Here are the other reviews in my backwards MCU retrospective:
This is the second of the three MCU movies I did not catch in cinemas, so I have less of a rambly ass personal story attached to it. This film was fast tracked pretty much based off the success of Iron Man, and it shows. It’s not the only MCU film with a 2-year gap between it and its sequel, but it feels like one where the sequel was not planned ahead.
What made Iron Man work they doubled down on and then some. Cool tech? More suits in this one! Fast talking, quippy dialogue? Have it in droves! Tony Stark being the arrogant rich boy with a heart of gold? Let’s find a way to put a pause on his growth and bring him back to that mode! On top of all that, we get world building! Next to Age of Ultron, this has some of the clumsiest world building for the broader MCU.
With Don Cheadle now joining the cast and Natasha Romanav entering the picture, this is the first time a group of our prominent mainstays in the first three Phases of the MCU share the screen (though Rhodey and Nat barely interact). It’s funny to look back at this nine years later. There’s four if you count Fury, because he only really has that brief moment in the post-credit scene in Iron Man. His role and personality are more established here.
I’ll just get this out of the way-this is one of the very few major recastings in the franchise, with Don Cheadle replacing Terence Howard as Captain James Rupert “Rhodey” Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine. While I do think Howard looks closer to how Rhodey is usually drawn, I love the physicality and ease of presence Cheadle has with the character. He’s a very versatile actor, but does it in a way where he changes very little of his body language and posture. So you can buy this guy as the serious, hard-nosed soldier and the best friend of the fast-living, loose cannon laugh-machine genius that is Tony Stark. Now, Howard wasn’t given nearly as much to do in the part in the first film, but Cheadle gives him so much range and remains a consistently strong presence, even if I personally have never warmed to Rhodes.
Anyway, enough about that Iron Man. Let’s start this off by talking about the main man in charge! More specifically:
Tony Stark: Billionaire Playboy Asshole
This movie has two plot strands. On the one hand, we have the US government trying to gain access to Tony’s technology for fear of similar machines getting in the hands of foreign nations. On the other, we have Tony dealing with the arc reactor slowly poisoning him, and he contemplates his legacy as he goes on a self-destructive last hurrah of sorts as he fails to find a cure. These plots rarely coalesce, so it’s hard to stay focused when we have “What if a greater threat got access to this powerful, dangerous technology?” clashing with “What if… Tony died?”. We’ll put a pin in the government stuff and focus on Tony’s behaviour, and how I’m rooting for the chemical poisoning.
The fact that Tony won’t tell others about his health makes sense. The fact that he is so utterly obnoxious in how he composes himself is so, so tiring and most of the first half is comprised of him acting like a shithead and being standoffish and weird to his friends, especially Pepper. I get that they wanted to both get Tony to that more lackadaisical demeanour while also challenging his character, but this feels contrived and we’re just pushing Tony to learn what, exactly?
And look, him bathing in his own ego after outing himself as Iron Man, that would have been fine. The opening at the Stark Expo made total sense. But we see him act like a dick at the Senate hearing, decide to drive in a Grand Prix on what looks like a whim, challenge Nat to a boxing match because he has the hots for her, drive Pepper up the wall and then randomly give her his company-it’s all too much. It’s hard to root for him when he continues to be a twat and faces very little consequences for it.
Part of this not working does have to do with the dialogue. This is an issue that permeates the entire film, but it’s specifically something that hurts Tony’s characterisation. Rather famously, the first film started shooting without a completed script, so a lot of it was ad-libbed. One of the benefits of this approach was creating a natural rapport with Tony and the rest of the cast because they had such a perfect rhythm. This isn’t something easily recreated via script. What we get is mostly conversations that fall flat on their ass trying to feel off-the-cuff. This really stops Tony from being endearing, even with RDJ’s as usual stellar performance. It’s the difference between Tony being a pain to the characters and a pain to the audience.
But they have to bring our hero to his lowest point. And hoo-boy, are we talking low.
Yes, I Hate the Party Scene So Much, it’s Getting its Own Segment
Let’s set the scene. After Tony goes to see Vanko in prison, he has three conversations with arguably the most important supporting players in the film: Pepper, Rhodey and Nat. All these are quiet, sombre and show Tony in a more reflective state. The last one is with Natasha right before we get to the party, and this tonality is completely fucked out the window to allow Tony to be reckless and obnoxious.
