Aug 10, 2021
Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting Iron Man 2 (2010)
Previously: The post-credits scene of Incredible Hulk implied that we were going to be seeing our first glimpse of the Avengers. Would it be similar to the origin of the team in the comic, which was centered around the hunting of the Hulk turning into the assembled heroes fighting Loki? Would we see the original lineup of Ant-Man, the Wasp, Iron Man, and Thor? It would be two years before we got our next Marvel superhero fix, and it was an agonizing wait. Just what sort of epic were we in store for?
Unfortunately, we got Iron Man 2.
The plot: Six months after the events of Iron Man, our hero Tony Stark has organized the Stark Expo, a year-long technological extravaganza gathering the world’s greatest minds to showcase their inventions, while at the same time celebrating the success of Stark’s heroism, with Iron Man’s mere existence giving America’s enemies pause. But even as Stark seems to be reveling in his successes, his life is beset with many woes; the very thing that keeps him alive is slowly killing him, while the US government is seeking to take his armor away. And a man named Ivan Vanko is coming to exact his vengeance upon Tony for the sins committed by his father Howard Stark decades ago.
Short review: I had such high hopes for the next Marvel movie, but apparently the lackluster financial returns of Incredible Hulk caused Marvel to think twice regarding what their next film should be. It wasn’t until 2011 that we found out why the events at the end of Incredible Hulk didn’t result in the immediate formation of the Avengers.
The gist of the one-shot short The Consultant is SHIELD and Fury didn’t want Emil Blonsky/the Abomination in the Avengers, so they sent Stark to talk to General Ross because they knew he’d annoy the general to no end and would deny Tony’s request on general principles. It just smacks of damage control, with the ambiguous cameo at the end of Incredible Hulk proving to be more of a headache that writers had to work around. In the long run, maybe it was for the best, but the cost was us getting the dreck that is Iron Man 2. On top of that, somehow Emil Blonsky is painted as a war hero, despite numerous witnesses seeing him wrecking Harlem and the Hulk saving it. The fact that Ross actually went along with this narrative makes him look even more like a sonofabitch. Then again, it did get him appointed Secretary of State, so…
Let me start by saying I really hate Tony Stark in this film. His arrogance has been turned up to 11 and I guess he’s compensating for the fact that he’s dying, and living life to the fullest, but man the shtick gets old fast. His testimony before the Senate is pure arrogance. As a counterargument to the government’s demand that he turn over the suit, he could state he doesn’t want Stark weaponry to fall into the wrong hands like it had before. Instead of submitting to a higher authority, he could have pointed out how ineffective the branches of the military were when he went into Afghanistan and rescued hostages. His rock star bullshit just makes Stark look like a complete ass, and would make any sane person think this clown is the last person who should be wearing what amounts to a person-sized WMD.
(As an aside, during the Senate hearing, Stark quips that he would be willing to be Secretary of Defense, which is either a cute joke or is also an Easter egg, as years prior to Civil War in the comics, Stark indeed held that position. It was an intriguing storyline, but one that was cut short mostly due to Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers Disassembled story where the Scarlet Witch went crazy and attacked the team, pretty much burning the Avengers to the ground so Marvel chief Joe Quesada’s vision of the Avengers could come into being. It’s sad, because I was buying Iron Man at the time and I wanted to see where the plot of Tony Stark as Secretary of Defense was going. Can you tell I wasn’t really crazy about this era of Marvel Comics?)
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts comes across as, well, dim. Stark is giving stuff away, then turns over control of the company to her. To a moderately intelligent person, these sound like the warning signs of someone ready to commit suicide or is dying. Yes, she seems later on to realize that something might be wrong, but for her not to figure out Tony’s life is in danger really makes her look stupid. The byplay between Paltrow and Downey is ratcheted up as well. It’s the classic sequel curse; if something went over well with audiences in the first film, shove it down their throats in the second.
The thing is, I feel Downey and Paltrow do have real chemistry; I loved it in the first movie, where it felt genuine. Sadly, most of it is lost in the second movie with all the yelling and talking over one another. A little bit of that is cute; too much is grating.
This sort of movie can just die if the bad guy isn’t at least competent, and in this case we were off to a pretty strong start. Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko/Whiplash is pretty badass when he makes his debut in Monaco…
…and this leads to what I feel is the movie’s best action sequence, as Stark shows off his emergency “suitcase” armor and has a real fight on his hands.
Vanko is a pretty interesting character with what is, to him, a legitimate grievance against the Stark family. In his mind, Howard robbed his father and now he wants to kill Tony because of it. It’s a classic revenge tale and it has promise. Sadly, after the initial confrontation between the two, the movie is all downhill as Vanko meets Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer.
In the comics, Justin Hammer was Stark’s opposite number long before Obadiah Stane came around. He had at his disposal an army of high-tech mercenaries who bedeviled Iron Man. He was a criminal mastermind, financing and equipping them for a cut of the the proceeds of their illicit enterprises. And to destroy Iron Man’s reputation, Hammer even created a device that temporarily took over Stark’s armor and forced him to kill a man.
Rockwell’s Hammer, on the other hand, is a moron. He never feels like a credible threat at any point in the film. He comes across as inferior to Stark in every way; he’s comic relief, pure and simple. And that makes me sad, because I loved Rockwell in Galaxy Quest, Matchstick Men, Moon, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. He’s squandered potential in this movie.
But back to Rourke. Part of what initially makes the character so cool is he’s not a clone of Iron Man. Yes, he’s using the same power source, but his weapons are completely different. As the film was continuing, I was imagining how he would upgrade himself, and what he would look like in the inevitable final act.
