With Iron Man 3 just a week away, Den of Geek looks back at Iron Man 2, the film that not only continued the story of Tony Stark but also set the stage for The Avengers and beyond.
2009’s Iron Man 2 had to spin many plates. It had to continue the story of Tony Stark, a story that won the hearts and minds of both comic book loyalists and people not familiar Iron Man, and it had to expand the world of the Marvel cinematic universe. Like any sequel, Iron Man 2 had to up the ante for Tony Stark, Pepper Potts, James Rhodes and company, while introducing and exploring elements of the Marvel Universe that would continue into others films like Thor, Captain America and ultimately, The Avengers. Iron Man 2 succeeded on many levels, but as whole, it did not live up to the standards set by the first Iron Man.
Iron Man 2 did introduce the pieces Marvel needed to set up The Avengers. Fans got to see more of Nick Fury beyond the sweeper at the end of the first Iron Man. They got to see the character of Phil Coulson fleshed out with Clark Gregg being the highlight of the film’s weak second act, “I’ll just taze you and watch, Super Nanny.” Hells to the yeah.
By providing only glimpses of who these characters were, Marvel sent an invitation to fans to come experience more in the coming years. Because of Iron Man 2, when fans saw Coulson pop up in 2011’s Thor, they knew exactly who Coulson was and already had an emotional connection to him. The same went for Nick Fury in 2011’s Captain America and for all three characters in The Avengers. Iron Man 2 successfully shoehorned all three of these characters into the film’s narrative, but not without Tony Stark’s own story suffering as a result.
The story of Iron Man 2 effectively plays off the ending of the first Iron Man. After revealing to the world that he is Iron Man, Tony Stark is enjoying life as a public super-hero. He did indeed change the world, as other nations race to build weapons to compete with the Iron Man armor. Yet, Stark won’t hand his creation over to the U.S. government.
Instead he, as Stark puts it, “privatizes world peace.” This political chess game sets an intriguing game board, particularly because of Stark’s contentious relationship with Senator Stern, wonderfully played by Gary Shandling. Enter Stark’s foil, the over the top Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). Rockwell’s performance seems to have polarized fans in the years since the film’s debut.
Some consider Rockwell’s performance a farce. Others see his Hammer as a counter point to the always snarky Stark. Whichever the case, the film does effectively cast Hammer as the foil for Stark. Hammer is a warning about what happens if Stark-like technology falls into the hands of a man driven by greed, instead of the betterment of the human race.
The first act of Iron Man 2 works. The introduction of Hammer, Rothman, the reintroduction of James Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle) and the continued exploration of Pepper and Tony’s relationship are all seamlessly woven with the introduction of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke). Vanko is the son of Tony’s father’s partner. Vanko’s father died of blood poisoning caused by his experimentation with repulser technology and he swore revenge on the Stark family as a result.
Rourke’s Vanko is truly frightening, a brilliant but broken thug who uses technology to fuel his bloodlust. He is covered in prison tattoos and barely speaks. He is the silent assassin driven by revenge, unlike the series’ other villains, who were each driven by greed. Meanwhile, the first act also establishes James Rhodes’ arc, as the soldier’s loyalties are tested. Does he try to get Stark’s tech for his country or does he remain true to his best friend? The first act also introduces the fact that Stark’s success has come with a price. He is dying of the same blood poisoning that killed the senior Vanko.
The stage is set in Iron Man 2 and it seems director Jon Favreau is picking up where he left off at the end of Iron Man. But in the second act things unravel just enough to set this film apart, quality wise, from the first Iron Man. Somehow, Iron Man 2 turns into a reflection on Stark’s relationship with his dead father.
There is nothing innately wrong with that idea. In fact, it seems a wise direction to go in, a direction that connects Stark to his past in order to propel him to meet his future, heroic potential. The idea is sound, but gets lost in the establishing of The Avengers, Vanko, Hammer and Rhodey. It seems like an important moment, but is glossed over because the film is trying to do so many things at once.
There is never a solid foundation for Stark as he tries to reconnect with his father. There are whole scenes just plopped into the middle of Iron Man 2 that conveniently set Tony on the path of his past. For example, Nick Fury’s subtle hints that Stark’s cure will be found by studying old tapes of his father. Why would Fury know this?
Another useless scene is disguised as more witty banter between Tony and Pepper, which is always a pleasure to watch, but the only reason it is in the movie is so Tony can leave with a model of his father’s Stark Expo; a model that is conveniently the chemical model of Stark’s much needed cure. The first Iron Man did not resort to plot contrivances and neither should have this one.
Meanwhile, the central conflict of the third act centers on Rhodes, now War Machine and Stark. Stark’s blood poisoning causes him to act like a drunken idiot, which leads to a climatic showdown between War Machine and a stumble drunk Iron Man. At this point in Stark’s story, the audience has seen too much heroism from Stark to watch him get a not deserved comeuppance. It just seemed Favreau and company had too much to do and didn’t know when exactly to do it, all leading to an unevenly paced, but eminently fun movie.
Vanko is another issue all together. While Rourke is awesome, Vanko spends the film giving off a sense that he is the ultimate badass but he is dispatched altogether too easily. The film gives the feeling that Vanko and Hammer were not real threats to Stark, Stark’s only real enemy is himself. But by this time the story has moved past Stark as his own foil.
While Iron Man 2’s action is anti-climactic, the action sequences are awesome to behold, pure Marvel magic that is bigger, badder and more intense than Iron Man. The fight between Stark and Vanko on the racetrack is heart in throat kind of stuff, but it ends very fast with Vanko’s first and not last, easy defeat. There seems to be no true threat in the film. Instead of the second act establishing a threat, it focused on Stark’s antics and the building of The Avengers.
Now, don’t read this as a condemnation of Iron Man 2, Favreau or Marvel. Iron Man 2 is still a very enjoyable film, thanks in part to Downey’s dynamism, the inclusion of Widow and Fury, Paltrow’s continued brilliance as Potts and the kickass debut of War Machine. The third act brings the film back to the expected levels of quality, even though the armor enhanced Vanko is defeated way too easily, again.
Iron Man 2’s conclusion comes when Vanko hacks Hammer’s system and gains control of the mechs that Hammer forced the Russian madman to create. The concluding conflict is perfectly paced, as they attack the Stark expo, the tech gone mad serves as a threat to Stark’s legacy. Stark and Rhodes work together in a pure Marvel smackdown with the mechs, before Vanko makes his grand entrance, where he is dispatched quickly, giving the brilliant fight an anticlimactic feel.
These moments are interspersed with the Black Widow racing to gain control of Hammer’s computer system. In her ensuing struggle audiences are treated to some kickass stunt work that promises an awesome tomorrow for fans of Johansson’s character, a tomorrow realized in The Avengers.
Iron Man 2 succeeds on many levels. While it is fraught with pacing issues, it is still a solid and fun film that establishes many needed elements that grew the Marvel universe. Sadly, it did so at the expense of Tony Stark’s continued narrative. It failed to match the almost perfect pacing of the first film. But, despite all its issues, Iron Man 2 is still a film worthy of carrying the name Iron Man thanks to the presence of Robert Downey Jr. and some kickass action.
Den of Geek Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars