The Marvel Movies Debrief: Iron Man 2 Recap, Legacy, and MCU Connections

Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. suffer from "difficult second album" syndrome in the plot-heavy third MCU installment.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK. It contains spoilers for Iron Man 2 and the wider MCU. 

After Iron Man’s decent word-of-mouth and box-office success (it earned a respectable $585 million worldwide), the fledgling Marvel Cinematic Universe seemed to be off to a solid start – and a sequel was pretty much inevitable. Keen to capitalize on ol’ shellhead’s newfound popularity, the studio fast-tracked Iron Man 2 as the MCU’s third chapter.

With Marvel hoping to replicate what made the first movie such a winner, director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. were quickly tempted back for a second outing. Everyone else duly followed. Well, everyone apart from Terrence Howard, who was swiftly replaced by Don Cheadle amid varying reports of on-set disagreements, contract squabbles, and salary disputes. 

Adhering to the well-trodden “bigger is better” sequel formula, Favreau and company expanded the cast to include some fresh faces and seed some future MCU regulars. Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell were drafted in as villains Whiplash and Justin Hammer respectively, while Scarlett Johansson was hired as Avenger-in-waiting Black Widow and Samuel L. Jackson was given an expanded role – and a nine-picture deal – as SHIELD director Nick Fury. Even rockers AC/DC were tapped to supply a soundtrack of banging back-catalog hits.

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The stage was set for a sure-fire super-sequel. What could go wrong?

Well, as it turned out, Iron Man 2 was destined to become Tony Stark’s difficult second album. It outperformed the first film at the box office, sure, but despite all the upgraded bells and whistles, something just wasn’t quite right.

Iron Man 2’s biggest problem is that there’s just too much going on. Maybe it’s the film’s attempts to out-do its predecessor. Maybe it’s all the MCU world-building that’s shoehorned in. But the sheer number of story elements means that almost none of them are given the room they need to develop coherently.

So we have, in no particular order: Whiplash’s baddie-origin arc; the Stark/Hammer rivalry; Tony’s life-threatening palladium poisoning; the US Senate shenanigans; the introduction of Black Widow; Rhodey’s transition into War Machine; the momentum-sapping throwbacks to Tony’s dad, Howard; the Nick Fury-led Avengers set-up… That’s a lot of plot for one movie. And given the film’s scattershot approach, many of these threads frustratingly fall flat.

Chief among the casualties is the film’s big bad. An eccentric, edgy character actor at the height of his late noughties renaissance (having just picked up an Oscar nomination for his turn in The Wrestler), Rourke was an inspired choice to play Ivan Vanko. He’s the perfect foil for Downey Jr.’s Stark: the damaged side of the same coin; the bitter, vengeful have-not to Tony’s increasingly egotistical gluttony.

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A vodka-swigging, down-and-out former Soviet physicist with a penchant for exotic birds, Whiplash is a quirky, menacing and, in Rourke’s hands, sympathetic nemesis. He’s not only Stark-level smart, he’s physically imposing to boot – tatted, muscular, and wielding a pair of fizzing energy whips. His first dust-up with Iron Man on a Monaco racetrack is one of the most memorable scenes of the Phase One films, if not the entire MCU (more on that below).

“You come from a family of thieves and butchers,” he tells Tony in a tense exchange afterward. “And now, like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your history and forget all the lives the Stark family destroyed…” Dark, eh?

It’s a promising start. And then, inexplicably, Vanko is unceremoniously sidelined to make room for the machinations of Rockwell’s preening industrialist (another underserved comic-book stalwart) and Stark’s drawn-out navel-gazing. He only properly comes back into play for the final battle, ensconced in a blandly designed metal suit and dispatched in a matter of minutes – a fate hardly worthy of the character or the actor who’s playing him. A potentially great villain is squandered.

The film’s not all bad, though. Downey Jr. is as charismatic as ever, while Johansson makes a great first impression as the duplicitous Natasha Romanoff (her acrobatic corridor takedown of Hammer’s henchmen is one of the film’s highlights).

Cheadle, meanwhile, quickly manages to banish the shadow of Howard (“Look it’s me, deal with it, let’s move on…” he quips as he makes his entrance), showcasing a much warmer, funnier, and more natural rapport with RDJ – especially during their entertainingly bizarre in-suit brawl, which plays out like a big-budget Bottom sketch.

