Mar 19, 2020
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Hard to believe it now, but before the release of the first Iron Man, there was much skepticism about Marvel getting into the movie business. The feeling was that the company had already signed away its most lucrative properties (like Spider-Man and the X-Men), and a character like Iron Man was too much of a second-stringer to draw a big audience. And yet, here we are, billions of dollars worldwide later, and Iron Man is now the cornerstone of the whole Marvel movie universe we’ll be enduring for the next… century or so.
It’s easy to see why the first Iron Man exceeded expectations and became such a big hit: It’s one of the few comic book movies that strikes just the right balance between action and drama and angst and humor. It’s a rare superhero movie that’s fun without being camp, and serious without being grimdark.
And it can’t be overstated how much Robert Downey Jr. makes that movie. He doesn’t bear much resemblance to Tony Stark in the comics (one assumes—I don’t follow Iron Man in the comics, does anyone?), but Downey’s life certainly shares the same addiction/recovery arc as the character he plays. I vaguely remember reading Avengers comics back in the day, and as far I knew, Iron Man’s chief superpower was his ability to nurse half a glass of whiskey for seven months straight.
Downey was fun to watch, and everyone loves a great comeback story, and Downey had one of the greatest comebacks ever. By which I mean, he came back from… being on the second worst season in Saturday Night Live history.
After Iron Man made half a billion damn dollars, the Marvel moneymaking machine kicked into overdrive. The studio developed a whole years-long plan to set up the movie version of the Avengers, and this crafty plan involved releasing several two-hour long ads for The Avengers, calling them movies, and actually charging people to watch them.
Alas, I’ve seen them all: The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, et al, and while some might be better than others, none of them ever really rise above “good enough”. It kind of amazes me that so many critics gave them a pass, and so many people lined up to buy tickets to movies that accomplish nothing but setting up another movie. Case in point: Iron Man 2.
At the start of the sequel, Tony is totally out and proud about being Iron Man, and showboating at the Stark Industries Expo. Minutes later, he’s mouthing off to U.S. senators who are having serious reservations about letting some random guy be a one-man army. And it’s not just your imagination: Tony’s a total ass in these scenes.
Sure, in the first movie, he was a boozing, womanizing dick, making billions of dollars designing weapons and not caring in the least who they killed or maimed. But then he got abducted in Afghanistan, had a major change of heart (by which I mean, he literally changed his heart; it wasn’t a subtle metaphor), and decided to get into the business of saving lives instead.
And yet, in the sequel, all that character growth is conveniently forgotten for the sake of more wacky antics. The first movie was celebrated for its humor, primarily in the form of Downey’s quips, so in the second movie, we get all quips, all the time. The first time around, a lot of the jokes were improvised, but here, they’re actually trying hard to be funny, and it just doesn’t work.
But there’s a deep dark secret behind Tony’s erratic behavior: Apparently, the glowing thing in his chest is now poisoning him, and he’s slowly dying. Which means that instead of the real disease that plagued him in the comics, i.e. alcoholism, they’ve given him a totally made-up Movie Illness. It’s a bit of a letdown.
Because of his illness, Tony decides to turn over control of Stark Industries to his love interest/assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Really? There’s nobody else more qualified to run the company? If I were a VP at Stark Industries, I’d be a little pissed.
Stark’s right hand man James “Rhodey” Rhodes is back, now played by Don Cheadle. As pretty much everyone knows by now, producers gave original actor Terrence Howard an offer that was a massive pay cut from what he made on the first movie, so he walked. Then, I’m guessing, the producers did some walking of their own, and hired the first black actor they happened to bump into.
That’s the only way to explain it. They look and act nothing alike. And Terrence Howard at least looks the part of an action hero, whereas Cheadle seems completely out of place here. Though, I’ll admit, I do like the meta way they play the change of actor. As Cheadle as Rhodey enters the congressional hearing, he whispers to Tony, “Look, it’s me, I’m here. Deal with it. Let’s move on.” And you can imagine that line being said directly to the OCD nerds in the audience.
Meanwhile, Mickey Rourke, hot off his Oscar nomination, plays a Russian scientist named Ivan Vanko. Tony’s dad did something bad to Vanko’s dad, yadda yadda, so of course he must have his vengeance on Tony.
He invents his own glowing chest thing, then straps on a pair of laser whips. Because when your opponent can fly away at supersonic speeds, what you really need is a weapon with a range of no more than twenty feet.
Vanko is supposed to be the villain Whiplash from the comics, but no one ever calls him that. He makes his first appearance at the Monaco Grand Prix, where he can’t manage to put a scratch on Tony or anyone else, and he gets instantly defeated.
Samuel L. Jackson also appears as Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, wanting to recruit Tony into the Avengers. Fury was introduced in a post-credits scene in the first movie, and here, he just shows up with no introduction whatsoever, as if we all know who he is and what he wants from Tony. So, if by some chance you saw the previous movie and decided not to sit through ten minutes of credits, like a sane human being might do, you’ll have no clue what any of these scenes are about.
