Welcome back, True Believers! This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so we’ll be taking it on one film at a time, asking questions like: How do these movies stack up after a decade of the MCU? How was cinema’s first connected universe built? And what even is a superhero film?
This time, we’re discussing the MCU’s first sequel, and a film that’s often considered one of the weakest entries in the series. But is it really all that bad?
SECOND FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Tim: A lot of people are very critical of Iron Man 2, but I believe it has a lot of redeeming features, and I’ve stood up for it in the past. This is our first real sense of the ambitious scope of the MCU, once they were certain that this was a project they were going to try to pull off, so I think of some of its weaker moments as wobbly Bambi-like steps before the universe knew how to run.
Considered as a film by itself, Iron Man 2 is certainly a bit overstuffed, but I think it makes for a decent sequel to the original, expanding the world and growing the characters. If it falls down anywhere, it’s that it attempts to stick too closely to the first film and doesn’t allow itself to find its own identity.
Alex: I agree, for the most part. There are bits which are noticeably weaker than the first Iron Man, in my opinion – most notably the dialogue. The charm of the performances is still there, but I feel like the bon mots and double entendres are a little clunkier. The best bits of dialogue come in the crosstalk, where neither half of the conversation is fully distinct.
But I think a lot of Iron Man 2’s problems with its reputation actually stem from this being Marvel’s first sequel. I enjoyed it more than I remembered, but I’m not sure it does anything new or different to its predecessor.
This is maybe a common factor with all of the MCU sequels. The ones which are best liked are the ones which are clearly distinct from their predecessors, in tone or genre – I’m thinking Winter Soldier – and the less popular tend to be a case of ‘we’ve seen this all before’ – which definitely seemed to be the main response to Guardians of the Galaxy 2.
That said, there is at least one new thing this movie does, and you’ve already mentioned it – opening up the scope of the MCU.
Tim: We obviously get Black Widow’s introduction here, we’ve got much more for Nick Fury to do, we have two villains based on three different characters from the comics. Plus we have nods to Thor and Captain America, both of which were obviously on the slate at this point.
But beyond just Marvel references, we also get a sense of Tony’s place in the world. We have him clashing with the government, which almost seems to be laying the initial groundwork for Civil War. We get a look at his rivals, which also provides us with an idea of where the technology level of the world is, beyond Tony’s sci-fi bachelor pad.
Alex: Is there anywhere that you think it improves on the original?
Tim: There are a couple of things I’d point to. The first is Pepper getting more to do, even though I’d guess she has less actual screen time than in the first film. She gets elevated to CEO, and we get to see her demonstrate some real acumen in the face of Tony’s drunken scrambling and self-destruction.
The other improvement is the plot itself. Even though it’s a lot more convoluted than the first film, the objectives of the villains make a lot more sense.
Iron Man had that kind of leftover corporate villain stuff from Spider-Man that relies too much on talking about boards and stakeholders. Justin Hammer’s plan is still obviously business-based, but it feels a little more grounded – they’re rivals, and he’s looking to embarrass Tony. Meanwhile, Vanko is obviously just out for revenge, and using Hammer as a path for that. I really enjoy the way they play off each other.
Alex: That’s interesting, because I think the plot is actually the biggest weakpoint. It’s unfocused and a little messy. There’s just so much going on: Tony dying from radiation poisoning, Tony versus Vanko, Tony versus the Government, Tony tussling with Pepper on Stark Industries… It’s hard to know which of these conflicts we’re supposed to be investing in, as the film just keeps cutting back and forth between each of these threads.
Tim: I agree there’s too much going on – I was purely talking about that particular thread of the film. The radiation poisoning stuff in particular seems to be there just to give Nick Fury a reason to intervene, and to kick-start Tony’s self-destructive nature and daddy issues. Frankly, with a character like Tony Stark, he can be self-destructive all by his lonesome, and daddy issues are boring and overtrodden in genre fiction.
Alex: There is one thing that I genuinely think Iron Man 2 does better than its predecessor, though, and that is the action scenes. I guess it’s a case of experience in Favreau’s case, and budget in the movie’s.
