Six months after the events of Iron Man, Russian scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) the son of physicist Anton Vanko, is building a miniature arc reactor to compete with the one Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is using to power his Iron Man armour. Stark is refusing to turn over the Iron Man technology to the Military. He is also dying, as the palladium core in the arc reactor in his chest is slowly poisoning him. Despondent, he appoints Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) CEO of Stark Industries, hires Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) as her assistant, and goes off to enjoy his last year of life.
Driving in the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, he is attacked by Vanko, who is able to cut sportscars in half with a glowing electric whip, which is why he was called Whiplash in the comics. Stark armours up to defeat Vanko, but the suit is damaged. Industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), Stark’s fierce and equally flamboyant rival, fakes Vanko’s death and breaks him out of prison to build a line of Iron-Man-like battle suits for the military, but Vanko turns them into drones. Stark gets drunk in his Iron Man suit, but his best friend Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) puts on the prototype armour and manages to get him under control.
Nick Fury, director of SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, though the name has changed over the years), reveals that Natalie Rushman is Natasha Romanoff, or Black Widow, and that Stark’s father was a founder of SHIELD. Vanko’s father was co-inventor with him of the arc reactor, but the elder Stark had him sent back to Russia and the Soviet government put him in a Siberian Gulag. With the help of his father’s notes, which Nick Fury provides, and his A.I. Jarvis, Stark synthesizes a new element to replace the deadly palladium in his arc reactor.
Justin Hammer unveils his armoured drones, commanded by Lt. Colonel Rhodes in his gun-suit, but Vanko takes control of both, turns them against Iron Man, and joins the battle in his own powerful armour. Black Widow returns control of Rhodes’ armour to him and together with Iron Man they defeat Vanko after a great destructive battle. Nick Fury rejects Stark for the Avenger Initiative, but he wants him as a consultant. Meanwhile, Paul Coulson (Clark Gregg) of SHIELD reports discovery of an object in a crater in New Mexico—an ancient war-hammer.
Christiane Amanpour and Bill Reilly play themselves on TV screens. Elon Musk appears at a fancy industrialist dinner. Director Jon Favreau plays Stark’s chauffeur Happy Hogan, as he did in the first Iron Man movie and throughout the MUC. Stan Lee appears as well, mistaken for Larry King. In the first movie, Terrance Howard played Rhodes, but was summarily dismissed in favor of Don Cheadle for the second. Nobody seems certain why. Iron Man 2 did not get the top reviews that the first movie did. The long middle part of the film, with little action and much angst was cited as a reason, but that was the story of Tony Stark and I found it interesting. Some people thought Mickey Rourke was not a good villain, but I thought he was wonderful and a welcome change from the usual megalomaniacs; he was motivated only by personal revenge and his laconic delivery was a delight. He didn’t give a shit, and at that point neither did Tony Stark. Rourke went to Butyrka Prison in Russia for research and came up with much of the character’s idiosyncrasies, like the tattoos, the gold teeth, his pet cockatoo, and the constant grousing in muttered Russian.