Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I have never quite got the superhero hype, however. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.
Release Date: 30th April 2010
MCU Phase: One
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Justin Theroux
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke
May contain spoilers.
With Iron Man 2, we find ourselves on the MCU’s first traditional sequel. It is therefore the first film with the chance to give us that warm, familiar glow that comes with a second instalment. We start dark this time, as a grunty-Russian version of Mickey Rourke puts together his own arc-reactor heart – this is the third copycat-style villain in a row – clearly with some personal vendetta against Tony Stark, or more accurately against his long-deceased father Howard Stark.
Before long, though, we’re back to the Tony who so entertained us last time. He still behaves like a rockstar; he’s still surrounded by scantily-clad women; he’s still a bit of a prick. Thanks to Robert Downey Jr. he’s also still charming and lovable, and it is a testament to both this film and its predecessor that the fast and familiar banter between Stark, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, who is in the director’s chair again) is so enjoyable.
The fear with this film, then, is that it becomes just a pale imitation of the first film, a cynical attempt to hit all the same beats that audiences loved the first time but with a different villain. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 is a pleasant surprise in being a more ambitious film than that. It’s still quick, funny, and relies on the charisma of Downey Jr., but there’s more to it this time – more going on, more to process. It’s not a wholly successful attempt to broaden the canvas, but it’s a bloody good try.
The film’s main problem lies in how much it tries to pack in. On the one hand there is a straight-forward baddie to defeat in Rourke’s Ivan Vanko; on the other there is a genuinely interesting discussion of the merits of Tony having ‘privatised world peace’ and keeping his technology to himself; then on another hand Nick Fury and Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow turn up to help with the Avengers world-building; and on a magical fourth hand, the film is a character study of Tony Stark as he loses control and realises that the palladium in his chest is slowly killing him. That’s four things in one movie. For me, three of them are good, but the other one insists in getting in their way, thereby weakening the whole film.
There is very little of interest about Ivan Vanko. His dad didn’t like Tony Stark’s dad so he wants to kill Iron Man. And he’s Russian. That’s about it. Which makes his whole story arc feel somewhat redundant and frustrating, particularly when the script gives it priority over more interesting things. For the most part, the film does a good job of digging a little into Tony Stark, interrogating his ‘lone gunslinger act’ and putting him in a position of personal turmoil so that we can see more of the man behind the arrogant playboy facade. However, I could have done without the clichéd daddy issues stuff, and it all only goes so deep as it gives way to the more predictable elements of the plot – mostly the face-off with Vanko that we know is coming.
Early on in the film we see Tony being questioned by the Senate about his decision to keep the Iron Man technology for himself and the possibility of other, nefarious, people developing something similar. We are also introduced here to fellow weapons developer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) as a rival to Tony, and the emergence of conflict between Tony and military buddy Rhodey. All of this is potentially fascinating, and could have made for a great film when paired with Tony’s quest to stop himself slowly dying. Yet after these early scenes, the film seems to just stop giving this storyline any attention. It becomes unclear and confusing, wasting the opportunity to discuss something interesting and nuanced.
The Hammer character, too, is a bit of a disappointment. He is not a bold alternative visionary to take on Tony, but just another unambiguously bad dude. He and Vanko could have provided a proper personal challenge for Stark, but instead become straightforward baddies. In other words, a bit dull. The only thing that saves it is Sam Rockwell’s performance as Hammer, giving one of the best evocations of a total bellend that I have ever seen. Just look at the way he struts around the expo stage near the end of the movie; he so desperately wants to be Tony Stark but is instead such a pathetic squib. Masterful stuff from Rockwell that.
The other notable piece of casting here proves to be Don Cheadle as Rhodey. Replacing Terrence Howard, who reportedly took home the biggest paycheck on the first film, Cheadle slots in nicely, keeping up with the disapproving yet loving glances Rhodey gave Tony throughout the first film. It is a line-up change that feels neither monumental nor detrimental. Rhodey as a character, however, feels hugely important to Iron Man 2. Even if the split between him and Tony is a little botched, one of the film’s best scenes is a fight between the pair at Stark Manor, spurred on by Tony’s drunken antics at his birthday party, themselves spurred on by his personal troubles. The reason I love set-pieces like this is because, in character terms, there is something at stake, and you’re not sure who you want to win.
I understand that a big blockbuster like this has to have big action spectaculars, but those scenes can have more to them than trying to defeat a bland foe. This has long been my issue with action blockbusters; that large-scale CGI violence is not in itself entertaining. There needs to be something else to latch onto, like a real sense of peril. Because at this stage in a franchise we know the hero will survive, something else needs to be thrown in to make us care about the action. That something is certainly not Ivan bloody Vanko. I couldn’t care less about him in the film’s climax; smartly, what Iron Man 2 does is make Rhodey a major player. His life, his relationship with Tony, and Tony’s relationship with himself are at stake, making the action more engaging.
Where the film perhaps most succeeds in its blending of storylines is in the introduction of Scarlett Johansson as Agent Romanoff, and more Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. The danger with this early stage of the MCU’s world domination is that the effort to plant the seeds for future films gets in the way of telling the individual film’s story. Here, the S.H.I.E.L.D. representatives are more than just a nuisance because: a) one of them is Samuel L. Jackson and he’s the coolest motherfucker around; b) they are an actual part of the story. They are introduced as characters acting within this film’s world, not ones from another film who are just popping in. It is, in fact, probably the most elegantly handled part of Justin Theroux’s script.
The universe-expanding epilogue this time comes in two parts. A pre and post-credits sting, if you will. For the first we get something meatier than just ‘we’re putting a team together’ as we have so far. Instead, Tony’s suitability for the ‘Avengers Initiative’ is called into question, hinting at the role he will play when The Avengers rolls around. The actual ‘sting’, right at the end of the credits, is a direct set-up for our next film: Thor. His iconic hammer landed somewhere in New Mexico, I can’t help but be excited for what’s in store next time.
Where it Ranks
It’s interesting when looking at how the MCU movies are ranked and perceived by many that Iron Man 2 is usually pretty far down the pecking order. It’s got some obvious flaws, yes, but there’s a lot to appreciate here. Hell, it even has less of those annoying ‘quips’ in the action scenes than the first film, which is worth something in itself. Iron Man 2 had a different job to Iron Man; you can feel that when watching the film. Perhaps because it always had the harder job, Jon Favreau’s second film does not do it quite so well. Yet it has much more fun and meat to it than The Incredible Hulk. So, straight to the middle it goes.
- Iron Man
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk