This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.
How do they follow up on “I am Iron Man”? By making Tony Stark a rock star.
Iron Man 2 picks up 6 months after the first film, and sees Tony at the height of his flashy, attention-grabbing antics, flying in as Iron Man to a stage filled with Iron Man-themed dancers to deliver the opening speech for the Stark Expo, the MCU’s answer to the World’s Fair. We learn that not only has Iron Man made him more of a celebrity than ever, it’s also been responsible for a period of relative peace – where the first film compared Tony’s weapons tech to the atomic bomb, now the existence of the suit is spoken of as a deterrent. Other countries have tried to replicate the technology, but no one has come close.
The US government tries to force Stark to hand over the technology, but he isn’t giving in. The scene where Tony attends a Senate committee hearing is one of the highlights of the film, and also introduces us to some of the characters who’ll be playing a major role. Most significant is Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, a recasting of the character played by Terence Howard in Iron Man. Cheadle brings a different energy to Rhodey, and though I have nothing against Terence Howard, I find myself more convinced by Cheadle’s portrayal of the old friend who eventually gets frustrated and pissed off when Tony’s behaviour gets in the way of what he believes is the responsible thing to do, as a member of the US military. Rhodes has gotten short shrift in the crossover films over the years, being something of a second stringer alongside the main cast, but Cheadle’s been consistently good in the role. Avengers Endgame gave us no hints where the character might go next, if he continues to appear at all. Let’s hope they make some use of him.
The other major character we meet at the Senate hearing is Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell. Hammer is a knock-off Tony Stark; he’s who Tony was before Iron Man, but without the charisma – constantly in second place, trying his hardest to do everything and be everything Tony Stark is. Rockwell is a brilliant actor, and it’s the subtleties of his performance that make this character work. He can deliver a speech with all the braggadocio you’d expect from a Stark-type billionaire entrepreneur, and yet leave you with the sense that something’s missing, like he lacks the confidence to back up his words. Where Tony can get away with being an asshole because of his charm, Hammer just comes across as a creep.
There are two main threads to the plot in Iron Man 2; one in which the Russian Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash, attempts to knock Tony Stark off his pedestal by demonstrating he is not invulnerable as Iron Man, and a second in which Tony is dying because of the arc reactor in his chest, and must find a replacement element before it kills him. The film tries to tie these together through a connection to Tony’s father – Ivan Vanko is the son of Anton Vanko, a soviet defector who helped Howard Stark design the original arc reactor, but was deported once Stark discovered he was selling secrets; and the solution to save Tony’s life eventually comes from looking back at something his father built. The two threads rarely cross, however.
Vanko is aware that Tony is dying, but Tony has no idea Vanko is still alive and working with Justin Hammer after his first attack and arrest in Monaco. The solution to Tony’s problem comes not because of anything Vanko does, but because Tony’s self-destruction in the face of his mortality is halted by a falling out with Rhodey and the intervention of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.
Fury informs Stark that his father was one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that the arc reactor was “only a stepping stone” that Howard always expected Tony to follow up on. He gives Tony a box of Howard’s old stuff that just happens to contain a recording of the pep talk Tony needs to shake him out of his selfishness, and indirectly leads to Tony finding a secret map in a diorama showing the composition of a new element that would be perfect for his arc reactor. The element would be “impossible to synthesise” according to the AI J.A.R.V.I.S., but Tony manages to do it by… uh… building a particle accelerator in his basement which he… uses to fire a laser… at a bit of metal… turning it into the new element?
This sequence is one of the dumbest things I have seen in a major blockbuster movie.
I could almost forgive them for not really caring about realistic science, except that this is the culmination of the entire second act. Apart from the fight between Tony and Rhodes in the Iron Man suits, the second act is all plot, no action, and it’s all building up to this ridiculous nonsense science. This one thing is the reason I had never rewatched the movie until this week.
From here, the film proceeds in a pretty straightforward manner through the third act: Tony finds out Vanko is alive and at the expo, he goes there, Vanko hijacks the Hammer drone suits to attack Tony, there’s a big robot fight, and finally Vanko himself shows up in a giant Iron Man suit of his own. This last part is where it kind of falls flat. Iron Man already fought another bigger copy of himself in his first movie, so this was something of a retread in that aspect, and from Ivan Vanko’s perspective he shouldn’t have any reason to go after Tony Stark again. He’d already made his point by showing Stark was vulnerable, and although he’d been humiliated by Hammer for not delivering the designs he wanted, he hadn’t learned anything to suggest he needed to hit Tony Stark again – he doesn’t know Tony has cured the poisoning that was killing him.
All in all it’s a very small, traditional action film, compared to the first. Some of the improvisational humour is still around, but it’s altogether more conventional. Tony has had a pretty straightforward arc at this point: in Iron Man he learned he had to take matters into his own hands if he wanted to protect people; in Iron Man 2 he learns to accept help from the people around him and not isolate himself so much.
The film is probably most significant in the work it does to establish the wider Marvel universe. This was the third movie in the franchise, and came two years after the previous films; it had to do most of the heavy lifting on its own. Hence the use of S.H.I.E.L.D. much more heavily this time round, although I think it did come at the cost of a potentially stronger middle act.
This was the first film in which Samuel L. Jackson played a significant role as Nick Fury following the brief cameo at the end of Iron Man, and it’s interesting to see him and S.H.I.E.L.D. used mainly as a plot device to force Tony to get over himself and get to work, instead of having his falling out with Rhodey and Pepper Potts cause any kind of self-reflection. Even then, the house arrest they place him under ends up meaning nothing as he freely pops out to visit Pepper at the Stark headquarters and returns with the aforementioned diorama, with S.H.I.E.L.D. barely acknowledging he went anywhere.
This is also where Scarlett Johanssen first appears as Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, here undercover as Stark employee Natalie Rushman. While she does have a decent fight sequence near the end of the movie – in which Johanssen performs most of her own stunts, having trained pretty heavily for the role – her character has no personality whatsoever here. With Natasha being one of the characters who only gets to show up in ensemble movies, we never really get to know her as a character, and this is probably the least amount of work any of the films has done to establish her, despite her being present for a significant portion of the film. The lack of time given to characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye is part of the reason their storyline in Endgame ends up falling flat, as the series hasn’t done the work to earn the emotional payoff they strive for there. Natasha in Iron Man 2 is cool, sexy and badass, but it’s all about how she looks on screen; there’s nothing to care about as a character.
Tony Stark is the core of the Marvel universe because for most of its early years he’s all they had. The other films didn’t work out so well, and the characters they introduced in secondary roles – like Black Widow and Hawkeye – weren’t fleshed out. It helps that the Iron Man films were also a lot better than the others they were making, of course.
I realise this post has gotten long and pretty unstructured, but there was one final thing I wanted to add here that I’d forgotten to mention when talking about Iron Man: the music. Looking back on it from our current perspective, the first movie doesn’t sound like a Marvel movie. It has a guitar-heavy soundtrack that often doesn’t sit quite right with the feel of the film – it draws attention to itself a little too much. In Iron Man 2 we find the guitars are still there – the soundtrack even includes two AC/DC tracks where the original used one – but it’s within an overall more traditional score, and it’s one aspect where it feels like Marvel was beginning to find its footing in this film.
The final teaser in Iron Man 2 was, of course, for the next film they had lined up: Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, which was due for release in 2011. Iron Man 2 was the last time Marvel would have more than a one year gap between releases.