A wise man once noted that it’s a fine line between clever and stupid. There is also a fine line between fun and irritating, between banter and bickering. Iron Man 2 crosses all of those lines, in the process creating the most egregious misstep in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. Yes, more so than Thor: The Dark World, which for all its problems still has really good chemistry between Thor and Loki. Iron Man 2 loses not only plot coherence and villain quality, it completely throws away the good chemistry between its leads in favor of sniping, unpleasantness and a manic quality that makes it feel like a cocaine movie from the 70s.
Picking up six months after the shock ending of Iron Man (an ending that was decided, more or less, on set), Iron Man 2 sees Tony Stark really vibing on his new career as superhero. But he’s realizing he didn’t take into account the side effects, both personal and political. As his body sickens from the palladium in his arc reactor, Tony also has to deal with the fact that the Iron Man armor has led to a new arms race, and that the US government is trying to seize his technology. As all of that happens a new armored foe with ties to Tony’s dad arrives… and is immediately neutralized.
Before we go any farther I want to talk about how bad Whiplash is in this film. To do that we need to separate the Mickey Rourke performance from the character’s actions and goals, because as lame as Whiplash is, Rourke is magically weird in his every scene. His syrupy Russian accent and his obsession with his “boid” (a character trait Rourke brought to the film) create a character who must rank very highly in the bizarro canon of the 21st century. It’s the kind of performance that gets Nic Cage endless ironic kudos, but Rourke’s Whiplash seems to have sunk into the world of minor memes.
That’s probably because the weirdo performance is shackled to an inactive, uninteresting character who never feels like any sort of threat at all. Ivan Vanko is fixated on Tony Stark because Vanko’s dad, Anton, was a former partner with Howard Stark, Tony’s dad. Together they created the original arc reactor, but they came to a disagreement and Stark exiled Vanko from the company and from history. Seeing Tony use the arc reactor to become a superhero as Anton dies of old age, Ivan decides to take his revenge by creating his own supersuit, and putting electrowhips on it.
His first outing is at the Monaco Grand Prix where Tony, in adrenaline junkie mode, is driving the Stark Industries Formula One race car. Vanko creates some havoc, comes close to killing Tony and then is immediately apprehended and imprisoned. He is quickly broken out of prison by crooked industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, giving another great bizarro performance) and spends the rest of the movie holed up in a lab, asking for his “boid” and building drones. When Whiplash returns at the end he is pretty handily defeated by Tony and his bud Rhodey in the War Machine armor. Like, he gets taken down in minutes. The end.
Watching the movie again I see the seeds of Marvel’s ‘villain problem’ being planted in this film. It isn’t like Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk had all-timer villains, but at least in Iron Man the villain had an emotional connection to Tony and in Hulk the villain was a legitimate threat. In Iron Man 2 the villain has neither; while Vanko has an emotional fixation on Tony, Tony doesn’t really give a shit about Vanko or his dad. In fact, Tony largely brushes off Anton’s mistreatment by Howard (the movie offers the explanation that Anton wanted to monetize the arc reactor, and Howard didn’t. This argument seems weird, as Howard was a billionaire, while Anton was a scientist from the Soviet Union, so he couldn’t have been wealthy. This doesn’t feel like Howard Stark taking a principled stand, it feels like Howard Stark really fucking over a guy just trying to make his place in the world. This situationis a classic example of someone pulling the ladder up after they finally climb to the pinnacle – nobody else gets to be up there! And the fact that Stark Industries never did anything with the arc reactor makes Howard’s stand all the more hollow. None of this is addressed or investigated), and the only real impact Whiplash has on Tony is sending him spiralling into a PTSD reaction after Monaco.
(Also the movie whiffs the opportunity to use the Stark/Vanko relationship to go deeper into Cold War and post-Cold War relations and American imperialism, but that’s another rereview’s ground to cover)
This, I think, speaks to the fact that in Marvel movies the biggest antagonist tends to be the hero himself; most of these films feature villains who set into motion some kind of dark night of the soul wherein the hero must overcome doubt, fear or weakness. This culminates in Captain America: Civil War, where the villain is the absolutely least physically threatening to date, but who manages to trip up all the heroes on their own shit. In that film it’s satisfying; in Iron Man 2 it feels distracting. Whiplash either needed less screentime or more, to either be more of a presence in Tony’s life or to perhaps just get killed off after Monaco, his main point in the movie having been accomplished. When Tony finally overcomes him at the end there’s no sense that it requires learning or a personal journey to get there, it’s just a necessary action beat.