Iron Man 2 is a fairly middling entry in the Marvel pantheon, then – a film that fudges some of its best ideas simply by trying to cram them all in. Crucially, Favreau’s sequel lacks the simplicity and slickness of its predecessor. While there are several entertaining beats, the film is ultimately a bit of a slog.

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Standout scene: The Iron Man vs. Whiplash Monaco battle. Rourke’s brazen, slow-motion entrance onto the racetrack, dodging crashing cars as his overalls burn away to reveal his crackling energy whips, is as menacing as it is effortlessly cool. It’s a smart move having Tony out of his super-suit for the majority of the fight, too, giving the scene a real sense of peril as Vanko lashes out ferociously (it’s a technique that would be revisited in Iron Man 3). It’s a real statement setpiece that shows so much promise for the villain, even as he’s dragged off, spitting blood and cackling maniacally (“You lose!”). Which is why his subsequent benching feels like such a wasted opportunity.

Best quip: “You guys look like two seals fighting over a grape.” Rhodey hilariously spoils the moment for Tony and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) as they share their first kiss.

First appearances: Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow plays a small but key role here before her big breakout in The Avengers. Ditto Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, upgraded from end-credits cameo to give Iron Man a bit of hero-coaching. We also meet Tony’s dad, Howard, (played by Mad Men’s John Slattery) in the flesh for the first time thanks to some archival Stark Industries recordings, and the late Garry Shandling’s buffoonish (or is he?) Senator Stern, who we’ll be seeing more of in Phase Two…

So long, farewell: It’s hello/goodbye to Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko, who blows himself up, Predator-style, during the film’s climax. And even though the fate of Sam Rockwell’s smarmy Justin Hammer is left open, he hasn’t popped up in the MCU since. “I’m going to be seeing you again real soon,” he tells Pepper as he’s carted off by the authorities. Erm, no you aren’t, mate.

It’s all connected: With Iron Man 2 more concerned with shared universe-building than Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk, there are more overt MCU links here…

• “Tony, my greatest creation is you…” John Slattery makes his biggest MCU appearance here as the older Howard Stark, albeit through “archive” footage. But as one of the key figures in the formation of SHIELD, his legacy is felt through the entire series. He cameos in both Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War (as well as, reportedly, the upcoming Avengers: Endgame), while the young Howard – played by Dominic Cooper – appears in Captain America: The First Avenger and the Agent Carter TV series.

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• When Stark is working on creating a new element to power his internal arc reactor, he props up his makeshift particle accelerator with a half-built version of Captain America’s shield, found among his dad’s old possessions.

• Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) mostly serves as a sort-of comedy punchbag for Stark in this film. However, his attempts to force Tony to turn over the Iron Man technology are later revealed to have a more sinister motive – in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he’s exposed as a covert member of HYDRA.

• At the armed forces Senate hearing, Tony resolutely refuses to give up his Iron Man suit and fiercely defends his independence, describing the suit as a “high-tech prosthesis” and describing working with the government as tantamount to “servitude or prostitution.” The events of Age of Ultron clearly change his mind though – he’s the first Avenger to sign up to the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War

• When Tony offers Pepper the job as CEO of Stark Industries, he tells her: “It’s you…It’s always been you.” It’s startlingly similar to the line in the Avengers: Endgame trailer, where a space-bound and down Stark records a message for his soulmate: “When I drift off, I will dream about you…It’s always been you.” *Sobs*

• Black Widow’s report on Stark’s readiness to join the Avengers initiative leads Fury to declare: “At this juncture, we’d only like to use you as a consultant.” Hence Stark’s mission to “annoy” General Ross into keeping Emil Blonsky, aka the Abomination, behind bars rather than release him to join the Avengers, as requested by the World Security Council (seen in the post-credits scene of The Incredible Hulk and the Marvel One-Shot, The Consultant). The nature of his involvement obviously changes by the time of Loki’s invasion in The Avengers.

Credit check: Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) rocks up in New Mexico at what looks like a meteor crash site. “Sir, we’ve found it,” he reports over the phone, as we see people crowding around Mjölnir – aka Thor’s hammer. Cue the thunder…

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Are you a fan of Iron Man 2, or does it miss the mark? Are there any other aspects of it that you like, don’t like, or anything that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below.