Meanwhile, Pepper has hired an assistant named Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johannson), but it turns out her name is really Natasha Romanoff and she’s working for SHIELD. She’s supposed to be the Black Widow, though again, nobody ever calls her that. I’m constantly getting the feeling I was supposed to study ahead of time for this movie.
And there’s no real reason for Black Widow to even be in this movie, other than to set up her appearance in The Avengers. There is literally nothing she does here that Agent Coulson, already introduced in the first movie, couldn’t have done. Other than, you know, wear a tight leather catsuit. But hey, Clark Gregg is no slouch, I’m sure he could have pulled it off.
The whole movie grinds to a halt when Tony becomes the asshole at the bar. Due to either his drunkenness, or his Movie Illness, or both, he uses his suit to show off at a party at his mansion, blasting away at champagne bottles and a watermelon (don’t ask). And according to the intense music and the reactions of Pepper and Rhodey, this is the worst thing a human being has ever done.
And then, he starts dancing in the Iron Man suit.
Okay, I take it back: This is the worst thing a human being has ever done. I defy you to name just one superhero movie that features the main character(s) dancing and is not terrible.
In response to Tony having a party in his own house, Rhodey puts on a suit of his own and starts a huge battle that basically destroys the place. They fight to a standstill, and then Rhodey flies away, basically stealing an Iron Man suit. And then he hands it over to the military. He can just do that? Why would he do that?
Eventually, the suit falls into the hands of Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a rival weapons manufacturer who is seriously jealous of Tony’s inventions. His jealousy soon turns criminal, and Hammer breaks Whiplash out of jail to help him build robot drones. Which he then shows off… at the Stark Expo? Did Pepper really just let the CEO of a rival company present his stolen merchandise at Stark’s own expo?
After dawdling around for a long time, Tony finally cures his Movie Illness by creating a new element to power his chest-thing. And he does this by, and I’m not making this up, looking at a CGI representation of the EPCOT-like park his father built 40 years ago, where somehow the center of the park is like the nucleus and the pavilions are the electrons and it makes no fucking sense.
Tony cures himself just in time for the final battle. Which I’m sure will be coming up right after we watch this sneak preview of the tie-in PS3 game!
What’s that? This is the final battle? Oh.
After several minutes of what’s essentially a CGI cartoon starring Iron Man and War Machine, Whiplash shows up after the battle is over and gets immediately defeated. Then Tony agrees to join the Avengers, I think, and the movie ends.
Oh yeah, and there’s a post-credits scene (it’s amazing how utterly irrelevant these scenes come off years after the fact) that reveals Agent Coulson found Thor’s hammer. Shocker!
It’s pretty obvious where things went wrong here. Iron Man 2 suffers from severe sequelitis, the chief symptom being the need to make everything bigger and more convoluted than the first film. The movie has two villains (neither of whom are the least bit menacing) and eight different subplots, and none of them ever come together in a meaningful way. And surely, Marvel’s insistence on shoving in random characters and plot points to set up the Avengers movie didn’t help matters.
But the biggest problem is the pacing. There are a grand total of three action scenes, and the rest is just people standing around talking. Even while cutting back and forth across all the various plot threads, the movie still crawls.
Honestly, I’m not sure this movie even has a main plot; it’s all subplots. A plot generally involves the central character overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal. But what’s Tony’s goal in this movie? Is he trying to stop Whiplash? Because he puts him in jail thirty minutes into the movie and doesn’t see him again until the very end.
Is Tony’s struggling to cure himself of his Movie Illness? Not really. He doesn’t do much about it until Nick Fury and Agent Coulson basically hand him all the information he needs to cure himself. And when Tony finally gets down to business, it takes almost no effort at all.
Is he trying to stop Justin Hammer from acquiring Stark technology? It doesn’t seem like much of a concern, seeing as how Hammer is portrayed as such an over-the-top buffoon that you can hardly imagine him being able to build his own Iron Man suit. Or dress himself in the morning, for that matter.
So really, it’s two hours of Tony Stark moping, in between sporadic moments of asshattery. Almost every problem he faces is a problem he himself created, meaning, when he finally stops dicking around and gets to work, he solves everything instantly.
Due to bad reviews and weak word of mouth, this movie ended up making “only” $300 million. Director Jon Favreau soon stepped away from the franchise for undisclosed reasons, but rumor has it he was greatly unhappy with being forced to include so much setup for The Avengers, only to end up being passed over for the opportunity to actually direct that movie.
Whatever the reason, Shane Black would eventually take the reins for the next film. Iron Man 3 was a big improvement over the second film (though, really, how could it not be?), but the film has its own set of problems, which I’ll be delving into more deeply in my review of that movie, coming soon!