MCU Retrospective: Iron Man 2

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Next up is Iron Man 2, which made the first Iron Man seem like a one-time stroke of good fortune.

60/100

If the MCU started with a bang with the first Iron Man, its two immediate follow-ups more closely resembled whimpers, making this burgeoning cinematic universe look like a flash in the pan rather than something that could stand on its own two feet. While Iron Man 2 is less laborious than The Incredible Hulk and possesses some of the wit that made the first Iron Man soar, its overstuffed plot and boring action set-pieces make it land with a bit of a thud, moving the MCU to rocky ground.

Where Iron Man’s opening act—Tony Stark in a cave with a box of scraps—is careful and meticulous, stripping our hero of everything but his wits and thereby giving him humanity, Iron Man 2 opts for a more haphazard approach even as it consciously tries to echo those opening moments from its predecessor. Instead of Tony in a cave, we have Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) in a derelict building in Russia, but he too has a box of scraps—and a thirst for vengeance upon Tony Stark for some unknown wrong done to Ivan’s dead father, Anton (Yevgeni Nikolayevich Lazarev). All of this is truncated into the span of about five minutes, so where Tony’s grief at Yinsen’s death in Iron Man lands, Ivan’s overexaggerated howl at his father’s passing comes off as satire even as the movie tries to play it straight.

But, thankfully, we still have Robert Downey Jr. as our anchor, and Tony Stark continues to be endlessly frustrating and endlessly charming. As we reacquaint ourselves with our hero, we learn that the palladium core in Tony’s arc reactor that keeps him alive is also killing him, something that has sent Tony into a depressive spiral. 

Since the beginning, Tony has had a rather self-destructive streak; he can never let himself rest, and instead keeps pushing and pushing. He gets obsessive. He talks about using the Iron Man suit to protect the world, but often it’s really to protect himself from the guilt he feels over his parents’ deaths, the guilt he feels from Stark Industries’ murky legacy, always the guilt over something. His impending doom in Iron Man 2 accelerates this, his suicidal tendencies making him even more reckless than normal and sending him back to his old, pre-Iron Man self: he drinks, he parties, he ogles new assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), and generally acts like a prat, though we know him enough to know that he’s faking it and putting on a front—at least to some extent. However, his actions result in Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) confiscating one of Tony’s suits after a mano-a-mano beatdown. To cap off his string of bad decisions, Tony decides to compete in the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, where Ivan is lying in wait for him. Aside from a great suit-up (and Pepper and Tony’s back-and-forth while director Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan tries to run Ivan over), the fight is largely dull.

Tony learns that Ivan is seeking revenge on behalf of his father Anton, whom we learn worked on the original arc reactor project with Tony’s father, Howard, before Howard had him deported after Anton leaked secrets. This sets up the central idea of the movie: legacy. The legacy of Anton, the legacy of Howard, the legacy of Tony’s suits and Tony himself. (“If you could make God bleed,” Ivan says, “people would cease to believe in him. There will be blood in the water, the sharks will come. All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you.”)

Again, the movie tries to play up the parallels between Tony and Ivan: they both create suits with the technology their fathers built, they both wrestle with their fathers’ deaths—the movie almost suggests that the only difference between the two is money. Tony has it, Ivan does not. Unfortunately, Mickey Rourke cannot give Ivan the same nuance as Tony, due both to the script and to Rourke’s own acting, so this concept—one that could have been potent in the right hands—largely fizzles.

However, to Rourke’s credit, not all of this failure rests on his shoulders; in fact, according to Rourke himself, studio interference resulted in much of his performance getting left on the cutting room floor, stripping Ivan of any complex interior life in favor of a run-of-the-mill baddie made to sell cool toys (more on selling toys when we get to Iron Man 3). The production of Iron Man 2 was rushed and frantic even outside of Rourke’s complaints, with Marvel trying to capitalize too quickly on its initial success and rushing production in order to churn out another film, and it shows. Coming off an Oscar nomination for The Wrestler, it’s not as though Rourke had suddenly lost any acting abilities, and comments similar to Rourke’s would be made down the line by other directors and actors who worked with Marvel, though largely before 2015, when the so-called “Creative Committee” was disbanded and Marvel allowed directors a looser rein (more on studio meddling when we get to Age of Ultron).

Where Rourke—or, rather, the studio—fails, though, Sam Rockwell swoops in to save the day. As Tony’s rival Justin Hammer, Rockwell (who was originally in the running to play Tony himself) hams it up, clearly having a blast as he struts around and breaks Ivan out of prison. Hammer wants to use Ivan to make his own version of the Iron Man suits to sell to the US military, failing to consider the consequences or the fact that other people like Ivan have their own wants too. (Here’s another underexplored parallel that never goes beyond surface level: Hammer is the greedy corporate man who throws morality out the window in favor of profits, a path that Tony was going down until the events of his first movie. But the movie opts instead for a shallow comparison, portraying Hammer merely as a peacocking Tony-wannabe rather than a slightly warped mirror image.)

