The first MCU sequel left most bored and bewildered but delighted the Marvel zombies with its peep show promise of a larger world beyond Tony Stark.
“I Am Iron Man.” Tony Stark’s troubles really don’t hit into high gear until he utters that defiant declaration of celebrity status. As we discussed in Part One of our 17-week series on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, our favorite genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist cannot help himself when it comes to championing his own achievements. He’s a proud papa of never-ending, brilliantly bad ideas that he mystifyingly steers into acceptable heroism through the power of charm. He doesn’t need to fall into the “Demon in a Bottle” storyline from the comics; his ego is the only drug necessary to fuel his character arc across 22 films concluding next year with Avengers 4. That’s always been the appeal of ol’ Shellhead. Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) is ruthlessly on the verge of losing the war with himself, and never has that been better illustrated than in Jon Favreau’s sequel.
Whenever we torture ourselves with MCU rankings, Iron Man 2 is often found circling the bottom of the drain next to The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World. That’s a bad rap. Although, critical labels accusing it of “padding,” “self-promotion,” and being a “bald-faced setup for The Avengers” are not necessarily wrong. Iron Man 2 is stuffed to the gills with characters, and Favreau does not juggle them as deftly as the MCU would later perfect in The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War, and hopefully, Avengers: Infinity War. Horror stories revolving around a lack of a script and constant improv make narrative all the more challenging when you’re constructing a cinematic universe, and Iron Man 2 certainly feels strained at times. If this had been the last outing for Iron Man and Marvel Studios had aborted their project before the band actually got together, then the bumbling buffoonery of Tony Stark would certainly remain a disappointing conclusion to the character, and not the critical cry for help that will inevitably be answered in subsequent films.
I love Iron Man 2. Right from the opening credits. Tony Stark’s press conference plays on in the background of a ramshackle apartment in blistering Moscow. Anton Vanko (Evgenly Lazarev) watches the flickering TV set, and breathes his last breath. His son Ivan (Mickey Rourke) cradles his father’s corpse and unleashes an ugly, blubbering scream of rage as Tony Stark pronounces, “I Am Iron Man.” Working from a set of arc reactor blueprints that bear the names of both Howard Stark and Anton Vanko, Ivan gets to work on creating his own suit of mass destruction. While he may have a tinge of that same jealousy Obadiah Stane felt for Tony, the origins of Vanko’s villainy are also mixed with a sense of righteousness. Stark does not deserve the wealth and fame he has acquired from his father; he is nothing but a child surviving on nepotism and the product of Vankoian intelligence. While Tony parades himself as America’s savior, Ivan feeds his rage on the magazine clippings lauding his enemy. The inevitable Whiplash is monstrous, and absolutely understandable.
Cut to Iron Man dropping from the sky set to AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill.” He lands center stage at the Stark Expo and steps forth from his armor wearing a tuxedo and the world’s largest shit-eating grin. The American flag erupts behind him on an IMAX-dwarfing screen as a platoon of Iron Man cheerleaders frolic to his every command. He not-so-sarcastically accepts his role in providing the world its longest period of uninterrupted peace, and assures us that Uncle Sam “can kick back on a long chair sipping ice tea, because I haven’t found someone man enough to take me on my best day.” The crowd gushes with adulation as he attempts to explain away this show is a celebration of legacy, and “what we leave behind for future generations.” We’re now primed to witness the titanic fall of Tony Stark at the hands of Ivan Vanko.
Marvel Studios took two years to assemble Iron Man 2. It’s the longest gap between MCU movies, and we’ll probably never experience such a wait time ever again. In 2010, their vow to deliver on the Avengers Initiative seemed like a daunting ask of the zealous Merry Marvel Marching Society, but one we were anxious to see fulfilled. The average moviegoer riding high on the success of the original Iron Man certainly did not care about blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nods to Wakanda or Black Widow’s shadowy affiliation with S.H.I.E.L.D. Deliver on the scalawag charisma of Robert Downey Jr. and they’re all good. They certainly don’t want to watch Stark piss himself, and drunkenly alienate poor Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) while she frantically attempts to maintain his public profile. We want to have fun with Tony, and Iron Man 2 comes dangerously close to condemning the playboy as little more than a scumbag rich kid.
Our hero is rotting from the inside out. The palladium core that powers the arc reactor in his chest is slowly poisoning his bloodstream. The country he claims to protect doesn’t trust his benevolent savior act. The Senate Armed Services Committee has formed to explore his good intentions, and secondary baddies Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and Senator Stern (Gary Shandling) can taste blood in the water. It’s all just catnip to Tony. He devours their barbs, schools their intel, and humiliates their wannabe grasp at the heavyweight title. He struts and preens himself in front of the news cameras, relishing his self-aggrandizing performance and feeding off the huffs and puffs of political polite society. Tony accosts a C-Span cameraman and fires directly down the barrel, “I will serve this great nation at the pleasure of myself, and if there’s one thing I’ve proven, you can count on me to pleasure myself.” We delight on the rage this rapscallion stokes in the eyes of his enemies, and we’re here to bask in Robert Downey Jr’s cocky bravado. Well, up to a point.
Terrance Howard is no more. In steps Don Cheadle to take on the mantle of War Machine. The BFFs are on the outs. Stark’s celebrity as Iron Man was cute six months before, but as a loyal air force officer, Rhodey is more than a little disgusted by his friend’s exclusive-hero-club of one. Rhodey has defined their relationship as a partnership, and that should extend to the military. Stark trusts only himself and refuses to play ball. It’s a scenario almost akin to the one Steve Rogers would experience later on in Winter Soldier and Civil War. The main difference being that Stark cannot trust himself. The roles he’s constructed around his persona were shattered when Ivan Vanko stepped onto that racetrack in Monaco, and when Rhodey saw God bleed, he could no longer trust his pal to wield the Iron Man weapon.
