With the success of Iron Man, and the relative success of The Incredible Hulk, the planned Marvel Cinematic Universe was beginning to take shape. Next up was Iron Man 2 as Marvel aimed to capitalise on the popularity of Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Tony Stark. Iron Man 2 was also the first of these movies I saw in the cinema, and I was so unimpressed at the time that I didn’t see another until everyone started losing their minds over The Avengers two years later.
Iron Man 2 is not a movie that I would go back to under any other circumstances. If the MCU was an album, Iron Man 2 is the song that I would skip. All of which made me excited to see it again – there’s so much to learn from films that succeed, but more from movies that fail. So, after the downbeat nature of The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 is a sensory nightmare. It’s two different movies trying to fit in the same space: one a fun and exciting sequel, the other a hard-hitting study of Tony Stark. It fails at both, but I have to give Downey, Jon Favreau, and screenwriter Justin Theroux credit for aiming high.
We’re reintroduced to Tony after he revealed that he was Iron Man to the world. I didn’t mention this when writing about the first movie, but this act completely puts Tony Stark in a league of his own in terms of superheroes. There’s no secret identity malarkey for this Black Widow-sanctioned narcissist, and Iron Man 2 attempts to explore the concept of an out and proud superhero by doubling down on everything that annoys everyone else about Tony. This guy should fire his PR team because he gets the job done by himself. When he’s not taking sole credit for achieving peace in our time, he’s doing open mic at Senate hearings. Except all the money and metal suits can’t save him from the deadliest killer in all of fiction: dramatic irony. You see, the shiny light thing that keeps him alive (these movies abuse my tolerance for jargon, so this is the best I can do) is also slowly killing him. That’s right, being Iron Man is literally killing Tony, because these are definitely nuanced serious movies.
But at least Iron Man 2 tries to be something a little more cerebral. Robert Downey Jr plays up Tony’s empty bravado nicely, further reminding us that he was doing interesting things with the character long before Ultron. His performance aside, Iron Man 2 manages to fumble nearly every interesting thing it has going for it. Don Cheadle is a welcome replacement to Terrence Howard as Rhodey, and he does finally get to suit up in the movie. This should be a triumphant moment but it’s just a fight with a drunk Tony that renders the whole thing flat. What’s worse is the huge boner that Jon Favreau has for Scarlett Johansson: we all know Black Widow, and we all think she’s awesome, but her introduction here is kind of disgusting. I’m aware that Johansson is an attractive woman – I do have eyes – but the lecherous way she’s used in most of this movie becomes the only thing I could remember about her character, and that’s a shame because she’s a damn Russian superspy.
Ticking the Romance Box
I’ll give Iron Man 2 this, it has found the perfect way to portray Tony and Pepper’s combative romantic connection. It’s still an HR nightmare, but Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow are so game for the characters back and forth – which are actually nicely reminiscent of Howard Hawks screwball comedies.
The Wasted Villain Corner
It’s a sequel so we have two wasted villains for the price of one. My kingdom for an Iron Man villain that isn’t just another dude in an armoured suit. As parallels to our hero, Vanko and Justin Hammer make a highly unsatisfying double act. This isn’t the fault of Mickey Rourke or Sam Rockwell, who were both riding high after acclaimed indie performances in The Wrestler and Moon respectively, but rather thanks to the inherent ridiculousness of their characters juxtaposed against a more serious plot and the fact that, you know, both characters are simply terrible.
Like Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2 is the second installment that is better left forgotten. Jon Favreau couldn’t make lightning hit twice, the Marvel villain problem was starting to get really noticeable (although we get our first great one next time), and even Downey Jnr’s solid performance can keep this one from landing firmly in the “stinker” category.
By Kevin Boyle