Tim: They also got Genndy Tartakovsky of Samurai Jack and Clone Wars fame to help out with the storyboarding and pre-visualisation, which is why they feel much more dynamic and comic-booky. The big laser sweep in the final drone fight was his idea, for example.
Alex: This levelling-up gives us the first great fight scene of the MCU, for my money: Tony versus Rhodey in the Malibu mansion.
I rag on these movies a lot for having two near-identical palette-swap versions of the same character design duke it out, especially when both of them are CGI, but this shows that it can work. You just need the right stakes and a touch of style to how it’s presented. In this case, the stakes are that there’s a friendship on the line. The style comes from the soundtrack – setting an Iron Man-on-Iron Man fight to “Robot Rock” might be a bit on-the-nose, but it’s still brilliant – and the setting. Seeing them smashing up this familiar locale, moving from room to room, using domestic props in the fight, feels unique and also has you wincing.
Tim: I do enjoy the Tony/Rhodey fight, but I wish they’d done a little more to differentiate their fighting styles. Show Tony as more experienced in the suit, but Rhodey as a better fighter overall. It’s something that does come across in the final fight, and it would have been nice to see some reference to it when they first suit up.
Alex: Given we already know our hero, the single biggest addition to the Marvel Universe here has to be Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman, aka Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Motherfuckin’ Widow. Personally, I’m torn on her introduction here – Black Widow is one of my favourite MCU characters, but I’m not sure she’s ever treated consistently well by the individual movies.
We commented that the first film mostly avoids female objectification. And this film really does not. We start out with the Tony Stark showgirls, who are shot from some very specific angles, and Black Widow falls into a similar camp. I mean, I get it, Scarlett Johansson is super hot, but…
Tim: Tony Stark: corporate lech isn’t a good look at the best of times, and much less so in 2018.
Alex: He hires ‘Natalie’ based entirely on “you’re hot, I must have you”. That’s bad enough, and the film attempts to plaster over it with Pepper eyerolling and saying “oh, you’re so predictable”. But the fact that it’s the basis of her entire infiltration plan…
Tim: Yeah, it’s really hard to get a sense of Black Widow’s plan here. Is she meant to be driving him towards self-destruction? If so, why? And if not, why the whole scene before the party where she basically says, “you should get drunk and piss off your loved ones”?
Alex: I have no idea. In spite of the awkward contrivances it takes to get her there, though, I’m glad Black Widow is in this movie.
Tim: Oh, definitely. Given that she originally showed up in the Iron Man comics, it’s a nice nod to have her appear here. And she’s certainly the best suited of the Avengers to show up in Iron Man 2 without completely changing the film’s genre.
Plus, I really love her fight scene in the Hammer HQ at the end. Her use of lucha libre-style moves is the perfect level of theatricality for a superhero film, while still feeling real and dangerous.
Alex: She has what you pointed out Tony and Rhodey lack: a distinctive fighting style. Natasha basically invents the tradition of the Marvel corridor fight scene here, and it’s one of the few visually iconic bits of the film, I reckon. Her combination of super-James-Bond gadgets and Matrix-style wirework moves, in – a no pun intended – stark white environment.
Tim: It’s interesting that she gets to do almost as much spy stuff here as she does in Winter Soldier, which is Marvel’s most espionage-centred film. I think it establishes her well as a more rounded character than just another ‘kick-ass kung fu chick’. of the sort that plagued action films in the ‘90s and early 2000s, although it also steers a little close to the whole femme fatale angle. That’s kind of baked into the character though.
Alex: You mentioned them already, but shall we take a closer look at the film’s villains? By which I mean, do you want to introduce Vanko and his comics origins, which I don’t fully understand?
Tim: Ivan Vanko is basically a fusion of two different characters from the comics, both of which are Iron Man villains. The Crimson Dynamo, who was essentially the Soviet Union’s answer to Iron Man, and Whiplash, whose background I know less about, but you can probably guess what he brings to the table.
Alex: Horrific yet legally lucrative neck injuries?