Let me just make this clear; I don’t hate this because it’s out of character for Tony. He’s impulsive and indulgent, throwing a extravagant party in his death suit makes sense here. I hate this because it’s so, so left field to where they were building it, and doesn’t feel like a natural escalation given the Monaco driving was only slightly bone-headed in comparison. It also tries to go for this awkward comedic tone, at least conceptually because the direction does not really know how to play this. it’s got a mood of danger with the actions of stupid party fun. Either way, the plot needed Tony to get to a place faster than naturally developed, and this was how.
And oh man, the “comedy” of the scene! Tony prancing around like an idiot on a mix desk, the pee joke, him shooting watermelons over people. I get that they’re drunk and starstruck, but still some members of that party should be freaking out or walking away by that point!
And this is our introduction to War Machine! Needless to say its kind of a weaksauce intro for this mainstay of the MCU. Their fight is a bit too close-quarters as well, and it’s not shot in a way that takes advantage of this unique setting. They just kind of pummel each other and set up the “crossing streams” move that pays off in the climax. I get why they introduce him in this way-it’s reminiscent of why he took over for Tony as Iron Man in Demon in the Bottle, not to mention it’s implied that Tony’s plan was to get Rhodes to suit up-but it’s a pretty underwhelming intro to such an important character. Also, bad, baaaaaaaaaaaad song choice to complement the scene…
Anyway, this is terribly set up both story-wise, action-wise and character-wise. But forcing our lead into his lowest point we must do so we can chuck on more world-building!
SHIELD are Here for Some Reason, and Tony Invents an Element
I guess we’ll start with the introduction of Natasha Romanav, a.k.a. Black Widow. She serves as a covert agent to spy on Tony and acts as a honey pot to get into his better graces; she bluntly uses his attraction to her to get closer to him. For a character this integral to the series, her introduction is not something to write home about. She is fan service and an action Barbie here-not much else. From her walking into that boxing ring to kick Tony’s ass to her beating up the guards in Hammer Industries.
She’s mostly here for set up; her importance is The Avengers where she’s the team’s female quotient and point of contact with the espionage world they’re forced to align with. It would be awkward and hard for the audience to connect with her had she not been introduced prior to that movie. By extension, that’s why SHIELD are here, and why they are shoehorned into Tony’s storyline.
Guess that brings me around to Nick Fury. After one of my favourite shots of Tony eating hangover doughnuts in his suit, our one-eyed sponsor gives the troubled billionaire the “sort your life out!” spiel and forces him to look for a cure. That’s really all the purpose Fury and SHIELD seem to play-they’re Tony’s extended life coach service. Outside of another Avengers build-up at the end where Tony is told he’s not a good fit for the “Initiative”, Fury doesn’t come back into the picture. Insert-daddy-issues-here was a serviceable enough role the MCU decided to give Jackson here, his biggest role in these movies until the big 2012 team-up.
This does bring Howard more front and centre. There’s a theme of Tony exploring his legacy as he dies, and what that meant in regards to his dynamic with his father. Except before his talk with Fury, he’s only brought up due to the Stark Expo and when Vanko mentions him. These are great, but brief and don’t do a lot to cement his importance to what his son is currently going through. Then bam, Fury mentions he helped found SHIELD, and shortly after we find out he designed his original Expo to be the shape of a new…element. So Tony shoots a laser at a wall and creates it.
Yep, the conflict that has been defining Tony’s actions since the start of the film is resolved via a montage and a “You’re a great soy, bun!” speech from daddy on tape. Like, Tony has done some rather ridiculous shit in these movies. He creates artificial life twice and discovers time travel over a single night, but this may take the cake as his biggest asspull considering how little time is devoted to it. He just pops it into his arc reactor and we’re off! It’s worse again because after all that shit, this is all we really get for his character growth. This doesn’t come up again, and all he learned was his father did actually love him, which was more circumstantial to his conflict rather than the pinnacle of it. It doesn’t tie into his death wish, his unwillingness to work harder on a cure, or the way he treated his friends.
