a legally binding promise to produce. Completely different circumstances, and many artists falter on that second release. Some figure it out and go on to do good/great things, and some fade away into obscurity. That second work: that seems the real crucible.
Spending time with my book group discussing speculative fiction, I realized there is probably a similar effect in writing. Years spent honing the craft and especially revising that first sale. And then you're asked to do it again. In a year. You can get a good gauge of how a writer is going to do with that second book.
Which brings me to Iron Man and its recently released sequel. Iron Man would have been the top superhero movie in 2008, had The Dark Knight not also come out the same year. It was fun and smart and witty, and the cast bristled with chemistry and energy (http://perrynomasia.blogspot.com/2008/05/iron-man.html). The story was lively, there were few dull moments in the movie, and while the crew paid attention to enough continuity to make the fanboys happy, it remained accessible to people who did not know the characters.
And Iron Man 2?
It's a lot of fun. Robert Downey just shines in his portrayal of Tony Stark/Iron Man. It seems clear that he is having a lot of fun playing this role, and it shows in what are either some of the best writing a character can have or in Downey's talent for improve. The effects are brilliant, and it is still a little breath-taking to see the suit, especially in action.
But something is missing, especially in comparison to the first movie. The most noticeable is Don Cheadle taking over the role of James Rhodes, Army liaison to Stark. Somehow, Academy Award-nominated Cheadle comes across as wooden, especially in comparison to Terence Howard. Part of the reason for this is that the two actors are not on screen together very often when they are not in their respective Iron Man suits. As a result, one of the best parts of the first movie, the interaction between Stark and Rhodes, is just gone.
The other major relationship in Stark's life, with Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts, is also lacking in Iron Man 2. In what may be the most telling anecdote, one of the best interactions between the two characters only takes place in the movie's trailer. The best interaction between them that remains in the movie is one where they talk to each other via webcam, and so aren't even in the same space. Paltrow does just fine in her scenes; Downey is just not in them. In fact, through most of the center part of the movie, Downey is by himself not doing much of anything. And while most actors would not survive this, it turns out that Downey doing nothing is kind of entertaining. But it's not the chemistry that made the first movie especially fun.
Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury has a larger role in the sequel, but I'm not sure if it makes much sense to the casual movie-goer. Fury and Stark just riff off of each other for a bit (which honestly, is something of an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force), but there's barely any explanation of what S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing, beyond pushing Stark to rethink his relationship with his father. Scarlett Johansson is a lot of fun as Natalie Rushman (who ultimately is the Black Widow, though she is never really named that in the movie) but she is somewhat underutilized and often comes across as just a prop for Downey's manic improve moments.
But let me go back to what I originally said—Iron Man 2 is a lot of fun. It only seems weak in comparison to the original Iron Man, and even then it's only through reflection that I can make this commentary. While I was sitting in front of the movie, I laughed and I thrilled. Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell make for good villains, but as I think about it after, it's strange that their offbeat chemistry is better than that of the "good side."
The result is a fine popcorn movie, with action sequences galore…not shot with shaky cam and that make sense. Things blow up real good and Iron Man saves the day.