MCU Rewind: Iron Man 2 Gets a Lot of Hate, But It Does Everything It Needs To Do
After the first two films in the newly-minted Marvel Cinematic Universe, moviegoers had to wait a full two years for the next installment. By 2010, the Avengers film (preceded by solo films for Thor and Captain America) was bound to happen. Yet, it was some years away, because Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige understood the value of patience and building up their new world. Still, two years is a long time to wait for even the most patient fans, so the second Iron Man film had to do a lot of work. First, it had to introduce more of the larger MCU. Second, it had to set-up the next film, focused on Thor, creating a sense of building to something. Finally, it had to tell a complete, stand-alone story about Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, also the director). Critics of this film, of which there are many, say that it does none of these things well. However, unlike the previous installment in this film canon, such criticism is unfair.
Before we can get into the details of this movie, we have to talk about all of the biases involved. First, and foremost, it needs to be said that this is your humble correspondent’s favorite Iron Man film. From start to finish, I enjoy the hell out of this movie. This was the first MCU film I saw in the theater, which probably colors my view of the movie. The other bias we need to look at is the bias against this movie born from how nearly perfect the first Iron Man film was. That was a film most folks expected to tank, but it stunned everyone who saw it. Its sequel was meant to stun moviegoers again with a broader, bi-coastal story and expanded cast. Instead, audiences went in with high expectations that this movie didn’t meet. My guess is that, in time, people will look back on this film and realize it was much better than they gave it credit for.
There are three major narrative throughlines in this movie. The first is an adaptation of the classic “Demon in a Bottle” storyline from the comics, with alcohol addiction being replaced by a problem with Tony’s Arc Reactor. Still, he’s dying, it’s hopeless, and so he acts recklessly. The second is that the friendship between Tony and James Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle) is frayed because the former won’t share his Iron Man tech with the latter. The final story involves two of Tony’s nemeses, Ivan Vanko (played by Mickey Rourke) and Justin Hammer (played by the inimitable Sam Rockwell), teaming up to take him down with their own Iron Men. Yet, that’s not all that happens in this movie. We also get some world-building, specifically fleshing out the world of S.H.I.E.L.D., its connection to Tony’s father, and it’s importance to the eventual team-up of the Avengers.
Essentially, while Iron Man merely had to prove that Marvel Studios could make a great film, its sequel had to prove that they could do that while putting pieces into motion to create the larger universe. In this respect, Iron Man 2 is an unquestionable success. Scarlett Johansson joined the cast as the Black Widow, Natasha Romanov. This was revealed in the trailer for the film, and Favreau knew that audiences would be suspicious of an actor of her caliber playing a simple assistant. So, rather than trying to stretch out the mystery, he provides clues almost immediately. For no reason that makes any sense, Tony talks Happy into giving the Widow (who is undercover as a Stark employee) a boxing lesson. Predictably, she dispatches Happy handily. It works because Tony and Pepper just assume her martial skills are part of an already-impressive résumé, while we the audience knows better. Samuel L. Jackson appears in a pair of scenes as Nick Fury. Still a glorified cameo, it laid the foundation for the kind of role that character would play in Avengers and The Winter Soldier.
Both at the time and in hindsight, this is obvious world-building. People scoffed at the idea of Howard Stark being a founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D., but only because we’d not met the Dominic Cooper version of the character from First Avenger and Agent Carter. That character likely still would have worked even without the off-handed mention of Stark’s history, but it was the trial run for the way the connectedness of the MCU would manifest itself. There’s even a brief mention of Wakanda in Nick Fury’s files, seen briefly at the end of the film. We expect these sorts of Easter Eggs and payoffs in the MCU as a rule now, but it was brand new territory when Iron Man 2 premiered. So, at the time, it seemed too overt and obvious a way to set up future films, and, in hindsight, the MCU has gotten so much better at this sort of thing these don’t “hold up” by comparison. But comic book movies are all about suspension of disbelief, and not just about powers or blatantly-obvious secret identities.
Which brings us to the “Demon In a Bottle” adaptation in the film, though any true fan of that story arc would bristle at the comparison. Instead of rampant alcoholism being the life-threatening condition that Tony Stark tries to avoid, it’s his Arc Reactor, specifically the palladium core leaking poison into his body. To some, this seems like an incredible cop-out. Tony’s alcoholism became a defining characteristic of the comic book version of the character. The way this story is presented in Iron Man 2 might seem to deny this character a key part of his agency. Overcoming his addiction, and the sense of responsibility he feels about what he did while drunk, is what drives the Stark of the comics. Though we do a discredit to Marvel Studios and Robert Downey Jr. when we forget that the MCU’s Tony Stark is a much different character than the one in the comics. Part of the reason people doubted that Iron Man could launch the MCU in a serious way is because of this. Yet, the Tony Stark of the MCU is a much more impressive leader and serious figure than his comic book counterpart.
A fair critique of the developments in the sequel is that Kevin Feige and the other powers-that-be at Marvel Studios likely did not want to sandbag their flagship character in his second movie with an addiction narrative. The critics see this as cowardice on their part, changing an “ugly” part of the character to an affliction more sympathetic and palatable to audiences. There are still those out there who see addiction as a personal defect, but there is no way that audiences would see Tony’s life-threatening illness in the movie as a weakness of character. Only, that’s a very cynical way to look at this decision. One of the ways the MCU has improved the superhero genre is how closely it adheres to the comics. Yet, Iron Man 2 deviates from the comics in some major ways with its story, and this is one of them. It also shows how, sometimes, deviating from the comics can be good.
The “Demon in a Bottle” storyline debuted 16 years after the Iron Man character and ten years into his solo comic series. Put another way, this was a story that only really worked with a long history behind the character. As I discussed in my piece about the original Iron Man, this version of Tony Stark hasn’t gone through the growth he needs to in order to justify this story. If they had made the decision to establish Tony Stark as an alcoholic in this film, it would have made the rest of Iron Man’s story about that affliction. This early in the MCU, that would have been a major disservice to the character and the larger plan. So, in setting up that the thing killing Tony is his Arc Reactor and how it affects him when he uses the Iron Man armor, it became a story that worked both with this Tony’s character arc and the larger MCU. The first film was all about how Tony went from being a merchant of death to actually being a hero. So, it’s good drama to make a piece of that redemption the thing that risks his life in a much different way.
This part of the story comes to a head early in the second act, when Cheadle’s Rhodey confronts Tony, dressed in the Mark 2 armor. By this point in the movie, Tony is convinced his death is inevitable. He obviously chooses the latter option. When Pepper tries to end the party early, it marks the first time Tony tells her he loves her. He’s wasted, so it doesn’t land as it should, but it’s very revealing about where Tony is. He wants to take the Widow’s advice from earlier — doing whatever he wants with whomever he wants to be with — but everyone keeps rejecting him. This is not his fault, because no one knows he’s dying (save for S.H.I.E.L.D.). When he’s confronted by Rhodes, it gives him the excuse he needs to exercise those frustrations. It’s also a telling detail that even so drunk he can barely walk, he’s still able to hold his own against Rhodes.
This scene is also integral to another narrative in the film, the idea that Iron Man is an unsanctioned global powerhouse and how that relates to Tony and Rhodey’s relationship. The U.S. Government, which includes the wonderful late Garry Shandling as Senator Sterns, wants their own suit. Tony, of course, doesn’t trust them with it. However, Rhodey thinks it means Tony doesn’t trust him with the suit. This calls back to a theme touched on in the first film where Terrance Howard’s Rhodes discusses “automated drones” versus traditional pilots in warfare. Again, this is not a commentary on drone warfare (because they are also flown by pilots) but rather about how the human element in warfare is important and overlooked. Tony’s contribution to warfare, in the beginning, was making and selling weapons that devastated the innocent and guilty alike from afar. Iron Man, on the other hand, is the opposite. He can cause devastation, but Stark himself is at the center of it, responsible for where each repulsor blast or other weapon is aimed.
So, the birthday party fight is not a scene where Rhodey sees his friend crying out for help and decides to kick his ass. Instead, it’s the scene where Rhodey proves to Tony that he’s a worthy successor for the mantle. Someone who can be Iron Man in his stead when the palladium poisoning finally kills him. Just as he installed Pepper as CEO of Stark Industries so she could shepherd his business legacy the right way, Rhodey is his way of preserving Iron Man’s legacy. This is revealed in the final fight, when Tony lands on stage with War Machine, prepared to team up to defeat the threat before them. That War Machine’s armor is compromised by Vanko serves to teach Rhodey that Tony’s protectiveness over his creation is not arrogance or hubris but based on a real concern. It’s no accident that Iron Man and War Machine spend most of that fight blowing up automated drones. Because, as Howard’s Rhodes said in the first film, no drone can compete with a competent pilot’s instincts and desire to protect innocent life.
One area where this film struggles a bit is how S.H.I.E.L.D. fits into all of this. As this is only the second time we’re seeing Fury (and Clark Greggson’s Coulson) it’s just not yet time for drama surrounding the trustworthiness of this semi-secret government organization. A less narratively-dense film could have likely added that element to this part of the story. Like with Tony and alcoholism, this just wasn’t the right time for that sort of narrative especially knowing what we do know about where that story was heading. Thus, Fury presents himself as a person who is content with letting Stark be Stark, i.e. Iron Man. In fact, Fury is not just content with this but also serves as a kind of deus ex machina in that he presents Tony with items from his father’s past that contain the answers to his questions and his illness. Yet, especially watching this movie with the benefit of hindsight, an interesting question to ponder is whether or not Fury’s motives were purely altruistic or if he was gaming Tony somehow. The question I ponder about this sequence is whether or not Fury told Tony the truth about what happened between his father and Ivan Vanko’s father, Anton.
In fairness to the critics of Iron Man 2, the sequence where Tony goes back into his lab and creates the new element doesn’t make a lot of sense. The primary purpose of these scenes is to mirror Tony’s growth in the first film, essentially showing him building his way out of his problems. The culmination of this effort, when Tony installs the newest Arc Reactor in his chest, is objectively silly. There’s a bright light and the RDJ-iest “Aw yeah!” he could muster. What should have been a triumphant moment, the return of the hopeful, heroic Tony Stark, plays like a gag. My personal bias in favor of the movie allows me to overlook that.
The final big narrative in Iron Man 2 is how both Howard and Tony Stark’s past sins motivate the two major antagonists. Rourke’s and Rockwell’s characters are severe departures from their comic book counterparts. Ivan Vanko is a composite of two of Iron Man’s classic rogues, Whiplash and the Crimson Dynamo. Rourke plays the character with a fantastic mix of bemused arrogance and cold, threatening villainy. The problem is that after his first clash with Tony in Monaco at the end of the first act, he really doesn’t have much to do. The final fight where he faces War Machine and Iron Man falls a little flat. It’s essentially the same fight as before (just bigger) and watching three guys dressed in armor pound on each other just isn’t as exciting as the action sequences immediately preceding it. That he ultimately blows himself up in a last-ditch effort to hurt Tony makes sense from a character perspective but is a waste of a great Mickey Rourke bad guy.
The star of this movie, however, is Sam Rockwell playing a much different version of Justin Hammer than Iron Man fans already knew. Hammer debuted in the “Demon in a Bottle” arc, but in the books, he was an old man. Redesigning Hammer for Rockwell, as a Tony Stark-like figure who is all style and no substance, was a great call. Absent his general incompetence with technology, Hammer is who Tony Stark would be if he didn’t have a moral compass. Unlike Vanko, Hammer doesn’t want to ruin Tony Stark by killing innocent people. Yet, his constant humiliation at Stark’s hands blinds him to the sudden-yet-inevitable betrayal that awaits anyone dumb enough to do business with a guy like Vanko. Much like Tim Roth in The Incredible Hulk, every scene with Sam Rockwell is a pure delight to watch.
There are other awesome moments, such as when Happy Hogan and the Black Widow fight through some henchmen in an attempt to stop Vanko. Despite being woefully unprepared for the kind of life-and-death stakes awaiting them, Happy is determined to help Natasha. He doesn’t know she’s a highly-trained super-agent. He thinks she’s just a loyal employee and friend, like he is, desperately trying to save the boss. It’s a great gag that he engages the first henchman in a long, drawn-out brawl, while Natasha dispatches something like eight others in a very short time. Even before she fought side-by-side with Thunder Gods and Super-Soldiers, the MCU’s Black Widow was an impossible badass. Coulson’s role in the previous film served dual purposes as world-building and a “surprise” part of resolving the central conflict. Natasha’s role in this film is obvious from the moment she appears on-screen. She’s there to kick ass and look cool doing it, and she succeeds. However, with all the different storylines unfolding in this film, I understand why some might say her presence weighs it down. Perhaps I could make a lit-crit argument for why that’s not true, but all I really feel needs to be considered is what great fun this is to watch:
Still, the idea that the main stories in Iron Man 2 are not cohesive is wrong. These stories serve each other. Tony’s fatalistic attitude in the face of his poisoning has him considering how his legacy compares to his father’s. This is why he’s so protective of the biggest part of that legacy, Iron Man, when it comes to the government’s desire to seize the technology (which also sets up the arc the culminates in Civil War very nicely). He worries the immense power the Iron Man suit represents will be abused by the government, especially in light of his foster-father, Jeff Bridges’s Obediah Stane, betraying him. Even though this doesn’t make plot sense, it’s as if Tony feels that Iron Man would die with him. Rhodey, who seemingly betrays him, actually proves to Tony that he’s a responsible custodian of that legacy. This is why Tony lets him fly off after their fight. When he eventually beats his illness, Tony realizes that Iron Man is more effective with partners, thus inspiring his arc through the second Avengers film.
The machinations of Vanko and Rockwell, however, prove that Tony’s concerns are valid. While the conflict they provide is, again, obvious for a comic book movie, it’s not just vapid stuntwork and extravagant CGI. Vanko’s story is the first time the MCU allows that, from the villain’s point-of-view, their actions are justified. Knowing what we do now about Fury, did he simply tell Tony what he wanted to hear with respect to his father and Anton Vanko’s working relationship? Even if he was shooting it straight, which the movie suggests, from Vanko’s point-of-view this is revenge for erasing his family legacy. It’s the noble duty of a son, to avenge his dead father. Hammer, on the other hand, shows how spineless opportunists will take shortcuts and eschew ethics in favor of “winning” the game of arms dealing. Tony’s motivation to become Iron Man was deeply personal. Hammer’s motivation is to get richer and to embarrass his rival. This is what Tony means when he later tells Fury that he and “Iron Man” are inseparable. His genius and his resources are not his superpowers, but rather it’s his force of will and clear moral compass about things that matter.
This is a big, ambitious movie that may bite off more scenery than the cast can chew. But it’s nowhere near the sort of chaotic mess that many of its critics argue it is. Part of the reason the Star Wars prequels were so poorly received was not because of story problems or CGI usage (though, again, legitimate criticisms about those things exist). No, those movies were doomed from the get-go because audiences and critics had nigh-unreachable expectations for them. They had to be both entirely new and evocative of the same emotional resonance that the original films had (i.e., make audiences feel like a kid again). Iron Man 2 faced some of the same problems. The expectations for this film — and the three films that were to follow it — were equally preposterous. As with the prequels today, hopefully, future fans of the Infinity Saga will appreciate this movie for the fun and meaningful story that it is.
Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention one final time that I just love this movie. It’s my favorite of the Iron Man solo films, full of great performances and kick-ass sci-fi action. Most importantly, this is the film that cemented the nascent MCU as something different. This movie was the first glimpse into that “bigger universe” that Nick Fury spoke of in the first movie’s post-credits scene. For me, at least, this movie is what made me believe that a crossover event like The Avengers was actually possible. Iron Man 2 is not a stand-alone movie, and that’s completely by design. Jarring to movie critics and audiences alike, it was the initial gamble that paid off with the “insanity” that was Infinity War. If you enjoyed that movie and can’t wait for Avengers: Endgame, then you owe a debt to Iron Man 2, whether you like the film or not.
Though this can be said about every Phase 1 film, our next entry in the canon truly represented a “make-it-or-break-it” moment. Thor would be so tonally different than the previous films because it had to make audiences believe that a magical alien world where characters from ancient myth lived and fought was real. If Thor didn’t work, then the whole thing would have fallen apart before the Avengers had a chance to assemble.