Two movies came to mind when I just watched Iron Man 2 again for the first time since the night it hit theaters on May 7, 2010: 2008‘s The Dark Knight and 2007’s Spider-Man 3. Plot-wise, there are some similarities between what Christopher Nolan does with his Batman trilogy and what Jon Favreau decides to do with Iron Man here. The conversation held between Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman (Christian Bale) at the end of Batman Begins is more or less the conversation Congress wants to have with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) at the beginning of Iron Man 2. If you recall the final scene in Batman Begins, Gordon asks Batman about the threat of escalation — that Batman’s presence may actually attract evildoers who want the chance to take him on. In other words, while most would think the presence of a superhero would serve as a deterrent, in practice a superhero — simply by existing — might actually be doing more harm than good.
This is explored fully in The Dark Knight and, two years after the release of Iron Man 2, during the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, when Batman intentionally remains off the grid while the Dent Act robs Gotham of criminals. Shortly after Iron Man 2 opens, Tony Stark is summoned to appear in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee and be grilled by Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) about whether the Iron Man suit and technology — Stern insists its a “weapon” — is really in the public interest. Stern, of course, thinks it is not, and Stark, naturally, disagrees with him in a hearing televised on C-SPAN. Stark even at one point says, “I have successfully privatized world peace! What more do you want?” Stern’s response: “Fuck you, Mr. Stark. Fuck you.” (Turns out even C-SPAN has an eight-second delay for bleeping out expletives.)
That Iron Man 2 so formally addresses the concept of whether a superhero is really a good thing for society — personally, I really would worry that the government’s defense and military functions becoming reliant upon a superhero would therefore cause them to weaken — isn’t a complete surprise. After all, Nolan was able to pretty successfully create a Gotham that was more or less realistic, with a caped crusader enabled by riches and technology instead of actual superpowers. The Iron Man character and world is a similar setup — Tony Stark is a billionaire with a suit enabled by riches and technology — so why not explore similar thematic territory? Well, you have to get the execution right, and for the most part, Iron Man 2 stumbles here — sometimes kind of badly. Part of it lies in the fundamental differences in outlook, tone and mood: Tony Stark is a cantankerous wisecracker in a world that’s light and funny, not dark and brooding.
Moreover, while the film’s ridiculous (especially at the time) $200 million production budget affords the movie the requisite high production values, the script is undeniably weaker this time around and just doesn’t stick the landing from a dramatic standpoint. Whereas the first film was pretty tightly plotted and featured a mere handful of characters at its core, Iron Man 2 does away with this less-is-more approach. Too much is introduced too fast in a manner that’s quite reminiscent of 2007’s awkward, bloated and forgettable misfire, Spider-Man 3. For instance, I had completely forgotten that Scarlett Johansson‘s Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) character was actually introduced to the MCU in this movie and not the first Avengers film in 2012. For the most part, she doesn’t do much of anything and is pretty much wasted here. Then you have Rhodey (played by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard this time around), who is upgraded to full Robin status by the end of the film by becoming War Machine.
On the opposing side, Mickey Rourke cashes in a well-deserved paycheck after appearing in an Oscar-nominated turn in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler in 2008. Sharing villain duties with Rourke is the always terrific and generally underused character actor Sam Rockwell, who likewise cashes in on his appearances in the well-received Frost/Nixon (2008) and Moon (2009). The bit part actors are just as impressive: a pre-House of Cards Kate Mara and a pre-Newsroom Olivia Munn very briefly appear in one scene each, and John Slattery — best known for his role as Roger Sterling on the AMC series Mad Men — appears as Tony Stark’s father Howard in archival film footage. And Samuel L. Jackson‘s ever-expanding role as Avengers boss Nick Fury grows appropriately here, as well. (Shandling is a big get as well and is a pretty inspired casting choice to boot.)
It’s hard to ask for a better cast, which is why it’s somewhat disappointing to see just about everyone be so underutilized. The new characters do not receive enough development, resulting in a main plot that doesn’t feel very sturdy, and the old characters are given subplots that frankly aren’t very interesting and don’t ultimately go anywhere. For example, having Rourke (whose character’s name, Ivan Vanko, I’m very sure you don’t remember if you have not seen this movie recently) and Rockwell (can’t imagine you remember his character’s name either) both be villains — or at least a villain enabler in Rockwell’s case — doesn’t really work. As Vanko, otherwise known as the villain Whiplash, Rourke is always mumbling something fairly unintelligible in a thick Russian accent and seems kind of disconnected from the rest of the movie. As for Rockwell, he’s entertaining, but undeniably a bit over the top as Tony Stark’s top business rival Justin Hammer.
On paper, it’s not necessarily a bad idea to have Hammer bust Vanko out of jail and employ him in an effort to outdo Stark, but it ultimately doesn’t have its desired effect. The problem is, we don’t have enough of a reason to care about either character. On top of this, Rhodey ends up kinda sorta switching to Hammer’s side — though since Hammer’s company won the defense contract and Rhodey is a soldier, he more or less has to follow orders regarding that, but that’s not really how it’s presented — and in Spider-Man 3-like fashion, has to be kinda sorta turned back to Stark’s side in order to take on the larger enemy. It’s not that compelling, particularly because of what led to it in the first place. (Will explain the repeated use of “kinda sorta” shortly.) In case you have forgotten (which I can almost certainly guarantee if, like me, you have not seen this movie in almost a decade), introduced at the beginning of Iron Man 2, for reasons I still cannot really understand, is the plot device that the arc reactor powering Tony Stark’s heart is failing.