Tim: Exactly. As far as the film goes, and for all that I gave him props earlier for his dynamic with Hammer, I think Vanko and Mickey Rourke’s performance is probably one of the weaker parts of the film. The character is pretty two-dimensional, and then it feels like Rourke loaded him up with quirks in an effort to distract from that: the tattoos, the bird, the toothpick.
I do like that the film establishes that Tony isn’t the only ‘super scientist’ in the world, but that he’s still a step ahead of everyone else. I think that’s useful for building a universe that actually feels like the comics
Alex: Agreed, and I really like the visual design around Vanko. The whips are a different application of the Arc Reactor tech, even if it does seem a super impractical way of harnessing that power. As opposed to Justin Hammer, whose copycat robots are Tony Stark fan-art, basically. Which Vanko, of course, smashes up and modifies to something of his own design.
Which brings us, semi-neatly, to Justin Hammer.
Tim: I love Sam Rockwell. Who doesn’t love Sam Rockwell? Not me, that’s for sure. Look at him dance!
Hammer is perfectly oily, and this idea of someone who thinks he’s competing with Tony Stark but just isn’t on the same level is great. The hands slathered in self-tanning lotion is a note-perfect bit of character-defining make-up.
Alex: It’s really interesting that by removing the charisma from Stark’s actions, we see how much of a douche this type of man is. His behaviour on stage is like a weak pastiche of Stark’s – one example of the ‘villain mirroring hero’ motif that runs through all of the movies we’ve looked at so far.
Hammer is the guy trying desperately to be Tony Stark, while Vanko is the guy who should have been Tony Stark. Hammer sums it up talking to Vanko: “The only difference between you and I is that I have resources.”
Seeing a ‘we’re not so different, you and I’ speech between two villains rather than villain and hero feels so much fresher. And that leaves us to spot all the ways they reflect Stark ourselves. Which are not exactly few and far between, or subtle.
The stuff you mentioned about Vanko earlier, I see as part of this mirroring. All three characters have their own little boffiny quirks. Tony doesn’t like to be handed stuff directly, Hammer has his dessert-before-dinner ice cream, Vanko has his bird.
Tim: The distinguishing factor seems to be that Tony has people who genuinely care for him – Pepper, Happy, Rhodey and even his dear old dead dad – whereas Vanko loses his only meaningful link to the world at the start of the film, and Hammer has only yes-men and superficial connections.
GET CAPE. WEAR CAPE. FLY?
Alex: One of the recurring questions we’re asking these discussions is how much each new film can be described as a superhero movie – if that even is a genre. The metric we’ve established for ourselves so far is how much saving of people does the hero do. And, as far as I can tell, in Iron Man 2 the answer is zero.
Tim: It’s telling that the villains’ plots are focused on Tony rather than on causing general mayhem, attacking civilians and the like. It’s only at the end that Tony has to save people at the Stark Expo, but he also endangers them by confronting Hammer there.
Alex: Maybe we can give Tony the benefit of the doubt on this front. Given it’s a sequel, and some time has passed since the first film – do you get the impression he’s done much superheroing between movies?
Tim: Not really. It’s only been six months since the first according to the film chronology, and it feels like he’s been acting more like a deterrent than going on actual missions. The opening of the film seems to imply that Stark as Iron Man has improved global relations and is making America safer merely through his presence, which is not something I really buy.
But I also think it’s a shame that the film never delves deeper into the idea of ‘what if your nuclear deterrent was drunk at the wheel?’, as that seems to be the main thrust behind his conflict with Rhodey.
Alex: I guess that wouldn’t fit with the general tone with the movie, which is where Iron Man 2 really does feel like a superhero story to me.
Tim: I think you’re right – a lot of that tone is down to bringing in characters like Black Widow and War Machine, building a bigger world that seems to exist beyond Tony. Plus you have a villain team-up, and a hero forced to fight while he’s struggling with an unrelated problem that puts him at a disadvantage, both of which are pretty classic comic book tropes.
Alex: On that topic, the fight scenes give us two very specific superhero tropes.
