[This is a re-post of my retrospective series in which I take a look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These articles do not contain spoilers for unreleased Marvel movies. If you know any spoilers about the unreleased Marvel movies, please do not post them in the comments section.]
The Incredible Hulk showed that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed serious construction, but it didn’t have any of the pieces. Iron Man 2 presents the mess of a studio trying to figure out how to build a universe while also creating a self-contained film that provides its protagonist a strong arc and character development. The movie does neither particularly well, although that didn’t seem to matter as it raked in over $650 million worldwide and landed as the 3rd highest-grossing film (domestically) for 2010. People wanted more of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), they wanted more Marvel flavor, and the studio struggled with both.
What follows will mostly sound like a long screed against Iron Man 2, but if you stick with it to the end, I promise I will explain its greatest merits.
Iron Man 2 isn’t a good film. It’s watchable, but it’s a wreck because the plot is three stories crammed together: It’s about “legacy”, it’s about Tony suffering from palladium poisoning, and it’s about keeping the Iron Man armor contained to one person who is accountable to no one but his own massive ego. And then there’s the Avengers set-up sprinkled on top, which is a chore, albeit a necessary one.
Any three of Iron Man 2’s plotlines could carry an entire film. After seeing Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) construct his own version of the mini-Arc Reactor to power a new suit, we get to Tony Stark using his suit for entertainment purposes, specifically to kick off the Stark Expo, a competition to showcase technological innovation. Tony has created one of the greatest weapons ever made, and then decides to turn it into a showpiece complete with sexy dancers before saying that the Expo isn’t about him; “It’s about legacy.”
Legacy isn’t a bad concept. Legacy was Tony’s motivation in the first movie; he didn’t want his legacy to be Stark weapons landing in the hands of the enemy and killing American soldiers. He was willing to put himself at risk to change his legacy, although his new one would still have the same arrogance if not more. Bringing in Vanko as the “sins of the past” would also bolster the legacy theme along with Tony trying to reconcile his feelings about his father. However, all of these things would have to be working properly to make them cohere into a powerful film.
Instead, the movie never questions Tony’s arrogance as it remains one of his endearing character traits, nor does it really delve into the dangers of having one man with so much power. The government is concerned with proliferation, not with a billionaire who goes where he wants and does what he wants. There’s no menace when Tony stands up and says he has “successfully privatized world peace.” If the movie seriously delved into the danger of proliferation, then it would take Tony back to the question of whether there’s any way to create a weapon without making the world a more dangerous place. If escalation is inevitable, then how can he possibly alter his legacy? Iron Man 2 isn’t particularly interested in that question; it’s more about the risk of the arc reactor landing in the “wrong hands”, which just repeats the conflict of the first film rather than expanding it.
Vanko continues Marvel’s grand tradition of taking a great actor (although Rourke is questionable; it seems like the only person who could get a strong performance out of him was Darren Aronofsky) and saddling him with a dull villain. Vanko is the perfect villain for a “trailer movie”. He does a few cool moves, has a nice little speech about blood and sharks and making God bleed, and that’s all you’ll see in the trailer. When it comes time for the full film, you’ll see an actor’s eccentricities kick into overdrive as he complains about his bird and spends most of the film stuck in a warehouse.
Then there’s Tony’s father, and the movie tries to tie everything together—legacy, Tony’s daddy issues, curing the palladium poisoning and even S.H.I.E.L.D.—and rests it on the dumbest coincidence possible. It turns out that Howard Stark (John Slattery) created the technology that just happened to cure his son of a singular physical ailment. The only mystery Tony solves is a secret treasure map, which only relates to his dad’s legacy. It has absolutely nothing to do with Tony’s personal legacy.
That’s because Iron Man 2 doesn’t have much to do with anything. It takes over 20 minutes for anything substantive to happen. There are plenty of introductions, but the film is still at a loss for a central conflict until Vanko starts destroying stuff at the racetrack. Up until then, the movie has had some fun moments, but almost no forward momentum because the picture is a reluctant compromise.
It’s devastatingly clear that director Jon Favreau wanted to adapt “Demon in a Bottle”, the most famous storyline from the Iron Man comics. For those who don’t know, “Demon in a Bottle” is about Tony Stark wrestling with alcoholism, which was an incredibly mature storyline for a superhero comic at the time. Unsurprisingly, Marvel Studios probably wasn’t keen on having their marquee superhero go all Leaving Las Vegas.
The solution seems to be that the palladium poisoning would stand in for alcoholism. It’s a thing that’s slowly killing Tony, but he’s dependent on it and can’t find a cure. The story is then peppered with Tony getting drunk at his birthday party and fighting Rhodey/War Machine (Don Cheadle). That’s as far as Favreau gets to take it, and that’s not enough to make up an entire film, especially one that demands more action than just two Iron Man suits fighting (a smackdown that’s terribly executed because the fight lacks energy and it’s set to Rob Base and DJ E-Z’s “It Takes Two.”)
So the legacy angle is muddled as hell and the “Demon in a Bottle” story has no bite because it comes from a periodic element rather than a serious affliction. Then we have Iron Man not being Iron Man for the majority of the film. Iron Man 2 struggles to find time and a reason to put Tony in the suit. Iron Man is all about Tony building the suit, but Iron Man 2 has no idea where to send him. We get the badass suitcase armor and a new armor that has a triangle as the arc reactor instead of a circle (and the circle looked better; yes, I know the triangle comes from the comics).
Finally, there’s the Avengers problem. At this point, Marvel knew that The Avengers was happening. I’m not sure how far Kevin Feige had mapped it out or if he knew exactly how he was getting there, but he clearly knew that S.H.I.E.L.D. needed a larger presence, more Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and the introduction of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Iron Man 2 didn’t know how to properly include the organization (Thor did a better job defining its parameters and operations), so Fury gets in a few quips and Romanoff is eye candy. With the exception of getting the audience to appreciate Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), the inclusion of S.H.I.E.L.D. is slightly a step above an end credit reading “Iron Man Will Return in The Avengers”.
It all leads up to a repeat of Iron Man’s ending but with more stuff. Instead of fighting one machine, he fights a bunch of machines, and does it in a fairly unexciting way of just flying around the expo. Then it culminates by taking out Vanko in a brief, anticlimactic two-on-one fight. It has nothing to do with legacy or sacrifice or world peace. It’s Tony and Rhodey executing a special move and then Vanko blows himself up. Compare this to Iron Man where Tony is willing to give his life to stop Iron Monger.