As in, he will soon die. (Remember how throughout The Empire Strikes Back the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive doesn’t work? This is kind of like that.) As Tony contemplates his imminent demise, he makes some fateful decisions. He names his administrative assistant (and basically glorified maid) Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) CEO of Stark Industries and steps aside, though Pepper, of course, can’t understand why. With toxicity levels running high, he decides to make himself look like an idiot at a birthday party he throws for himself, knowing it will be his last. Pepper comes to shut it down; Tony refuses. In a complete break in tone from the series, Tony starts blasting apart watermelons, glass walls, etc. with beams from his Iron Man suit. Rhodey steps into another Iron Man suit, becoming War Machine, and orders all of the party guests to disperse. War Machine and Iron Man then fight it out, effectively destroying Tony Stark’s Malibu mansion.
It’s all very strange to watch and none of it feels particularly authentic to the character we have watched for a movie and a half. The tone of this entire sequence is just weird. (And if you have not seen the movie in almost a decade and have forgotten this stuff, I would imagine it was probably pretty strange for you to just read this summary.) And all of this happens, mind you, because Tony Stark’s arc reactor begins to fail prior to the start of the movie. Why? Well, apparently so that these really contrived and generally uninteresting subplots can take place. Can you honestly tell me that Pepper becoming CEO of Stark Industries has any effect on the rest of the movie at all? It would appear, to me at least, that it does not, and that really this option was chosen, from a screenwriting standpoint, to give Pepper something to do. (Otherwise she would just be hanging out at the mansion like in the first film.)
As for Rhodey, one of my complaints about the first film is that he seemed like he was almost in a different movie the entire time, so I’m glad he has been more integrated into things here — it is undeniably cool when Rhodey and Tony fight side by side during the climax. However, in terms of scripting, they surely could have chosen some sturdier plotting to get them there. After all, when the central character’s primary motivation is to either no longer participate or, perhaps more specifically, to figure out how to deal with the prospect of no longer participating, issues with plotting are bound to emerge. As for the main plot, this is partly driven by Tony’s new “I’m about to die, so I’m going to be reckless” decision-making process as well. He decides, while in Monaco to watch a Formula 1 race, to drive the Team Stark car on a whim because he’s going to die anyway.
In one of the few scenes I actually remembered from having seen Iron Man 2 a grand total of once nearly a decade ago now, Ivan Vanko shows up with whips — hence the comic book villain name “Whiplash” — made of the same arc reactor technology that powers Tony Stark’s heart and starts chopping through race cars as they roar past in truly spectacular fashion. It may be great fun to watch, but it’s pretty contrived. How did Vanko know Tony was going to be getting into his own race car and driving in the race himself? There’s no way he could have known he was going to do that — not even Tony knew he was going to do that. Surely, if he had a realistic plan to attack Tony, that was not it. Yet he was hanging out by the race track, waiting for Tony to get in the car and drive, and, once the car came around the first lap, walk out and chop it up? Please.
As for who Ivan Vanko is and why he would care about killing Tony Stark in the first place, turns out his father Anton Vanko was involved in the creation of the giant arc reactor — or at least the technology that eventually resulted in the creation of it — at Stark Industries featured during the climax of the first film. According to Fury, he wanted it used for commercial purposes instead of for the public good (or something to that effect), and was banished to the USSR as a result. In Iron Man 2‘s cold open, we see Anton Vanko die in Russia, and during the opening credits sequence, we observe his son Ivan Vanko start work on his own arc reactor in response. He then shows up at the race track, is locked up, is busted out of jail by Hammer, and then works in secret on Iron Man-like drones for Hammer in order to fulfill a defense contract for the US government (and, by extension, for Rhodey, who accepts Hammer’s weapons on the military’s behalf).
Of course, during Hammer’s Stark-like (i.e., Steve Jobs-like) demo of this new firepower, Vanko (essentially by remote control) turns all of the drone robot Iron Men against the crowd when he sees that Tony Stark has arrived on the scene and has finally decided he wants to actually be a part of his own movie. Stark, after like an hour and a half, figures out how to synthesize a new element on the periodic table that replaces the palladium core that’s failing inside his arc reactor. Having done that, he is now no longer dying and his relationships with Pepper and Rhodey can go back to normal, which is exactly what happens. So that spat and fight between Rhodey and Tony earlier is basically considered a misunderstanding, and Iron Man and War Machine take on Hammer’s drones. They make fairly short work of them, and then Whiplash shows up for the final fight… which is also noticeably brief.
The climax is symptomatic of what the movie as a whole struggles with throughout: the individual pieces are mostly pretty good (keep in mind, this is a $200 million movie made by pretty talented people), but they don’t really add up to much of anything. Considering they banged this movie out from start to finish in just two years, it’s clear that deadlines must have been tight at every stage along the way. Unfortunately, the script is what would have benefited most from a longer gestation period — it’s clear that it was still at least a few more drafts away from getting to a more polished state. So while the production values are high and the movie is still fun, it’s not particularly refined — it’s both overstuffed and undercooked. It’s still above average for a superhero film, but it’s a couple notches worse than Iron Man and should be considered a more or less lower-tier MCU movie.
To read a review of how Iron Man 2 looks and sounds in 4K, check out Blu-ray.com’s review of the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc. Keep in mind that although Iron Man 2 was mostly shot on 35mm film using Super 35 film stock, it was finished on a 2K digital intermediate (or DI), so a true 4K (or 8K or 16K) image of Iron Man 2 will never exist. Future versions will always just be an upscale of the 2K image completed prior to the film’s release in 2010.