There’s the Two Powers Combining, as Iron Man and War Machine battle Vanko and his drones at the end. Plus, we get the Fight Between Friends. It’s not the purest example of the form – that would be Early Misunderstanding Turns Violent Until They Realise They’re on the Same Page – but Allies Working Through Their Issues With Their Fists is nearly as classic as a part of the genre.
Tim: Also, the super-science on show pushes a little bit harder into the comic-book realm in this film. We’ve got the suitcase armour, which I adore, and the prismatic accelerator, which really straddles the line between absolute nonsense and beautiful comic-book physics
Alex: That was something I was burning to ask you, as the official advocate for Iron Man 2’s virtues – how do you feel about the infamous bit where Tony discovers his own element?
Tim: It’s one of those things where if they’d have just called it an isotope or something slightly different, I would have no issues with it. But calling it an element is just… did y’all not take high school science?
It does absolutely feel like something that could have happened in an Iron Man issue from 1974, though.
Alex: We’ve made the comics comparison but, for me, this film is the point where following the MCU starts to feel a bit like tuning into a TV show. Where keeping up with the latest goings-on among a group of familiar faces becomes the main draw, something which can carry less interesting scenes.
Tim: Yeah, I think that’s fair. It’s our first sequel, so there’s always going to be some reliance on familiarity. I think Phase One will keep that to a minimum until Avengers, because after this, we’ve got Thor and Captain America, which are both introducing whole new concepts and corners of the world.
Alex: Speaking of Cap, I’m fascinated by the way the movie throws away the cameo of his shield as a joke. Especially as it’s not at all indicative of Iron Man 2’s general attitude to connectivity. In that same scene, even, we get the first reference to the events of Thor, delivered via the living continuity conduit that is Agent Phil Coulson.
Tim: Yeah – I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be referencing the fact that Tony’s dad will be showing up in The First Avenger, given that it’s among all his things, but it does feel like a weirdly irreverent moment considering the place that Cap holds in this universe.
Alex: We also get the reveal that said dad – Mr Howard Stark – helped to found SHIELD. Howard is, weirdly, one of the most frequent recurring characters in the entire MCU. I guess because he acts as a bridge between its two main players, Iron Man and Captain America.
Tim: He’ll show up in Ant Man, a lot further down the line.
Alex: And, later still, be the wedge that drives those two players apart. In this film, though, I just love him as this Walt Disney-meets-Henry Ford figure.
Tim: Yeah, the allusions to the World’s Fair and Tomorrowland are great.
Alex: Linking Howard and SHIELD is another way of tying this film into the continuing military focus of the MCU.
Tim: Absolutely. It’s an idea that is most visible at the start, but weaves back and forth throughout the film. Hammer’s entire plot is about ensuring he has the Pentagon contracts that Stark used to dominate.
Alex: It’s a thread that also gives us Senator Stern. This is probably unfair to Garry Shandling’s face, but my god if he isn’t the embodiment of 2018 politics in this movie.
Tim: It does feel like he is very presciently channelling Trump at certain points, which is just one of the reasons that his Winter Soldier reveal might be the best retcon ever. But we’ll get to that. Eventually.
Tim: I think we’re definitely starting to feel the fingerprints of Marvel’s control here (or should that be Feigeprints?). There was reportedly a lot of studio meddling involved, which is why we didn’t get Jon Favreau returning for Iron Man 3. But Favreau was so instrumental in establishing the ‘Marvel look’, it’s hard to separate where his voice ends, and where the studio’s begins.
Alex: I can see why Marvel would want such tight control. If the first Iron Man was the movie that made the MCU, this feels like the one that could have ended it. Others were in production by now , obviously – but if people didn’t buy in at this point, I doubt we’ve had got to where we are today.
Tim: I think it’ll be really interesting to try to spot the point where each Marvel film stops presenting a risk, and the brand is assumed to carry the weight. I think post-Avengers is a real turning point in that regard.
Alex: Stylistically, though, the most visible difference from the movies that have come before is that Iron Man 2 doesn’t have that tinge of gritty 24-esque ‘realism’ to it.
Tim: That’s true, but I wonder how much of that is simply a matter of changing times. 2008 to 2010 means we’ve moved from the end of the Bush era to the start of Obama, and the move away from the War on Terror stuff feels like a natural transition, especially if you’re looking to bring in more comic-book style storytelling.