We have two plot lines, as stated above. And in the one where Tony is sick, he acts like a prick for over an hour, sorts out his problems by a visit from Uncle World Building, and creates a new element to solve his issues. It’s deeply unsatisfying and the plot could have felt more impactful if they had tried to focus in on the government stuff. What did we really learn about Tony outside of reinforcing that he’s selfish and reckless, even after becoming a hero? He was his father’s greatest creation and helped a man who had been dead for nearly two decades by that point realise a dream? What does finding out about his father and his legacy help make him understand? What do his friends get from this? Not a lot. It’s a weak, annoying divergence despite being treated as the main plot thread until it, well, isn’t. What’s even funnier is, after Iron Man 3, the triangle arc reactor was ditched anyway. Even Marvel didn’t give enough of a shit about this!
The Iron Woman: Pepper Potts
We should discuss Tony’s other entourage, and by that I mean Pepper and Rhodey. I guess Happy Hogan is here too, and he has more to do here than in the previous flick. However, it amounts to having awful banter with Tony and being a comedic foil for when Nat strips down to her underwear. See?! It’s not gratuitous nudity, it’s comedy! Anyway, Pepper’s role here is decent.
What I appreciate about her character is that she is a love interest that is very self-aware that her life revolves around our hero. Sure, it’s not the most progressive role they could have given her, but that little bit of self-awareness from the script makes her a hoot to be around as her realisation that she can’t deal with Tony’s bullshit reaches its apex here. They definitely benefited from not having them get together in the original Iron Man, it allowed the relationship to get to a more gradual place and come to fruition when Tony finally respects her enough to put his baggage aside and be open with her.
Pepper’s a good fit for him, too. She’s someone who can match wits with him while being a lot more level-headed and serious. She’s foisted into the role of CEO, and despite technically having more power than Stark with that position, she’s still intertwined with him. I like that she pushes back and doesn’t put up with him-even with how awkwardly nice he was being to her giving her Stark Industries (that moment is really cute, btw), he still treats her like shit on his self-destructive path, and she finally walks away. Like in the strawberry moment, his clumsy if sincere apology doesn’t strive with her. It’s only after Vanko’s attack do they finally have a heart-to-heart and begin to be a team, and the longest lasting relationship in the MCU has been cemented.
She does have some catty jealousy over Nat, but it’s not a deal breaker for me. I do like that she puts the blame firmly on Tony’s callous chauvinism and not Nat herself. There’s not much else I can say about Pepper-I think she’s handled well, and it’s easier to be bitter than to be nice in reviews.
Speaking of, let’s talk about the government plot!
Iron Man Number Two in Iron Man 2! How this Movie Let Down Rhodes
Tony is brought in at the start of the movie to testify at a hearing about the use of his suits. He doesn’t take it seriously and tells them his tech cannot be replicated for years to come. This is proven wrong later, but from this point onwards, he does not face any backlash from what happens in this court room. Don’t get me wrong, it makes sense that Stark would not care about what the hearing is saying. A lot of the burden of care on this is put onto Rhodes. How do they handle his part in all of this? Eh.
There was a lot of ways they could have used Rhodey, with him having the actual military background and state connections with that. Him being reduced to Tony’s buffer with the government is pretty lame, and he only gets two or three scenes where he tries to talk to his friend, but he’s too wrapped up in his own bullshit to listen. I know this is Tony’s movie, but you could easily make a whole subplot where Rhodes is caught between the loyalty to his country or to his best friend. He clearly agrees that the Iron Man tech being replicated is a bad thing, but trusts Stark even when his behaviour becomes erratic and to the point where he’s proven wrong in Monaco. There’s a lot here you could really get an edge in on drama wise, but no-he sees Tony acting the fool at the party and we get War Machine!
This is really rushed and unsatisfying. I know there was the hint in the previous flick, but he doesn’t show any inclination he’s going to suit up until he does. I think more should have been done to build up his desire to be in the armour-maybe have a back-and-forth with Tony about it, have him express his admiration for the tech to his commanding officer. Not that you need to devote a lot of time to this, but give us something that makes his first appearance feel more climactic than him being a nark and trying to drag his drunk buddy into a proverbial taxi.