In fact, Tony needing to confront Whiplash one last time robs the film of an opportunity to become more thematically coherent. Stark Industries puts its money behind a manned suit, while Hammer Industries goes for drone tech. We see the difference between Tony Stark and Justin Hammer here – Tony is an inventor and a doer, while Hammer just sells other people’s tech and rides on other people’s brilliance. The finale of Iron Man 2 should have been a proof-of-concept for Tony, showing why it’s so important to have a human in the suit .The final battle should have been man vs machine in full, so that the Man in Iron Man gets amplified. And sure, there’s a man vs machine battle at the end, but it’s meaningless, and the drone nature of the opponents has no thematic heft. The possibility is there – Vanko illicitly controls the drones to wreak havoc – but that doesn’t land. Perhaps the solution would have been to have the drones lose control accidentally, to malfunction in some way. By having a bad operator behind their destruction spree the script loses any man vs machine thematics – the drones are no different than missiles launched from a silo, thematically.
By leaning into man vs machine the movie could have brought in the illness subplot better than it did. In the actual film the illness operates as a way for Tony to connect with his dad; it turns out Howard Stark invented an element that can replace the palladium that is making Tony sick. But it also turns out he hid the description of the element in… the plans for his Stark Expo fairground? It’s ludicrous, the kind of shit you accept in a video game because you’re looking to solve puzzles. In a movie it’s just silly, and there’s not a particularly good reason why Howard hid the element in such a weird way.
To make matters lamer, Tony only learns this because Nick Fury shows up and drops off a bunch of boxes at his place and tells him the answer is somewhere within. It’s such a strange moment, as it robs all agency from Tony Stark. A more dynamic way of doing it would have been to have Tony make the initial discovery that his dad had found a new element and then be forced to go to SHIELD for help, an opportunity for some humility. By having SHIELD show up and drop the answer on him Tony is reduced to exactly the kind of helpless child he feels himself to be when compared to his dad.
This, by the way, gives me the opportunity to mention how utterly lame SHIELD is in this movie. The organization is ruthlessly shoehorned in as an attempt to create connective tissue with Thor and the brewing The Avengers. Black Widow is introduced (in a fashion that would make Tony fall afoul of the #metoo movement in 2018, by the way) only to do very little until she goes off on a solo mission at the end that feels like an extra complication included to give her action. The line that best sums up the SHIELD presence in this movie comes when Coulson (who seems to annoyed to be present) shows up and Tony says, “Oh, you’re still here?”
That annoyance, by the way, is what truly sinks Iron Man 2 The rest of the stuff – the script problems, the weak villain, the sagging themes – could be overcome if the movie had that spark other great MCU films have. That the first Iron Man had. Instead Iron Man 2 is filled with characters who are sick of each other’s shit, who are constantly sniping and whose banter has crossed over from fun, His Girl Friday stuff right into “Mommy and daddy are getting a divorce” territory.
Some of that is quite purposeful. Tony’s arc in this film is a watered-down version of the Demon in a Bottle storyline, which was Iron Man’s defining comic story. In that arc Tony falls into alcoholism, pilots the armor under the influence, and eventually has to give control of Iron Man over to Rhodey so he can sober up. Iron Man isn’t quite willing to go all the way there, but Tony does crawl into a bottle in the second act, leading to him having a big fight with Rhodey, who is wearing the Mark II suit from the first film. It’s one of the movie’s highlights, and Robert Downey Jr really taps into his own history to find the unpleasant jerk in Tony Stark. Plus, I’m a big fan of watching heroes fight (I think this is a prerequisite for being a Marvel fan of a certain generation).
But that scene might have been more powerful closer to the beginning of the film (the movie’s script is very janky, and it takes 45 minutes for the story to really get going), allowing repair of the damaged relationships to unfold at a better pace. Instead the film spends the first two acts with the characters fighting – physically and verbally – before having them wrap up their enmities in a hurry at the end in order to overcome the final threat. In terms of emotional pacing we don’t get to watch Tony break down loving relationships, we walk into a situation where they’re all frayed already. We then spend a lot of time in that space before having the relationships unfrayed in quickie fashion.