Alex: True – what does remain is the emphasis on grounding everything in pop cultural reality. I don’t mean stuff like the Elon Musk cameo – just in case we needed a second Tony-Stark-without-the-style – but the way that we see a lot of events presented through the filter of a TV screen.
It’s how the movie opens, with footage of the scene that ended the first movie, and we get the C-SPAN during the Senate hearing, and news reportage on the Expo and Monaco… Once you start to notice it, it’s a surprisingly common transition that the film leans on. It gives it the same sense of relatability, because this is how most of us would experience these kinds of events in our own lives.
Speaking of which, I kind of love that the Fury/Stark/Widow meeting scene – the first time we’ve had these three characters together, the most Avengers we’ve seen all at once – takes place not in a darkened briefing room but in the booth of a diner. It’s just not the choice that most superhero films would make.
That, to me, is perfectly emblematic of the Marvel vibe, especially given that Tony is so evidently hungover. You don’t get that with yer Man of Steel.
Tim: It feels like a real smart use of symbolism. Randy’s Donuts is already an iconic LA location, so it has this aura of unreality about it. The kind of place you’ve seen so many times on TV that when you actually visit it, it feels weird. To bring the characters together there feels like it’s both rooting them in reality, like you mention, but also establishing them as larger-than-life. Not the same as, but akin to, celebrities.
Alex: Which ties back into the way events are viewed via TV screens. Superheroes as celebrities is a very Marvel thing, as far as I’m concerned – and doubly an Ultimate Universe thing, which these movies draw from a lot.
Tim: A relatively small scene that I really enjoy, but that is also sort of emblematic of the problems this movie has, is Rhodes getting the War Machine armour outfitted by Hammer.
It’s a pretty fun comedy scene that demonstrates both Hammer’s need to be respected and Rhodes’ unflappable cool, while also slipping in some necessary plot points. (It’s Hammer’s software upgrade, briefly mentioned, that lets Vanko take over the War Machine suit.) But while the shoulder cannon and whatnot are all part of War Machine’s iconic look from the comics, I think a scene of someone laying out the various options available and then someone saying “I’ll take all of them” is kind of this movie in a nutshell.
Alex: Speaking of Rhodey… I’ve already mentioned the fight with Tony as one of my highlights, but I actually love that entire birthday party segment.
It makes for horrifically uncomfortable viewing – the ugly truth of ‘Party Tony’, exposed. A man taking drink-driving to new super-powered lows. Drunk and playing with one of the world’s most dangerous weapons. A man too powerful to be stopped from doing what he wants – just about the most dangerous thing in the world.
It’s also a moment where one of the film’s underlying themes really slots into place.
Iron Man 2 dealing with the consequences of Tony’s decision to throw the whole ‘secret identity’ thing to the wind – and by extension, the entire MCU doing the same. It handles the ill effects of that, so the later movies don’t have to
So you get the old ‘if they know who I am, everyone I love will be in danger’ stuff with Whiplash. But more importantly this scene in particular shows the dangers of what happens when these two identities come together. The party is a horribly inappropriate place for the Iron Man armour to be, which is underlined by the fight that follows, trashing the house where Tony lives because he can’t keep his lives separate.
Tim: It’s also the closest we’ll probably get to covering “Demon in a Bottle”, a classic storyline from the comic books.
My second pick for moment I love is during the final Expo fight, when Pepper and Natasha confront Justin Hammer. I touched on Pepper’s development in this film earlier, and I think this is the moment where that really shines.
We get Hammer, oily twerp that he is, dismissing these two competent women in two different ways. When confronted directly, he calls them “bitches” under his breath, and we get to see Black Widow take him to task for that with a swift arm lock.
Once he realises he’s not going to be able to simply usher them aside, he tries to diminish Pepper, calling her “honey”, but she immediately proves how much more in control of the situation she is, taking charge and coordinating both the attempts to stop the drones remotely and the emergency services.
It’s a great example of how you can have female characters demonstrate different kinds of strength, without having to fall back to the shitty ‘does karate in one scene then becomes a damsel in distress again’ trope, which is somewhat present in Black Widow. If she was the only woman in the film, Widow would feel a little too archetype-y, but by not only having Pepper there too but also allowing them to interact and solve problems together, you iron out some of those wrinkles.
Plus, it’s a terrific example of the various types of shitbaggery that men can force women to endure, and how women shouldn’t have to put up with any of it.
Alex: My final pick isn’t a moment, but a dynamic that you’ve already highlighted: Vanko & Hammer. Individually, neither of them are exactly classic villains, but I love the way they reflect off of one another, to give a fuller picture of Tony than any single villain could.
Like Stark, Vanko is a genius-level engineer using scientific knowledge passed down from his dead father, powered by the same technology. The difference is, he’s doing it in squalor. That opening montage, alongside Tony in the cave and Bruce Banner in Brazil, completes an accidental trilogy of grimy DIY engineering in these first MCU films.
It also reinforces an interestingly specific structural quirk of MCU movies: the doubling up of villains. I think this is one of the examples where it really works. It’s not a case of ‘oh, you thought he was the big bad? Nah, this guy is much bigger and badder’, but two different types of villainy – white and blue collar, to be a little reductive about it – which naturally meet in the middle.
But while, as you mention, Hammer’s comeuppance is satisfying, Vanko’s story ends on a total anti-climax. He develops what I’m going to start calling the Killmonger Problem: he begins the film with fairly sympathetic motives, maybe even making some valid points, but then undermines it with outright villainous acts that don’t seem to really stem from that motivation. He even does the same thing of ditching his cool distinctive costume for a cheap photocopy of the hero’s.
THE OFFICIAL T+AKTMCU RANKINGS
- Oh hey, Spider-Man’s in this one! The kid in the Iron Man mask who nearly gets squished by one of Vanko’s Iron Drones has since been revealed as Peter Parker. It’s another retcon that totally works.
- Rhodey’s first line – “It’s me, I’m here, deal with it.” – is absolutely a nod to the Don Cheadle recasting. We have dealt with it, Don, and we’re happy you’re here.
- Fashion Statement of the Movie: Justin Hammer in the hangar, with his napkin tucked into his shirt, looking for all the world like a man in a homemade Austin Powers costume.
- The Whiplash gear burning off Vanko’s jumpsuit is a great visual, one of the few standout images of the film. Iron Man and War Machine among the cherry blossoms at the end is another that I’d point to as a lovely moment.
- Black Widow Wig Watch: Natasha’s hair really runs the gamut of quality in her initial appearance. The ‘do she’s sporting when first introduced is perfectly acceptable and even stylish, but when she’s in action at Hammer Inc at the end of the film, we switch to a terrible version that appears to be aiming for wavy but instead ends up clumping together and verging on the forbidden White Dreadlocks. Verdict: C-
- “I’m the realest person you’re ever going to meet” is both a very Nick Fury line, and a very Samuel L Jackson line.
- Fun fact: Leslie Bibb, who plays Christine Everhart, the Vanity Fair reporter, is partners with Rockwell in real life
- So Tony canonically pees in the suit. Can it do poops as well?
- Avenger Fuckability Scale: Tony Stark’s never really been my speed, but I feel like this incarnation – drunk toddler, as Tim put it – is Stark at his least attractive. With our next movie, though, get ready to question some sexual alignments.
- Is the reason that Tony and Pepper are living in New York by the time we get to Avengers because a bunch of contractors are at the Malibu house removing a hastily-constructed particle accelerator?
- A sketch of a Tesseract shows up in Howard’s notebook – surely some more foreshadowing?
- There’s a surprising lack of Jarvis in this film. He only really shows up when Tony’s working on the new element. Given that he often serves as a voice of reason, that would seem deliberate.
- Obligatory Post-Credits Sequence post-credits sequence recap: Yup, that sure is a hammer. And not the kind that dresses like Austin Powers. The scene is cut straight from Thor – and you’d better believe it’s directed by Kenneth ‘Dutch Angles’ Branagh.