Iron Man 2 could, and probably should, have remained focused solely on Stark’s rise/fall/rise narrative. Did we need Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to pop-up and ask him to exit the doughnut? Hmmmm…no? But as a Marvel zombie going way back, every time Iron Man 2 touches just a fragment of the outside comic book universe, I get a thrill. My arm hairs still stand on end when Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) discovers Captain America’s shield amongst Stark’s junk pile. It’s a dumb reveal, but again, it’s that Avengers Initiative promise I never expected when I was 12 years old. The MCU would only improve on its connective tissue as it progressed, and while Iron Man 2 is a little bumpy on its road to Infinity War, it’s very existence is more than enough to satisfy. Depending on your connection to the material, you’re either going to delight in its masturbatory action, or hit fast-forward.
As his own worst enemy, Tony Stark is perpetually disgusted with himself. After every few offenses, he must bury his regret, and reset his personality. He’s a hero chasing demons, and that’s always been the main drive steering the MCU. I really don’t care about Whiplash, or The Mandarin, or Malekith, or whomever. Stark’s main battle has been with the role he’s been fabricating since childhood. He’s chasing his father’s shadow, attempting to prove his worth to a ghost. The moment he slays it, he’s dead.
What Iron Man 2 Contributes to the MCU:
- Black Widow – S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most deadly assassin is introduced into the franchise as a shadow agent, spying on Tony Stark’s debauchery. She practically feels like a character trapped in stasis, forced to observe from the sidelines, only getting a jokey set-piece to show off her Kill Bill skills. Her Natalie Rushman cover is immediately objectified by Stark’s grotesque leering, and if Joss Whedon had never been allowed to reveal an actual human being underneath her skintight cat suit, then this depiction would deserve some serious nerd rage. This is not Black Widow!! What I do appreciate on rewatch is how Scarlett Johansson quietly exudes a repulsion for the disguise she must adopt. Especially towards the final moments of the film, when it’s obvious that she’s withholding a serious contempt for Stark. Which remains intact at least through The Avengers.
- War Machine – James Rhodes finally gets in the suit. Of course, he had to steal it from Stark to make it happen, and then he had the audacity to get Justin Hammer to pimp it out for him. However it had to go down, I looooovvve the War Machine design. It’s totally a teenage boy’s wet dream: “You know what would make the Iron Man armor even cooler? A Gatling gun!” I loose it every time I watch Stark and Rhodey finally go back to back against those damn Hammer drones. It’s pure, pulpy, Marvel mayhem.
- Senator Stern – Hail Hydra. Who knew that Gary Shandling’s weasely senator would reappear in The Winter Soldier, but any opportunity to watch that guy snivel is one worth appreciating. After all, “It’s funny how annoying a little prick can be.”
- Captain America’s Shield – The Super Soldier Program was alluded to in The Incredible Hulk, but Stark’s junk pile discovery is our first real acknowledgment that Captain America fought the good fight during World War II.
- Wakanda – Our first notion of T’Challa’s homeland happens in the background of Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker. While the events of The Incredible Hulk’s Culver University rampage consume a series of monitors, we can see the nation of Wakanda projected on a world map. It would eventually take us 10 years to get there, but Black Panther is finally a reality.
- The Mighty Mjolnir – Nick Fury has bigger problems in the southwest region. Mjolnir, the magical hammer wielded by Thor, has landed in New Mexico. This is easily my favorite end credits tag of the MCU. Short, sweet, and full of comic book wonder.
What Iron Man 2 Withholds From the MCU:
- Justin Hammer – I love me some dancing Sam Rockwell. His wannabe Tony Stark is a petulant child motivated by a pathological desire to one-up the rock star scientist. In the comics, Hammer is basically a second-tier Norman Osborn who manages to interfere in the daily lives of a variety of super heroes. In Iron Man 2, Hammer is little more than a pest who aids in the madness of Ivan Vanko while ultimately holding very little power in the overall narrative. Rockwell is an absolute blast to watch, and I keep hoping he’ll return to the MCU in an effort to inflame his “Hammeroid attack.”
- The Armor Wars – While Tony Stark has been perfecting his suits one after the other, the rest of the world has been failing miserably in their copycat efforts. Stark jokingly states during the Senate Armed Services Committee that North Korea and Iran are five years away from success while Hammer Industries is 20. Looks like they’re a little slower than predicted, but I’d love to see baddies like Detroit Steel or the Crimson Dynamo make their appearance one day.
- Stark’s Alcoholism – This is pretty much the end of Stark’s alcohol abuse. The MCU was never going to go full “Demon In A Bottle,” but they came close with his birthday bash. I guess once you Gallagher all over your party guests, it’s time to check into AA.
“Iron Man: Armor Wars” by David Micheline, Bob Layton, Mark Bright, and Barry Windsor Smith – When Tony Stark discovers that his Iron Man technology has been perverted and put to use by his various enemies, he decides that no one can have access to his blueprints. That means the Guardsmen who protect the super prison known as The Vault have to be shut down as well. Captain America intervenes, and the two heroes duke it out for a few pages. Armor Wars provides an interesting prologue to Tony Stark and Steve Rogers’s inevitable war of ideologies in “Civil War” and allows both sides to be right and wrong.
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