Oh. Look. They put him in a suit of armor. Just like Iron Monger from the first movie. How original.
So I didn’t like Hammer, and I hated what became of Vanko. What else did I despise? Oh, yeah, the robots.
Guys in armor fighting robots—does that sound familiar? Like maybe something we saw a lot of in the Star Wars prequels? I wanted Hammer to throw his legion of high-tech baddies (Porcupine, Beetle, Blizzard, Force, Whiplash) at Iron Man. Instead we got a lazy mess of a third act.
If there was anything I really liked about this film, it was Rhodey.
Colonel James Rhodes got a terrific upgrade here when they swapped out Terrence Howard for Don Cheadle. Cheadle is just more charismatic and has more presence than Howard, or at least that’s the way it seems to me. Rhodey also comes into his own in this movie as he becomes War Machine. It was great in the comics to see how James Rhodes evolved from being Stark’s friend/employee to donning the Iron Man armor, to becoming a hero in his own right. I can’t wait to see what is in store for him next in the comics…
…Oh, right, I forgot. He was sacrificed on the altar of Big Event Comics.
There are a couple really stupid plot points in this movie. So Stark is dying because of the arc reactor in his chest. Why doesn’t he just replace it with a version of the reactor he created in Afghanistan? He wore that for three months and it didn’t seem to affect his health.
But wait! you may say. Doesn’t he need the arc reactor to power his armor? Why yes, true believer, he does. But he could have simply modified the Mark III armor to house a reactor in its chest. Think about it; when Rhodey dons the Mark II armor and fights Tony…
…obviously, an arc reactor is powering it. So Tony modified the Mark II. Why couldn’t he make similar modifications to the Mark III?
Sure, this might just be a temporary fix; palladium poisoning is still an ongoing problem, right? So why not get an operation to take out the shrapnel from his chest, removing the need for the chest piece in the first place? This is never addressed in the movie. We should have been seeing Pepper and Tony at least discussing it, and speaking with cardiologists who might have pointed out the problematic nature of Tony’s exotic prosthesis. It’s a lame plot device meant to create a false sense of drama.
Then there’s the issue of Howard Stark’s magical new element, which turns out to be the fix for Stark’s problem. The idea of Howard hiding the existence of his discovery in the 1974 Stark Expo layout comes across as moronic and something out of a National Treasure movie.
The Monaco race was another senseless idea, and it’s like director Jon Favreau has no idea how car races work. First, you have time trials to determine your place. That’s not for the team; it’s for the driver. And Stark just can’t replace his driver—if the driver gets sick then the car is taken out of the race. They just don’t replace him with another driver.
And what about the Stark Expo itself? The International Olympic Committee takes years and sometimes decades to plan the Winter and Summer Olympics. It takes the host city years to produce a proposal, then if they win the bid they spend years implementing it. And yet, Stark somehow did all of this in six months. He rented/purchased the land, constructed all the facilities, hired and invited the staff and guests, and then on top of that, the movie implies this nonsense is going to go on for an entire year. A world’s fair only lasts six months, at most. I could have believed Stark showing up at some already established tech expo and going up against the likes of Hammer (where it would have been cool to name-drop one of Marvel’s biggest bad guy organizations, Roxxon) but this element of the film just felt utterly nonsensical.
Oh, and Black Widow made her debut in the movie…
That was something. I guess. She beats up random bad guys, and does nothing terribly special. Did you know Justin Hammer had a guy on his payroll called Spymaster? Imagine a plot line where Hammer sent Spymaster to steal Stark’s technical secrets and Black Widow stopped him. You know, giving her an actual super-villain to fight? Or what if Hammer had succeeded in stealing the plans, leading to something like Armor Wars in Iron Man 3? I’m just saying there was so much potential here if the screenwriters and Favreau had read the comics some more.
The movie is a godawful mess, going from a promising start to a lackluster finale. I’ve heard Jon Favreau decided to never direct another superhero movie again due to his experiences shooting Iron Man 2, mainly because he was forced to insert elements that would expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole (Nick Fury, Black Widow, etc.), and I can appreciate his frustration. I wonder what he had in mind, and what his ultimate vision would have been if he’d been given a free hand to do what he liked. I guess we’ll just have to wait for his autobiography.
So at this point in the comics, we were seeing the aftermath of Secret Invasion, one of a string of Marvel’s event comics. It turned out that many Marvel figures were Skrulls and they were attempting to take over the Earth.
Tony was fired from his job as head of SHIELD and the organization was disbanded (disbanding SHIELD in the comics is as tired a cliché as crashing helicarriers. In fact, the current SHIELD was disbanded after the horrific Secret Empire event. More on that later). Stark was mostly blamed for the Secret Invasion thing, which really wasn’t fair, but that was the public perception. Norman Osborn formed a new group called HAMMER (I don’t think they ever got around to explaining what the acronym stood for) and went after Tony, because when the Super Human Registration Act passed he was the only person who knew the secret identities of all American super heroes.
To safeguard their identities, Tony wiped out five years of his memory (five years of real world time, which I think translates to about three months in comic book time). I like to think of this as damage control, since at this point Tony Stark was pretty reviled by a lot of readers, so in order to redeem the character Marvel had to take drastic measures. They also decided to get rid of the Extremis in his system, first introduced in the comics by Warren Ellis during his (to me, at least) overrated run. Tony’s redemption arc was completed in Siege, another event where the Avengers fought Osborn as he tried to destroy Asgard (more on that, too, in a later article), where everybody forgave Tony for being such a massive raging dick for the past several years.
Next time: We take a look at the debut of a certain god of thunder.