Iron Man 2 picks up right where Iron Man left off. No, really… you could put the two movies together (making one heck of a four-hour flick) and never know the difference.

It’s rare when that happens, but when it does, it’s enough to restore your faith in sequels.

The whole gangbusters gang is back: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Happy Hogan (director Jon Favreau), Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), Jarvis (Paul Bettany’s voice), and even Leslie Bibb reprises her wink-and-nod role as Christine Everhart. The only difference? Rhodey now looks suspiciously like Don Cheadle.

Add to this melting pot: Scarlet Johansson as legal secretary (with a killer roundhouse) Natalie Rushman, Sam Rockwell as über-rich arch-enemy Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke as vengeance-fueled Ivan Vanko, how could you go wrong?

Well, there’s any number of ways, actually… but Iron Man 2 avoids them all.

When we last left our hero, Tony Stark had just announced to the world that he was Iron Man. This, though, doesn’t sit well with Ivan (watching from a hovel in Moscow) since it was his own father who (with Tony’s late dad) developed the arc reactor technology… only to be deported back to Russia and forgotten.

Cue revenge music.

Stark, meanwhile, is busy taking cockiness and narcissism to levels unseen in the annals of time. Giving a Senate committee the same attention he’d give to a rerun of Romper Room, he’s perfectly happy keeping the world peaceful, confident that there’s no one remotely close to posing a threat.

Cue ‘oops’ music.

Add to this the fact that Tony is slowly dying of a blood infection brought on by the same technology that’s keeping him alive, and it’s easy to see how this superhero movie is a lot closer to The Dark Knight than it is to, say, Batman Forever.

Downey was born to play this role, and he sinks his teeth into it with the same attention other actors give to Oscar-caliber performances. The rest of the cast shines, too, including Paltrow, who actually has something to do this go-round.

Justin Theroux’s script is immensely entertaining, chock-full of hilarious one-liners and easily reminiscent of his other screenplay, 2008’s Tropic Thunder. Director Favreau (I still can’t help seeing him as Mike from Swingers) puts together an almost-perfect two hours of fun. There’s a lot of stuff blowin’ up, a lot of super-nifty toys and computer gadgets, and a pretty kick-butt butt-kickin’ scene, courtesy of Scarlet Johansson. (Think Hit-Girl, but of-age and without a gun.)

You won’t look at your watch once.

And whatever you do, stay through the closing credits.

4.5/5 stars