As we count down to the long-awaited uber-team-up Avengers: Infinity War (out May 4), EW’s Marvel Movie Club is preparing by revisiting the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in the weeks leading up to the mega-sized movie. EW’s Chancellor Agard (that’s me!) will revisit one Marvel movie a week, every week, to reassess its powers and hopefully answer important questions along the way like “What was The Incredible Hulk?” “Does Nick Fury wash his eye-patch?” and “Is there a point to Hawkeye?” This week, we travel back to 2010 to re-consider the awkward Iron Man 2, a.k.a. 2 Iron 2 Man.
When I started this deep dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a friend messaged me saying, “Bless you for being willing to revisit Iron Man 2.” Obviously, I felt the same way. Received wisdom says the 2010 sequel to Iron Man is one of Marvel’s worst movies, and I wasn’t looking forward to checking it out again. However, to my surprise, I actually enjoyed rewatching Iron Man 2. Yes, it has many problems, but it’s entertaining in the same way that reruns of Charmed are entertaining — I won’t seek it out, but if it’s on TNT and I’m bored, I’ll comfortably sit through the entire thing. More importantly, this film’s flaws actually make it kind of interesting. It both turns everything in Iron Man up to 100 (Tony Stark’s arrogance; the witty banter) while also betraying some of what made that movie special, and attempts to actually jump-start an entire cinematic universe.
Here are the most interesting things that stood out to me when I revisited this perfectly fine sequel. (Note: Interesting doesn’t always mean good. It could simply mean that it distracted me from contemplating my multitude of sins and wickedness for just a moment.)
1. The movie is only superficially concerned with proliferation
The first Iron Man movie was very wary of the military industrial complex. One of the main takeaways of that film is that no one except for Tony Stark could be trusted with the Iron Man technology. Tony refuses to share his new arc-reactor tech with the world because he’s worried about it falling into the wrong hands — a fear Obie validates. But while Iron Man 2 returns to this idea, it doesn’t do anything to build upon it because it’s too enamored with its protagonist.
In the film’s first act, U.S. Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) summons Tony to Washington D.C. for a Senate hearing about the Iron Man suit. Obviously, the U.S. government wants it for itself because it would make quite the deterrent in the War on Terror, and it, too, has found itself concerned about rogue nations getting their hands on it. Tony refuses to cooperate, which isn’t surprising, because he is Iron Man and he doesn’t trust the government. Again, he’s the only one who can be trusted to handle this technology. “I have successfully privatized world peace,” Tony declares before the Senate.
However, rather than interrogate what it means for a boozy, reckless billionaire to wield such enormous power without any oversight, the movie falls back on its laurels and reemphasizes the individualistic patriotism of the first Iron Man film. This time, instead of having Obie stand in for the corrupt military industrial complex, we have Tony’s rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a military contractor who simply wants to beat Stark and teams up with Mickey Rourke’s vengeful Ivan Vanko, who creates another arc reactor-powered weapon, thereby validating Tony’s belief that his hands are the right ones. In other words: the overreaching U.S. government = bad, irresponsible, corrupt, wrong hands; the lone, rich white individual with a penchant for low key sexual harassment = the right hands. The movie isn’t interested in diving into that murky middle ground between the extremes because that would risk undermining our hero too much. He can be flawed, but not too flawed (see also: the movie’s half-hearted attempt at adapting the infamous Iron Man comic book storyline “Demon in the Bottle,” which focused on Tony’s alcoholism).
What’s unfortunate is that a children’s show wasn’t afraid to go there. The Justice League Unlimited animated series, which ended four years before Iron Man 2 hit theaters, spent its first two seasons questioning whether or not it was okay for these godlike beings — who had their own WMD-like weapons floating in space, aimed right at the Earth to be used when they deemed it necessary —to operate without any supervision. A shadow government organization called Cadmus grows in counterbalance to the Justice League, but eventually becomes corrupt. Like the Iron Man series, Justice League Unlimited didn’t trust the government and the military industrial complex; however, it didn’t ignore the fact that their concerns were valid, and season 2 ended with the Justice League taking steps to make themselves more accountable. You could read Tony agreeing to become a S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant at the end of the movie as him becoming accountable to someone, but I think that’s being rather generous.
2. Tony Stark’s daddy issues
The Iron Man franchise wasn’t supposed to be like other superhero stories. In addition to squashing the idea of a secret identity, the first movie also had a protagonist sans sad, deceased parental drama — a worn-out trope of the genre. Sure, there were hints that Tony and his father Howard’s relationship wasn’t the best, but it didn’t take up much narrative room. Alas, that’s not the case here. Much of the second act is about Tony making peace with his dad (John Slattery), whom he learns actually liked him (“My greatest creation is… you,” says Howard). In fact, the elder Mr. Stark, in a very Jor-El-like move, left Tony a map that would lead him to a new element that would change the world and, coincidentally, just happen to solve Tony’s heart problems. (In case you forgot: Tony’s arc reactor chest implant was killing him.) A father’s love saves the day!
3. Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer
It turns out there was a time when Marvel villains wanted something other than world domination. Case in point: Justin Hammer, who really just wants to make a lot of money and beat Tony Stark, who has nothing but contempt for him. There’s something almost charming about Hammer’s relatively modest goals. Unfortunately, Hammer ends up being forgettable, like most of Marvel’s villains, because he has to share his time with Whiplash, the picture’s second villain and the one who is really driven by revenge (which is itself rather boring and uninspired).
4. The very awkward world-building
What I kind of admire about Iron Man 2 is that in addition to furthering Tony’s journey and servicing two villains, it also had to effectively set up the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk featured little teases, but Iron Man 2 is where the universe-building begins in earnest. Scarlett Johansson makes her badass debut as Black Widow, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) pops up at the top of the second act just to say things like, “I have bigger problems in the southwest region to deal with,” which is a reference to Thor. All of this feels rather shoehorned in, especially the Fury bits, but it was necessary because Marvel Studios needed to set these wheels in motion.
(Another sign Iron Man 2 is Iron Man with no chill: The first movie featured a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Captain America’s shield; however, in this movie, the shield is the subject of a few lines of dialogue between Tony and Coulson because people needed to know that Cap was coming. It breaks the flow of the movie, but I kind of love it at the same time because it’s handled with the same sort of flippancy as almost everything else in the movie, save Tony’s daddy problems.)
5. The MCU’s first hallway fight scene
While the movie’s attempts to shoehorn S.H.I.E.L.D. into the narrative don’t always work, I will say I’m glad that it’s there because it gave us this awesome action scene that revealed just how much of a badass Black Widow is. Natasha’s aerial spinning leg move, which she does twice here, is iconic (I will never not associate it with her), and her pepper-spraying the final guard offers a nice punctuation to everything. Do I think this scene is the reason every Netflix-Marvel show has a hallway fight scene? Yes.
6. Why doesn’t Tony like to be handed things?
Several times in this movie, Tony and/or Happy (Jon Favreau) must explain to someone that Tony doesn’t like to be handed things. Like Tony’s throwaway MySpace line in the first film, this is something that has always stuck with me from these movies. Does Iron Man 2 ever explain why that is, or is this just a random character quirk they threw in the for the lolz?
Next Week: Thor, or The Birth of Internet Boyfriend Tom Hiddleston