Iron Man 2
The MCU gets a little rusty.
2010; Robert Downey Jr. (3), Gwyneth Paltrow (2), Samuel L. Jackson (2), Don Cheadle (1), Scarlett Johannsson (1), dir.: Jon Favreau
+: RDJ still solid, ending better
-: plot generally confused, too much comedy, Justin Hammer a weak villain
In the commentary to Iron Man 2, director Jon Favreau explains that he wanted to make a more conventional film. And in many ways, he succeeded: there is something about this film that, at minimum, evokes the pre-Nolan era of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, or the early X-Men entries, or, at worst, the likes of Fantastic Four (2005) and Daredevil (2003). The biggest clues that this film came out in 2010 are that a) certain actors are obviously older, and b) a parody of the Obama ‘HOPE’ poster shows up early on.
In fairness, Iron Man 2 becomes more vital in retrospect, with subsequent films piling on the significance. Tony Stark’s fundamental attitudes zig-zag from now on, Senator Stern takes on a whole new context, and we’re led to believe a random incident during the Expo will take on significance almost a dozen films later, too. There’s even a little bit of hinting towards some of the themes of Iron Man 3, too.
The trouble, ultimately, is structure. The film starts off with a pretty decent first 20 minutes, with all the necessary setup and action, but like many superhero films of the 1990s and 2000s, it sticks rigidly to a three-act structure which leads to a lengthy, digressional middle hour. No scene is bad, per se, but plenty of it’s unnecessary. Want to see the origin story, not just of War Machine, but of the minigun on his shoulder? We get it. Did you leave the cinema after Iron Man thinking, “I really hope he blows up a watermelon in the next one”? If you’re one of the zero people who did, you’ll be well catered for. Would you like to see Tony Stark build a particle reactor in his basement? It’s pretty cool, actually, but still marking time before the climax.
It’s also with Iron Man 2 that Marvel’s villain problem begins in earnest. Always somewhat overstated — many Marvel films have worked to debunk the notion that superhero films are All About the Villain — it’s nonetheless present here. Ivan Vanko — sort-of playing the Crimson Dynamo, but mainly Whiplash in a fudge which doesn’t suit the film, is reasonable enough. Mickey Rourke’s dubious Russian accent and abbreviated presence aside, he’s got means, motive and menace. The weak link is Justin Hammer, a cavalcade of incompetence who works as comedy relief, but undermines whatever threat Vanko brings, and who could be removed from the film without any difficulties.
In the end, Iron Man 2 ends up being half of a great film, and half stuffed with cinematic bread and water. It was, admittedly, a sequel Marvel probably didn’t expect to make — The Incredible Hulk 2, with The Leader as villain and Edward Norton in the title role, languishes on the shelf marked Films That Will Never Be.
Nevertheless, the film did well enough to justify the continuing MCU; and the next two instalments would, whatever their own flaws and foibles, show us a universe, instead of tell us about it.
High Points: as implied by the review, start and (particularly) the end 20 minutes.
Low Points: the earliest scenes with Black Widow — i.e. before the reveal — are basically the worst involving the character in any film. There’s an inevitable Male Gaze-y aspect to Black Widow anyway, but there’s not really anything beyond this for these scenes.
Curios: JARVIS has run simulations to replace the Palladium core using every known element, which means that, at some point, he considered Hydrogen. And Polonium.
Flagrant Product Placement: Audi, again, and this time more blatant, given that they’re at the Stark expo. Elon Musk gets to promote himself, although Tesla goes unmentioned. Also Oracle, strangely enough.
Connections to Elsewhere: As mentioned above, Iron Man 2 might be the most-connected film in the MCU as of 2017. Beyond being relevant to Iron Man 3, The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming, there’s also a later scene in which SHIELD’s boards detail various places of interest across the globe, and yes, Black Panther gets an implicit reference — eight years in advance. Captain America and Thor are also referenced, with the clear knowledge that their films are forthcoming.
Stan Lee Cameo: mistaken for Larry King. Basically the same gag at the first film. (5/10)
End Credits: the first of what we might call the ‘actual footage’ post-credits: this one shows up, exactly, in the body of the very next film. It’s pretty great, too, feeling ominous and significant without being overwrought. (8/10)
Next: Thor (2011)