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Iron Man 2 (Movie)
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, and Scarlett Johansson; Director John Favreau

The superhero could use a pick-me-up. Outside a soundstage in Manhattan Beach, Calif., Robert Downey Jr. sits on a bench and snaps open the ever-present black case he keeps stocked with herbal supplements and natural elixirs. It’s been a long day of shooting on the set of Iron Man 2, and in a few minutes they’ll summon Downey back for more. ”I’m the frontman for this hair band,” says the actor, 44, with a weary smile. Savoring this moment of freedom, he pulls a cigar from the case and gives it a deep whiff. ”Oooh,” he says. ”That’s for later.”

Downey has had quite a few occasions for a celebratory cigar in the past several years, a stretch that’s seen him rise out of the smoldering wreckage of his career to new heights of stardom. But the biggest fire-up-a-stogie moment came in May of last year, when Iron Man — in which he starred as billionaire playboy-turned-metal-clad, rocket-booted superhero Tony Stark — opened at $98.6 million, on its way to a staggering $318 million take. Buzz around the film started building at the 2007 Comic-Con in San Diego — where Team Iron Man will return this month as conquering titans. Still, with a star who didn’t exactly scream ”action hero” playing a comic-book character several rungs down the ladder of renown from Batman, the success of Iron Man caught many people by surprise. (”I always thought Iron Man was a robot,” says Don Cheadle, who plays Jim Rhodes in the sequel.) Now, three months into shooting on Iron Man 2 — in which Stark faces off against Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian inventor who adopts the nom de evil Whiplash — Downey is the underdog no more. ”There are a lot more invisible eyes on us now,” he says.

When Marvel Studios announced the sequel — which hits screens May 7, 2010 — it was anyone’s guess what the movie would be about. The first film ended with a cliff-hanger, as Stark revealed his superhero identity. But as a comic-book franchise, Iron Man offered no clear path forward. The closest thing to a canonical Iron Man tale — a nine-issue story arc from 1979 called ”Demon in a Bottle,” about Stark’s descent into alcoholism — was a nonstarter. ”If you went straight into ‘Demon in a Bottle,’ it would end up feeling like Leaving Las Vegas,” says returning director Jon Favreau. ”The story doesn’t give you much.”

The first major nut to crack was conjuring a worthy new baddie. Problem was, the roster of iconic Iron Man villains was fairly thin. ”We don’t have a Goblin or a Joker or a Sandman,” says Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. ”In every Iron Man comic, Tony Stark is the most interesting character.” Finally, Downey, Favreau, screenwriter Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder), and the rest of the creative team struck upon the idea of bringing in 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, whiplike beams. As Stark assures the U.S. government that no one can replicate Iron Man’s high-tech weaponry, Hammer and Whiplash join forces to take him down. ”Each one is like a doppelgänger of a side of Tony,” Feige says. ”That intrigued us.”

For the role of Whiplash, Favreau reached out to Rourke, who was enjoying his own comeback with his Oscar-nominated turn in The Wrestler. ”Once I thought about Mickey, the story fell into place,” says Favreau. ”His intensity would balance out Robert well.” Rourke, for his part, wanted to instill some humor into the role. ”I told Favreau, ‘I don’t want to just play him as a one-dimensional prick,”’ Rourke says. ”He let me have a cockatoo, who I talk to and get drunk with while I’m making my suit.”

As the deals were being hammered out, Terrence Howard — who had played Stark’s best friend, Jim Rhodes, a character who, in the comics, becomes a superhero called War Machine — fell out of the sequel in a salary dispute. The role was recast with Cheadle. ”We had to make some tough deals,” Feige says. ”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.”

Adding more fresh blood to the sequel, Scarlett Johansson joined the cast as Stark’s mysterious new assistant, Natasha, who’s revealed to have her own alter ego, Black Widow. ”In the comics, she was injected with a serum that made her recover at a superhuman rate,” says Johansson. ”Now she’s just a badass. Her skills in hand-to-hand combat are her superpowers.” The introduction of Black Widow 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 that standard,” says Paltrow. ”There’s a weird male catfight fantasy.” Downey doesn’t disagree: ”As Jon says, our signature [as a superhero franchise] is that we’re horny. Not, like, can’t-bring-your-kids horny, but just…horny.”

With these new ingredients, the question remains whether Iron Man 2 will soar like the first film or show signs of rust. As anyone who treads into Geek World knows, fanboys are fickle. ”I liked when the first Whiplash photo came out and people were like, ‘What is this? Is that just a prototype suit?”’ says Feige. ”I’m like, Good, they’re doubting us! That’s my comfort zone.”

Downey isn’t sweating the expectations. ”People are going to be more critical,” he says. ”That’s their prerogative.” As he gets up to prepare for his next scene, his assistant appears with a cigar cutter. ”In a way, there’s no way to win,” Downey concludes with a shrug. He pauses. ”Except to win. Big.”

Iron Man 2
  • Movie
  • 125 minutes