After he brings War Machine to the government, he sees the mass production and weapons manufacturing by Hammer. That’s it, that’s enough to convince him he made a mistake handing the armour over. No conflict of conscience, there’s no moral compromise, his armour is even forced to fire at Tony against his will. Not that I’d expect him to try to murder his friend, but considering how sourly they left things, having Rhodes just turn coat and go against his commanding officers for the man who shat all over him earlier is weak. I think that’s the issue with Rhodey in this movie for me; everything is laid out, but it’s rushed to the natural conclusion of every beat. He’s a character with an arc without any building of it. It’s a shame as this was important to establish him as a mainstay for the next decade, but I guess bird jokes and Tony pissing in his suit were more important.
Speaking of birds!
A Tale of Two Villains! One Works, The Other Does Not
I guess I’ll get started on the less hands-on antagonist. I love nearly everything about Justin Hammer. Sam Rockwell gives such a dynamic, spirited performance here he turns a two-note villain into someone very funny and a great antithesis to Tony. Try-hard and flustered where Stark is natural and confident, erratic movement where his are more motivated, fast-talking where he is snarky and cutting. There’s a great sense of Hammer needing to prove himself without the parallels feeling too on the nose like a lot of other hero/villain dynamics in the MCU, and it has to do with subtle and distinctive characterisation. Another obvious contrast is that Hammer is a kiss-ass, and we see that in nearly all his interactions. Even when he’s caught for being the villainous mastermind, he tries to butter up people to get out of it. It’s what makes him a great connect to the US government, as selling weapons to the DOD is something Tony would never, ever do.
This, of course, puts him at odds with the rest of the narrative as he never actually interacts with Stark all that much. He’s also a passive agent throughout, which I guess having “embittered tech billionaire gets in a suit” was the one restraint the filmmakers opted out of when copying and pasting everything else from the first film. It is a testament to how good Rockwell is that Hammer manages to be memorable despite having limited interactions with most of the cast. However, we then go into who he has the most interactions with and it kind of hurts him. Because Ivan Vanko is a pretty thankless foil to be paired with.
There’s a lot that works about Ivan Vanko on paper. As I’ve been complaining about the whole lack of cohesion with the legacy and state interference thematic threads, he marries them so perfectly. There’s the wonderful opening scene where he’s comforting his dying father while seeing Tony lap up the press and luxury of what he feels is stolen hardware. He teams up with Hammer and works with him in secret for a military contract to replicate Stark’s tech for the Defence Department. There’s that great scene with Tony and Ivan, discussing their shared destinies and making Stark doubt a lot of the foundation of his life. It’s a shame about pretty much everything else that happens.
First off, Mickey Rourke seems kind of bored here? I’ve heard he had a lot of issues with Marvel when he made this, but I don’t know if that’s reflected in his performance or based on the direction. Because this character fits his mould so perfectly: embittered dude with years of regret tries to break away from that path. But he’s severely sullen and seems disinterested throughout the runtime. It doesn’t help that after they faked his death (which, like, nobody would have bought that was Vanko’s corpse), he’s mostly stuck interacting with Hammer. They do not have a good rapport, and nearly everything they say to each other comes off as obnoxious or telegraphed. It’s so hilariously underwhelming when Vanko betrays him.
This even wouldn’t be too bad if they had made some effort to build Vanko’s anger onto Tony’s daddy issues. There’s a lot of complex emotions he can go through knowing Howard was cutthroat; stabbing a colleague in the back and profiting off his ideas. Except that’s not how it’s framed, as Howard was getting rid of Ivan’s evil, money hungry father because he was too dangerous. The idea that the greedy guy did not become a billionaire is a tough pill to swallow, and it strips everything that could make Ivan Vanko a compelling villain. He’s not justified-his father was a terrible man and all his failings are his own fault, not Howard’s. I get that they may have not wanted to push Papa Stark too far into the black of his morally grey. It just kind of kneecaps the tension when both our villains are not exactly three dimensional or have compelling motivations to go after our hero.
Everything You Can Do, I Can Do…As Well: The Action and Aesthetics
“The Same, But Bigger” is a phrase I used in my Thor: The Dark World review, and I do think Iron Man 2 suffers more from it. Whatever worked about the previous movie is here but hyper-expanded. That includes the film’s general tone and aesthetic. I already went into the dialogue, but not much has changed in the suit-up montages and really will not as we move forward in the MCU. This isn’t an issue because it provides us with a lot of visual continuity.