Luckily for Tony, S.H.I.E.L.D., in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, shows up again to save him from himself. Turns out that Tony’s new sexpot assistant, Natalie, is also S.H.I.E.L.D., and her real name (most of the time) is Natasha Romanoff. Scarlett Johansson has spoken out against the sexualized nature of Natasha’s first MCU outing, and these missteps are glaringly obvious upon rewatch: multiple shots of her derriere, a completely unnecessary scene where she changes in the car while Happy tries to sneak a peek, et cetera. It feels like a very 2000s approach to gender equality: she’s sexy and the movie very overtly draws attention to this, but she can beat up people and is smart, and therefore it’s really a win for feminism. (It’s not.) As the MCU has gone on, Natasha has become one of the more interesting characters—and not because she has a nice ass—however, her introduction has aged poorly. 

S.H.I.E.L.D.’s arrival not only reveals the truth about Natalie, but also about Howard Stark—turns out he was its co-founder. S.H.I.E.L.D. is part of his legacy, but again, Iron Man 2 drops the ball by barely addressing how blindsided Tony is by this revelation, leaving it up to Robert Downey Jr. to do the heavy lifting here. He’s more than able, but he should have a script that backs him up as well. 

With the help of his dad from beyond the grave, Tony fixes his arc reactor, which is good news because Ivan has double-crossed Hammer (color me surprised) and rigged his Iron Man drones to run amok and destroy Tony and his legacy. What follows is a mind-numbingly boring and tediously long affair where various featureless iron suits shoot lasers at each other. It’s the Iron Monger fight from Iron Man, but longer and without any personal stakes because the movie never took the time to build up any sort of relationship between Ivan and Tony (unlike Tony and Obadiah), even though the seeds of something more interesting were right there.

The seeds of something more interesting seem to be always just out of reach for this MCU entry. Much of the film concerns itself with who gets to make and have the Iron Man suits, which raises many thorny moral questions: should technology be in the hands of only a select few? Should the American military have access to this, and if so, what does that mean for the rest of the world? Tony proclaims, “I have successfully privatized world peace.” What dangers could arise from this? Is this really something to aspire to?

But Marvel skates over these questions, giving them less than even a cursory nod. Tony is our hero, and therefore he as an individual should have the suit because he is the main character and thus deserves it. Rhodey can get a suit because he’s also a good guy, and he can use it for the American military because freedom, hell yeah! Comics have always been slightly better at handling weightier themes because they are less beholden to investors and have a smaller audience (for example, the “Demon in a Bottle” comic arc featuring Iron Man delves much deeper into Tony’s alcohol issues than Iron Man 2 does), but to have all this discussion on the military-industrial complex via Stark and Hammer Industries, to set up this proto-Cold War between Tony and Ivan, and then to ignore the complications that arise from these ideas feels disingenuous.

Iron Man 2’s saving graces are found within its smaller moments, in the relationships it builds upon from the first movie and in the easy rapport of its cast—at least, other than Rourke. Cheadle smoothly slides in to replace Terrence Howard, his Rhodey a little less down to party than the prior version but a better character for it. (To help the audience get over this speed bump, Cheadle’s first line as Rhodey is, “Look, it’s me, I’m here, deal with it. Let’s move on.” Guess the movie didn’t listen to Ike Perlmutter’s claim that no one would notice the replacement because all Black people “look the same.”) Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. continue their chemistry from the first movie, making Pepper and Tony’s first kiss at the end feel earned, especially in comparison to some of the rushed Marvel romances that would come after; Clark Gregg and Samuel L. Jackson’s inclusion, however brief, points to the bigger universe that Marvel is building to. Sam Rockwell, as stated before, owns. For a movie with such boring action sequences and an overly convoluted plot, Iron Man 2 manages to have (mostly) good performances and strong character work.

Yet Iron Man 2’s failures mean that Marvel is, so far, only one for three. Not exactly a great ratio. They are balanced on a precipice, liable to tip either way depending on the success of the next several movies, and while we now know how they land, Iron Man 2 did not do much to help at the time.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • If there is any justice in the world, Justin Hammer will show up in the new Disney+ show Armor Wars. (It’s only a rumor right now.)
  • Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) appears again in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a Hydra agent.
  • The movie all but states this outright, but the issue in New Mexico that Fury and Coulson deal with ends up being Thor. Here’s something fun.
  • Howard Stark is dead here (obviously). Later, it’s revealed that Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier killed him, though Marvel didn’t know that yet. A young Howard will show up in a couple movies, looking nothing like John Slattery.
  • There really isn’t much groundwork laid in this movie, honestly—or, rather, no groundwork that just isn’t part of the plot already (like introducing Black Widow). 

Anna’s Favorite Scene: “If you try to escape or play any sort of games with me, I will taze you and watch Supernanny while you drool into the carpet,” Coulson tells Tony. Not really a scene, more of just a single line. (Scene-wise, it’s probably when Tony apologizes to Pepper by bringing her strawberries—which she is allergic to.) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is great and everyone needs to stop sleeping on it. I don’t care it’s not really canon anymore, the Framework arc is damn good television.

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man, 2. Iron Man 2, 3. The Incredible Hulk

Iron Man 2 Trailer

Iron Man 2 is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

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