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This week's cover: 'Iron Man 2' with exclusive photos!

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1057-ew-cover_lEntertainment Weekly’s second annual Comic-Con preview issue features Iron Man 2 on the cover, and inside it’s packed with exclusive first looks at highly anticipated TV shows, comic books, and movies.

The first Iron Man blasted Robert Downey Jr. back to stardom, and the superhero franchise is readying to return to the big screen on May 7, 2010. Iron Man will battle new villain Mickey Rourke, size up Scarlett Johansson (exclusive photo of ScarJo as Black Widow, after the jump!), and, hopefully, prove that the success of the first movie wasn’t a fluke. Downey knows the movie isn’t an underdog this time around. “There are a lot more invisible eyes on us now,” he says.

When Marvel Studios first announced the sequel, no one was sure what the movie would be about. Downey, director Jon Favreau, screenwriter Justin Theroux, and the rest of the creative team struck upon the idea of introducing two very different foes for Stark. On one side is Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a fast-talking weapons manufacturer who fancies himself the next Tony Stark; on the other, Vanko, who, while incarcerated in a Russian prison, creates his own battle-suit, which shoots devastating, whip-like beams. Hammer and Whiplash join forces to take down Downey’s character, Tony Stark. Rourke, for his part, wanted to instill some lightness into the role of the heavy. “I told Favreau, ‘I don’t want to just play him as a one-dimensional p—-,'” he says. “He let me have a cockatoo, who I talk to and get drunk with while I’m making my suit.”

Just as the deals were being hammered out, Terrence Howard — who had played Stark’s best friend — fell out of the sequel in a public salary dispute. The role was re-cast, with Don Cheadle stepping in. “We had to make some tough deals,” says Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. “When they got public, you go, ‘That sucks. Okay, you want a peek behind the curtain? Here you are!'” Says Cheadle, “Terrence and I couldn’t be more different. We address it head-on in the movie in one exchange. We’re not trying to fool people.” (Cheadle admits he didn’t know much about Marvel’s superhero before the first movie came out: “I always thought Iron Man was a robot.”)

Adding more flesh and blood to the new movie, Scarlett Johansson joined the cast as Stark’s mysterious new assistant, Natasha, who has an alter ego of her own, Black Widow. That introduction inevitably sparks romantic tension between Stark and former assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who’s been promoted to CEO of Stark Industries. “The men want it to be, like, ‘Ooh, the girls are fighting over Tony,’ but it’s not as standard as that,” says Paltrow. “There’s a weird male catfight fantasy. Downey agrees. He believes what differentiates the franchise from other superhero series can be summarized as follows: “We’re horny. Not, like, can’t-bring-your-kids horny, but just…horny.”

The question remains whether Iron Man 2 will soar like the first film or show signs of rust when it hits theaters. “People are going to be more critical,” says Downey. “That’s their prerogative….In a way, there’s no way to win, except to win. Big.”

For more on Iron Man, as well as a first look at the hottest movies and TV shows heading to Comic-Con, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday July 17.

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Click for more EW.com Comic-Con ’09 Sneak Peeks