In honor of the release of Captain America: Civil War, We Minored in Film’s Julianne Ramsey will examine the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it stands.
Day 3: Iron Man 2 (2010)
If Iron Man proved Marvel could be a cinematic power-player, then its sequel, the uninspiringly titled Iron Man 2 was forced to do the world-building heavy lifting, laying the groundwork for future sequels and payoffs that would happen in later films. The film gives Tony several antagonists (Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, and Gary Schandling), a recast sidekick (Don Cheadle, taking over from Terrance Howard), and increased flirtations with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). However, it also gives us SHIELD, Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), and the reappearance of Agent Coulson, who threaten to grind the film’s narrative momentum to a screeching halt.
Full confession, I’ve only watched this film twice. I saw it in theatres, and I watched it again for this recap. I remembered the film being a massive letdown after the fun that was Iron Man. Rewatching it, I was initially pleasantly surprised. Robert Downey Jr.’s plight over his blood poisoning, his ambivalent feelings towards his father, those moments really land.
It’s when the film becomes an Avengers trailer that it loses me.
Iron Man 2 is one of those tricky films comprised almost equally of good and poor narrative choices. There’s a pre-Avengers tie in plotline and post-Avengers tie in plotline, and the more Black Widow and Agent Coulson appear on screen, the more the film collapses under its own weight. Superhero sequels either try to go bigger, adding in more villains and plot strands or go smaller, building a conflict based more on the central character than external forces. Iron Man 2, inexplicably, tries to do both. We have 3 antagonists, a Senator (Gary Schandling, RIP) who wants Tony’s Iron Man suit turned over to the US government, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, who never met a role he couldn’t turn into a mass of idiosyncrasies) who thinks Tony’s father stole his father’s technology.
We’ve also got Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who functions as a sort of Daffy Duck to Tony’s Bugs Bunny, a blustery and frustrated counterpoint to Tony’s unflustered wisecracking.
Conversely, as stated above, we also have Tony Stark dealing with the realization that he’s dying, as the battery pack in his chest that keeps him alive is also slowly killing him. The film uses Tony Stark’s devil-may-care bravado to great effect, as it now becomes more about masking what’s really happening to him. Robert Downey Jr., with his large, haunted eyes and face that refuses to stay still really nails Stark’s anxieties over what this legacy might be.
The revelation that his father may have stolen his work from another scientist (before Nick Fury wipes that bit of character ambiguity away with a “No, your father did everything right and he really, really loved you. Buck up, little camper” speech) adds to that anxiety. He still might be the smartest, cockiest guy in the room, but there’s a pathos to that swagger now, as it feels less sincere and more the ultimate cover-up. The problem is, Tony’s conflict is far more interesting than the cadre of antagonists that line up to take him on, and that conflict is tossed aside with some wand-waving from SHIELD, making the superior portion of the film seem more like a time-waster than a narrative.
The film still earns points for being perhaps the most loquacious superhero film to hit the screens until this year’s Deadpool. Sam Rockwell (with skin a little too tan and teeth a little too white), always an enjoyable screen presence, has never met a situation he couldn’t talk his way around, and he plays that perfect mix of smarm and sardonic detachment.
He’s spends as much time commenting on the film’s absurdity as he does interacting with it. Couple him with Robert Downey Jr.’s rapid-fire line delivery, and you have two male leads that will happily be onscreen as long as their acting partners can keep up. As with every Iron Man film, the last 20 or so minutes have to devolve into robot scenes.
That doesn’t bother me in the other films, but here is feels like a squandered opportunity. The film that came before it was so interesting and character-driven, and to have it all washed away with a bit of narrative shorthand and end on exploding metal men feels like the ultimate waste. Director Jon Favreau treats the action less as something he enjoys and more as something he was forced to include. There’s minimal joy in this film’s action.
So I guess the ultimate question is, is Iron Man 2 worth watching? Have you really not seen it before? Why are you reading this? Ultimately, I’d say it is, because there are some worthwhile character moments, the pathos-laden, screwball comedy between Pepper Potts and Tony Stark still works, and Sam Rockwell is having a lot of fun.
It’s just best to temper your expectations. The movie you start with is not the one you have when the closing credits roll.
Up next, Julianne reviews Thor and feels a little bit better about her life.