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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As a kid, Robert Downey Jr. never dressed up in superhero costumes.
"Growing up? No," says Downey Jr. "But in my mid-30s in Palm Springs right before an arrest? Yes. It was a premonition."
Although the actor is making light of his past struggles with drug abuse, what is no joke is Downey Jr's success at resurrecting his acting career after overcoming a long addiction to heroin and cocaine.
He made a stunning comeback as Tony Stark, an arrogant, hard drinking, wisecracking playboy engineer who also wrestles with his own personal demons in 2008's big screen adaptation of the Marvel comic book series, "Iron Man."
Now, Downey Jr., 45, is back in "Iron Man 2" along with plenty more action, characters and explosions. The film opens in much of Europe, Asia and Australia this week before hitting U.S. theaters on May 7.
The parallels between Downey Jr. and Tony Stark were obvious in the original and are just as clear in the sequel.
After five years of drug arrests culminating in a prison term in 2000, Downey Jr.'s return to Hollywood's A-list post- "Iron Man" -- including a Golden Globe award for his role in "Sherlock Holmes" -- is not unlike Stark's own rise in status after he reveals his dual identity as the armored superhero.
"I think (Robert's own success) informed the level of fame and resurgence that Tony Stark experiences since he announces that he's Iron Man," director Jon Favreau told reporters.
In "Iron Man 2", Stark himself is no longer making weapons -- just saving the world and enjoying his rock star status. Except now the U.S. government insists that he hand over his superhero suit to the military. Stark refuses.
Favreau likened the sequel to someone throwing another party after a successful first bash. "Iron Man" earned $585 million at worldwide box offices and the pressure was in making sure "this was going to be as fun or more fun than the last party," he said.
Putting together the sequel began soon after the first movie was released. With plenty of characters vying for a finite amount of screen time in the sequel, Favreau needed actors who could really "make an impression."
Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Pepper Potts, who Stark promotes from assistant to CEO of his Stark Industries. At the same time, Stark needs to solve the mystery behind new character, Russian villain Ivan Vanko, played by Mickey Rourke.
Rounding out the new cast is Scarlett Johansson, sporting red hair as The Black Widow, and Sam Rockwell as weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer. Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard in the role of Lt. Col. James Rhodes.
Rourke was enlisted to play Vanko (a.k.a Whiplash) as he was coming off his own career resurgence with Golden Globe and BAFTA best actor awards last year for "The Wrestler."
To prepare for his role, Rourke took a trip to Russia, visited prisons there to understand how their system worked and studied the art of prison tattoos. He also worked with a dialect coach to learn the Russian language.
Meanwhile Johansson went through months of stunt, weight, strength and endurance training. Yet the actress told Reuters Television she really wasn't prepared for how difficult it was to portray the "unwavering confidence" of the Black Widow.
"When the cameras are rolling, you're thinking 'This girl can't flinch," said the actress. "You suddenly become overwhelmingly self-conscious. Overcoming that was a bit of an obstacle. After the first take you say, 'Pull it together Johansson, you've got some ass to kick.' Then you just do it."
With this cast in place, Downey Jr. said he "felt a little bit like a co-manager of a baseball team that just got an even better line-up in the spring."
Additional reporting by Phil Furey; Editing by Jill Serjeant