I think a lot of the problems on this front come from a script that was never finalized (Justin Theroux was writing constantly on set), a cast and crew that were at odds (I was on set and listened to Downey berate director Jon Favreau), and a reliance on improv within scenes. So many of the crowded, hectic interpersonal sequences feature characters talking over each other but never saying anything witty; there’s an Altman-esque quality to some of these scenes (the boxing training sequence really epitomizes this), but the dialogue is neither heightened into screwball sharpness nor grounded enough to feel real.
One saving grace of Iron Man 2 being a chapter in a longer story is that it gets to be recontextualized by future movies. As the larger MCU plays out it becomes clearer that Toy Stark’s story is about PTSD and his methods of control, and important seeds of that story are planted here. Some folks think the storypoints in this film are retconned in later films, but I think they’re illuminated. It’s important to remember that Tony’s story is ongoing – he doesn’t reach a stasis point at the end of this film, and what makes him one of the most dynamic characters in the MCU is the way that he ping-pongs off each new trauma in his life, sometimes totally reversing course.
After all, that’s how the series started – he went from callow arms dealer to superhero in the face of one trauma – so it makes sense that this is how it continues. Tony’s whole psychology is defined by his need to control, and we learn in Civil War that this may have grown out of the seemingly random deaths of his parents. Like many alcoholics and addicts, Tony tries to use his will to power his own life, and then he sinks into a blissful lack of control when he’s loaded. I’m going to bet money that Tony Stark, like many powerful men, is actually a sub in the bedroom, or at least when he gets comfortable with someone. He wants to have the conquest of getting a woman into bed, but in bed he wants to finally let go of his control.
I mean, that’s just a guess.
At any rate, we see Tony’s drive for control in every film. That’s where the Iron Man armor comes from. It’s where his attitude towards Garry Shandling and the US government comes from in Iron Man 2, and it’s where he butts heads with everyone in his life who is trying to help him. We do see that he’s susceptible to subtle control, the kind Black Widow exercises on him, but whenever anyone tries to tell him what to do his ego and will get in the way.
But the irony is that all of that ego and will is a facade behind which a frightened young boy hides. The boy who never felt good enough for his titanic father, whose last interaction with the man when he was a teen was difficult. That frightened boy comes out after Monaco – Tony is retraumatized – and is present until Tony finds the film that lets him make some peace with his dad.
This is where you could have gotten a great metaphor in Iron Man 2 with the drones – Tony Stark is armored on the outside, but very vulnerable on the inside, and he wants to be in total control at all times. He doesn’t like the drone systems because he wants the power, and he’s not looking to share or cede any of it to automated systems. Even JARVIS, his AI helper, isn’t as automated as he could be. That need for control is how Tony is able to get to the side of registration in Civil War – it’s not that he wants to answer to the government, something he doesn’t want to do in Iron Man 2, it’s that he wants to be the guy everyone answers to. As with all freethinkers and revolutionaries the things the powerful wanted to do to him are wrong… until he becomes powerful and wants to do it to others.
If Tony has any emotional journey in Iron Man 2 (and I think it’s really slight), it’s the journey that allows him to have Rhodey fight at his side, to have a team backing him up. In many ways it’s getting him into a position where he can walk into The Avengers and be a team player, if the team player who is constantly jockeying for top position. That’s a small ceding of control, something he’s usually only good at when it’s stuff he doesn’t care about. He allows Pepper to run Stark Industries day-to-day, but that’s just because he doesn’t give a shit in Iron Man 2. All he gives a shit about now is being Iron Man. But the fact that he allows others to assist him as Iron Man is the small measure of control he’ll give up. Baby learns how to delegate… a little.
I don’t think the movie on its own makes these points. I think the future films build on stuff that is haphazardly thrown around here to retroactively create these points. Iron Man Three hones in on the fact that Tony Stark’s real super power is his PTSD, as that’s what continuously drives him forward, while Age of Ultron and Civil War solidify the way his control issues impact him, and where they came from (with Ultron picking up the PTSD baton, by the way). Once we get to Spider-Man: Homecoming we see the true growth in the character, as he has found a son figure who he can mistreat in ways that are different yet similar to the ways his dad mistreated him (Tony’s whole “I’m disappointed in you” schtick is especially effective on a neurotic like Peter Parker who has a host of daddy/caregiver issues). All of this grows out of stuff in Iron Man 2, but again it doesn’t feel like stuff that Iron Man 2 is addressing well, beyond giving Tony daddy issues that can be resolved in a silly way.