If there is one legit complement I can really hand this film is that it looks really good. Jon Favreau is great with actors, but enough attention cannot be given to his attention to detail and world building. Even in his stinkers, his movies feel lived in and authentic, like you could interact with them yourself. Everything has a finesse, we’re still on film so the picture feels raw. Everything moves and flows to its own beat, and feels very planned out to do so. With all that said, however, it misses probably one of the most important elements of Iron Man that they really should have kept; the sense of discovery.
Iron Man had a very basic plot: a rich man realises the gravity of his avarice and apathy, and vows to be a better person. That’s it, that’s our hook. It leaves everything else about this world free for him and us to explore, and seeing Tony build his tech, test it and master it are some of the most rewarding and fun experiences it has to offer. This isn’t present here, and it shows in a lot of the complaints I’ve brought up. There’s no interest in exploring Rhodey’s connection to his new tech, no interest in exploring Vanko and his familial feud with the Starks.
We do get a few nuggets about Howard, but an expo model that looks like the components of an element is not sufficient world building. That whole montage of developing this is the perfect example of that too-Tony spends so long getting into a strop that when we finally see him knuckle down and science like he did in the first movie, it’s one quick montage and we’re moving onto the climax! The small tests he does to cure himself do not equate as they’re built to push Tony down and face his potential mortality. Just a little more enthusiasm to explore character dynamics or a new world of iron suits, and we’d have a solid film. Instead we get threats of international Iron Men from around the world we don’t see come into fruition outside of one small army. They are literally threatening us with a good time!
What about the good times they do offer us? How are the action set-pieces? Surprisingly sparse, actually. There’s a huge chunk between the second and third act where no action takes place at all. I mean, people made fun of Iron Man 3 for showing Tony more out of the suit than usual, but at least we got more consistent action there! What doesn’t matter is the quantity, of course, it is the quality. And it’s a mixed bag with some great moments that save us. The opening at the Stark Expo is a good example of this, even if it’s technically not an action scene. per se, It’s audacious and a bit over the top, but it gets across Tony’s mindset with his newfound superstardom. It leads to the really clever visual disorientation from his POV to get across his illness
The fight with Whiplash at the Monaco GP is fantastic. It flows really well narratively as Tony putting himself in the race fits well with his devil-may-care attitude, and it allows him to be vulnerable at the initial attack. There’s some decent editing with the race itself, and Vanko’s attack comes suddenly and hard. We get some excellent tension as we wait for Tony’s suit to arrive.One of the few moments we get to see him think on his feet as he incapacitates Vanko temporarily with the petrol explosion. The argument with Pepper is grating, but I love his suit up with the new armour and it’s one of the few times there’s a real sense of awe and cool factor to the suit ups in the flick. Easily my favourite scene, one of the standout action set-pieces in the MCU.
Then we get pretty much nothing until the brief spar with Iron Man and War Machine. I’ve covered that, so let’s move onto the climax. Having War Machine’s armour controlled to attack Tony adds most of the tension of this scene and that’s great. I even like them getting the supporting cast involved, with having Pepper and Natasha work out how to take the robots offline. We get an absolutely ridiculous looking fight with Black Widow and the guards, and the final confrontation once Rhodey gets control of his suit is way too one-sided. It ends really quickly and, despite a cute callback to defeat Whiplash, his death leaves very little impact.
We also have our first “Army of the Same” which becomes a frequent theme in the MCU. Vanko’s drones are too similar looking, and it clutters up most of the frame to make it all look disappointingly samey. It doesn’t help that the scene takes place in the middle of the night and all the suits and bots, sans Iron Man, are in a darker, less striking colour palette. So, like everything else, our finale is mixed bag.
Post-Credit Scene and Miscellaneous
Post-credit scene this time is courtesy of Agent Coulson. Oh yeah, he’s in this movie! He babysits Tony for a while then leaves, his presence leaves little to remark upon. We see afterwards where he’s driving to; New Mexico. Where Mjolnir has landed. This is a sweet set-up for Thor, though I’m convinced the only reason Coulson is in that film is because of this scene. Also, this and a blink-and-you-miss-it news screen of a scene from The Incredible Hulk means all three movies happen around the same week which is…awkward.
Other stuff I noticed:
-Iron Man’s 2 screenwriter, Justin Theroux, was fresh off writing the hit Tropic Thunder. That film, alongside the original Iron Man, were considered part and parcel for Robert Downey Jr skyrocketing back into superstar fame, so his writing here is interesting.
-The politics of the film are a little…odd. I actually have a plan to expand on these themes in my Iron Man blog, but the way Tony says “privatised world peace” and the fact that the film seems to agree that he’s the best man for the job even when he was proven wrong is…uncomfortable. But it’s more a “me” problem than a “this film” problem, so…
-Howard Stark has such a =Walt Disney vibe in this flick that gets significantly toned down in his later appearances, being more Howard Hughes-esque in Captain America: First Avenger for example. Man I wonder why…that happened…
-I had a visually angry response to Tony being violent to his helper arm when looking for a cure. Leave my buddy alone, you jerk!
-I stand by my liking of Pepper here, and I like that she really doesn’t put up with Tony’s BS, but holy fuck, every time they argue I want to tear my ears off. They have such an annoying vibe here! Jon, you value yourself as being good at improvising dialogue, maybe not have their fights feel so overwritten!
-Natasha’s introduction is rather telling-have the camera essentially dry-hump her and offset it by pretending it’s all for a joke about her being stronger and more competent than the guys. This doesn’t make her usage in this film any better.
-“North Korea, China, Iran, or just sell it on the black market” Yeah cause America would never buy this kind of weaponry they were trying to take from you if a shady guy offered it on the black market, Tony!
-Oh, a bar of soap joke! This movie is very late noughties/early 2010s
-Yeah, I’ve referenced this already, and I hate to take a note from CinemaSins of all people, but the fuck is with that gag about the bird? It feels like something they thought was hilarious in production and abused it to shit, but didn’t land in the final product.
-Tony’s needlessly rude to the strawberry vendor and it rubbed me the wrong way.
-Howard saying he didn’t have the tech to create the element is kind of funny when you consider he had the Tesseract at this point. One of the cosmic figures that forged a chunk of this universe’s existence was no match for some jagoff making a laser cannon, I guess.
-Okay, the gag with the fake Captain America shield was hilarious and really well timed, a nice jab at obsessive fans making weird theories and it won’t be the last. Also works as a subtle reference to Howard and Steve’s relationship.
-And the kid in the Iron Man mask that a droid nearly attacks is, in fact, baby Peter Parker! This has been confirmed by Feige and Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts. He’s played by Jon Favreau’s son here.
-Senator Stern, played by late comedian Garry Shandling, and later revealed to be a HYDRA agent, has my favourite line in the film after he “accidentally” jabs Tony in the chest with the medal:
“Oh, sorry! Funny how annoying a little prick can be.”
-Also, he’s named after Howard Stern. Just thought I’d let ye know
-Good choice to end the movie on Highway to Hell. The rest of the soundtrack is pretty forgettable, sadly.
Iron Man was one of those strange lightning in a bottle films that happened to launch a mega franchise. It’s difficult to recreate the exact environment and elements that made it work so well. Iron Man 2 is the attempts to make lightning strike twice, and it misses out way more than hits.
And to be honest I came away from this not hating it as much as I thought I would. Honestly it’s just messy. The whole isn’t as great as the sum of its parts. There are scenes and ideas that work here and there, but none of it falls into place. It was a victim of trying to needlessly compete with the huge success of it’s predecessor and being laboured with the burden of world building. It’s the only non-origin movie of Phase One, so a decent bit of set-up for The Avengers and the broader MCU falls on its shoulders.
It should have streamlined its main two plot threads or find a way to focus on just one, given more commitment to exploring the growing character dynamics and interesting ways the world reacted to Iron Man existing, and built on its compelling villain and given us more shades of grey in his conflict with our lead. It stumbles on all of this, and because of that it comes away one of the weaker entries of the MCU. More an example for the studio on what not to do rather than what works.
Final rating: 4/10
Here is where it landed in my ranking:
- The Avengers
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Iron Man 3
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Ant Man
- Iron Man 2
- Thor: The Dark World
Coming up next, we look at the (thus far) only solo outing of a mainstay in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when he was NOT played by the actor everyone knows him as now, and for years was the dark sheep in the franchise. And maybe still is? We shall find out…