"Iron man lives again!"
Iron Man 2 is the moment where the Marvel Cinematic Universe really starts to feel like itself. For the first time, the series devotes significant screentime and storytelling effort into building out its larger superhero landscape rather than just focusing on the hero and story of the film. And, for the first time, more than a single 60 second scene is dedicated to laying groundwork for future films. The story is starting to have tendrils and leave breadcrumbs. There are very few templates for that kind of “cinematic universe” film, and it shows: This is an awkward transitional film with an extremely messy story that feels more like half a season of TV than a proper film.
While the screenplay by Justin Theroux (!) and the execution by returning director Jon Favreau are underwhelming, I don’t hate the movie or its ambition. Sequels are supposed to expand the world, deepen the themes, and broaden the cast of characters from the original. Iron Man 2 certainly does that, but the way it crams all of it into a two-hour timeframe is clumsy and haphazard.
The story picks up after the dust of Iron Man 1 has settled into a new normal: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has become a celebrity and a one-man vigilante army with a not-so-secret identity. He faces public backlash against his actions as a superhero, and he’s under pressure from the government to hand over the Iron Man technology. Meanwhile, the long shadow of Stark Industries’ warmongering is catching up with Tony.
Iron Man 2 introduces three villains, each of whom is independently interesting but together make the movie feel unfocused. The first, Stark’s seductive and duplicitous secretary Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), ends up being a red herring as an elite SHIELD agent who we would come to know as Black Widow. Recently, there’s been a backlash to her character in this movie, including by Johansson herself, as people note the horny male gaze from which she is written and objectified. This is not an incorrect observation, but the entire point of her character as introduced here is to be a femme fatale who lures Stark to the dark side away from Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), so it at least serves a narrative purpose.
The second and third villains get mashed together into a single plot thread that doesn’t really make any sense. First, we have Stark’s rival defense contractor Justin Hammer played by Sam Rockwell, who gives a delightful and eccentric performance as a snotty billionaire. Then we have Ivan Vanko aka Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), who is seeking vengeance against the Stark family and wields some slick metal-slicing electric whips.
Each of these antagonists challenges Stark in a different way. Hammer explores the idea that Stark’s Iron Man technology will inevitably be used for war and for profit, even if Stark maintains his ideals. Romanoff escalates Stark’s easygoing playboy habits into his potential downfall. (Since Black Widow is a hero, this is eventually justified as being a moral test of Stark’s character as he’s evaluated for the Avengers.) Whiplash adds a layer of generational Cold War guilt, making Stark question how much he must pay for the sins of his father and recreate his mistakes.
The fact that these antagonists all poke at Stark’s flaws in different ways makes me receptive to the film’s idea of fitting them all into a single film. But the truth is that it ends up too messy and none of the villains get their proper due. This lack of focus is exacerbated by additional narrative cruft, like Potts getting promoted to CEO of Stark Industries, that don’t really go anywhere. It sometimes feels like Iron Man 2 is all subplots with no main plot or a bunch of TV episodes haphazardly combined.
One particular bit of lazy writing that bothered me is that Whiplash represents the antithesis of Iron Man, his metal-shredding powers able to undo Iron Man’s advantage. However, in the final action scene, Whiplash inhabits an Iron Man suit, leading to another showdown of Iron Man battling dark mirror versions of himself. This is essentially the climax of Iron Man 1 all over again, just with more dark Iron Men this time.
Iron Man 2 also forces me to reckon with an oversimplified statement I made in my Iron Man 1 and Incredible Hulk reviews: that the real villains of those movies are the military-industrial complex. This is a reflection of public distrust of these institutions from the late Bush era in which the movies were created. However, neither of those movies, especially not Iron Man 1, makes a case for total de-escalation and pacificism, but instead proposes the idea of putting the weapons in the hands of a few self-proclaimed heroes (*cough* Obama) to administer justice as their morals see fit. Iron Man 2 spends some of its runtime deconstructing this theme by having the bad guys and mercenaries (who are ultimately one and the same) expose the hypocrisy of Iron Man 1’s conclusion: Giving an “enlightened few” all the weapons and power is functionally equivalent and inevitably just as dangerous as giving it to legions of faceless contractors working for profit. Modern warfare is a vicious, capitalistic cycle no matter what face we put on it. Had Iron Man 2 really pushed this idea to its endpoint, I would have been thrilled and surprised: It would’ve been a compelling and dark theme for Marvel to investigate.
But then the ending pulls a complete U-turn. The finale doubles down on the ending of Iron Man 1, giving all the power back to Stark to be the one-man international justice system — detective, judge, jury, executioner — this time with James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle, recast from Terrence Howard) at his side.
Iron Man 2 is flawed but it also has plenty working in its favor, and that includes pretty much the entire cast. Certainly, after The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 feels full of zesty and well-articulated performances. Downey Jr. leads the pack, maintaining the energy of his performance in the first film, but also darkening it at the right moments, providing his character with cohesion even when the writing is inconsistent.
The supporting cast of Iron Man 2 is strong, too. Rockwell is legitimately funny and seems to perfectly understand the assignment and tone. Johansson is beautiful and charismatic as Romanoff, and has great chemistry with Downey, Jr. She also gives the franchise some much-needed female agency in spite of the weird male gaze she’s depicted with. No surprise to me she became a cornerstone for the MCU. Rourke is perfectly menacing as Ivan Vanko, even though I wish he had more to do as Whiplash. He also has some meta-film mirrors to Robert Downey Jr., as both had been seen as Hollywood redemption stories in the late 2000’s. Cheadle is a big step up from Howard, no surprise, holding his own against Downey, Jr. Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson reappear, and they’re reliable, too, though the movie can’t quite decide exactly what Potts’ personality is. Honestly, the broad cast of Iron Man 2 is the core reason why the movie is so enjoyable, and it saves the film a rating point or two.
The film’s action is noisier and more Michael Bay-esque than either Iron Man 1 or The Incredible Hulk. There are two big action sequences. The first, when Whiplash disrupts a car race that Stark is participating in, is pretty great, making use of Whiplash’s specific threat and with some unique set piece construction. The second, the big finale with a bunch of robots flying around and punching and/or blasting each other, is pretty bland. I’m honestly already running out of things to say about these action set pieces.
Iron Man 2 is tough to give an overarching rating to. It has a lot of good stuff within, and is always watchable thanks especially to its charismatic cast and its intriguing world-expansions. Sum it up and it’s a fun film. But that’s not the whole picture; the film’s story is not fully functional, and it drags Iron Man 2 down quite a bit into not-quite-recommended status. Up next is the series’ first adventure to the cosmos with Thor.
- Review Project: Marvel Cinematic Universe