At least Iron Man 2 gets a lot of casting right. Rourke, as I mentioned, is a treasure, even if Vanko is a waste. Sam Rockwell is great as Justin Hammer, although I would have liked him to be less of a clown, more of a threat. I think Rockwell could have done the same quirky, dancey performance but had Hammer as more of a Steve Jobs type, a ruthless user who is efficient at stealing other people’s ideas and repackaging them, which is what Hammer is basically doing. He just comes across as a dingdong a lot.
The replacing of Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle is a step in the right direction, although I actually think Howard would have worked better in this movie. Don’t get me wrong – Cheadle is great here, and even better in every Marvel movie going forward – but there’s a take-no-shit attitude written for Rhodey in this movie that feels like Terrence Howard. Howard’s relationship with Downey’s Stark in Iron Man felt more equal, as Howard brings a level of egoism that matches Downey. Cheadle is more good-natured; future Rhodey appearances lean into this, and they make him a good foil for the selfish and shitty Stark. That said, I think Cheadle seamlessly steps into the role, and I’m glad it’ll be him in Infinity War.
The casting of Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow is the coup of the film. She’s good enough to make you forget that Widow is wasted; I’d like to have seen a whole movie where Widow is infiltrating Stark’s inner circle and seducing him not sexually but through her competence and air of mystery. The scene they have together where he’s getting dressed is a great one, a scene that breaks the rest of Iron Man 2’s bickering barrier. Maybe this is something I’ll talk about more when I get to Winter Soldier, but just in case – I think Johansson is amazing as Natasha Romanov because there’s something fundamentally unknowable about Johansson. She’s an actor who is always distant, always withholding. There’s an unwillingness to let us in that she brings to her best performances – think Ghost World, Lost in Translation – that makes us want to lean in more and try harder. Just as Downey is the perfect casting for the snarky, troubled Stark, so Johansson is ideal for the troubled, remote spy.
That all blooms in The Avengers and Winter Soldier, but she still has it here. Of course she’s going to be distant from Happy and Tony – she’s spying on them! – but Johansson makes her a character who clearly prefers the distance. Even when she’s suited up as Widow she’s a solo operator, even if her mission is only support.
It’s interesting to see the relationship between Widow and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. Today’s girl power atmosphere either wouldn’t allow the two to relate the way they do in the movie – there’s intense rivalry and jealousy between them – or would have ended with them teaming up at the end and laughing about how useless Tony or Happy are. But Iron Man 2 is a pre-woke time capsule, and so we see Pepper again shooting daggers at women who dare come near Tony (I still can’t get over the slut shaming she gives Leslie Bibb in Iron Man). Olivia Munn was originally cast as a woman who would sleep with Tony, but that role got cut (Munn was shuffled over into a reporter role), and I think we should all be glad it did – I can’t imagine that Pepper of 2010 would have reacted to that character in a way anyone could get behind in 2018.
Iron Man 2 was created at a strange juncture for Marvel Studios. The first film had been a huge hit, bigger than anyone imagined. Then The Incredible Hulk stumbled, not quite a huge bomb, but not earning its money back and casting doubt on the coming shared universe. This was especially troubling when it became clear the next two heroes – Thor and Captain America – had about half the cultural cache of the Hulk. It was right around now that people at Marvel Studios began talking about the possibility of renaming The Avengers into Iron Man and the Avengers, or Iron Man 3: The Avengers. That uncertainty meant that Iron Man 2 had to carry a lot of the weight of establishing the shared universe, which is why Coulson walks around talking about another movie that you’re not watching.
The other problem was focus; while Jon Favreau had walked into the first Iron Man envisioning a trilogy, all of his plans had gone out the window when Iron Monger, his initial endgame villain, was used in the first film. Development was troubled, and they went into production with a script that nobody liked and that was being mercilessly and constantly reworked. All of the smallness of the first Iron Man was out the window here, and Iron Man 2 felt much more like a standard blockbuster, but with more arguing. The final battle in particular is a semi-coherent CGI slugfest with minimal stakes and zero emotional resonance.
But the characters and the actors were resilient enough to withstand a stumble. And the people behind the scenes were smart, and they paid attention to what did and didn’t work in this film. The first few MCU films are really the MCU finding its footing, figuring out what the right tone and attitude would be. By the time they got to Captain America: The First Avenger they had figured it out, and it would be with The Avengers that it all truly came together. I’m rough on Iron Man 2, but that’s just because even when it came out I understood the possibility of this universe and the people behind it – I’m tough because I care. And if this is the worst the MCU ever gets, we have a lot of good movies to look forward to in our rereviews.