Iron Man 2 adopts the Spider-Man 3 line of insisting that once a superhero has gone public (and the franchise has passed a set figure at the box office), he deserves - nay, demands - the full celebrity treatment. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark here gets his own troupe of dancing girls, a theme park in Flushing Meadow dedicated to his every whim, imitators in North Korea and Iran, and an entourage that runs the full gamut, from Mickey Rourke at one end of the spectrum to Bill O'Reilly at the other. Rourke is present as Stark's latest nemesis, a grungy nogoodnik from the Moscow slums known as Ivan Vanko, who'd only require an extra "a" on that Christian name to graduate to an Austin Powers movie; "You look like you have friends in low places," Stark quips of his opponent, when the two have finally shrugged off their armour in a police interrogation room.
Stark, for his part, clearly has admirers in high Hollywood places. During this sequel, he will get to crash racecars in Monaco; he has loads of those flashy, scrolly CSI/iPhone-style touchscreens to do all the film's exposition; he has a sexy new legal intern, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), whose duties extend to asking her employer whether his Martini is dirty enough; and continuing the alcoholic theme, he has a new party trick, clay pigeon shooting with bottles of Cristal, which might seem more than faintly decadent in any economic climate. Still, Stark continues to listen to The Clash in his research-and-development lab, lest we start to think he might be anything other than a heroic punk outsider. You can tell what a cold, hard, expensive bit of kit Iron Man 2 is from the characters' surnames alone: Stark is here matched against a calculating defence-industry lobbyist called Justin Hammer (a pitch-perfect Sam Rockwell) and - in a comeback of his own - Garry Shandling as a Senator called Stern. (I longed for someone called Lamb, or Sunshine, or a Captain Candyfloss to skip across the screen, but perhaps they're being held back for future instalments.)
For all the film's additional bling, I found myself taking practically the same notes during Iron Man 2 as I did watching 2008's not unenjoyable original: that the electromagnetic coil at Tony Stark's centre is a perfect analogue for the mechanical and heartless nature of the movie (in a typical second-film twist, Stark finds his body is absorbing the coil's resources faster than he can source them); that the experience is not unlike being trapped inside a two-hour trade fair for the military-industrial complex; and that the saving grace, the franchise's one true marvel, is Downey Jr.'s innate sense of showmanship (a little tarnished after Sherlock Holmes, but functional nonetheless). Yet even the star shows signs of being upstaged by the depth and breadth of gadgetry assembled second time out: take the scene late on where Stark finds himself having to negotiate his way out from behind a windmilling executive toy poised on the desk of the newly promoted Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) - a device that proves more compelling to the eye than anything the actors are required to do.
Again, we're being asked to hand over our hard-earned and cheer the victory of a (this time, physically corrupt) capitalist a-hole, and - in so doing - either sanction or applaud the film's fetishisation of high-grade (not to mention entirely phallic; this is Iron Man, after all) weaponry; the camera demonstrates little interest in anything other than boys and their toys. Paltrow, after this token promotion, has only to bicker with and whine at Stark between mouthing corporate platitudes into telephones. Johansson, who appears under the influence of weapons-grade tranquilisers throughout, is squeezed into a latex suit that plasticises her curves and essentially turns her into a malleable action figure. The most effective female element comes in the form of a poison pen that, Rockwell insists, is "capable of reducing the population of any standing structure to zero". Its nickname? "The Ex-Wife".
In retrospect, it now seems telling this franchise should have been turned over to Jon Favreau, director and star of those blokey Vince Vaughn comedies; casting himself as Stark's chauffeur, he gets to leer at Johansson changing in the rear-view mirror, the sort of regrettable, retrograde moment you could well imagine Michael Bay engineering for his Transformers inamorata Megan Fox. Iron Man 2 is nothing if not totally pimped out; jetting between Manhattan, Russia and the South of France, it moves in all the right circles, at optimum blockbuster speed. But that's all this franchise is doing right now: circling, like a vulture over the world's popcorn-munchers, or a rocket running out of gas.
Iron Man 2 is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment; a further instalment, Iron Man 3, opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday, and is reviewed here.