‘’What is and will always be my greatest creation…is you’
Returning to a story after its predecessor is wildly successful is an enormous task. Returning to that same story is also harder when it’s part of a launchpad for what is now one of cinema’s biggest franchises. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 mostly sticks the landing and proves itself to be the strongest entry in the Iron Man trilogy. I know some of you ( maybe a lot of you) might be rolling your eyes already, but let’s take it back to 2010.
Iron Man 2 sees Jon Favreau back in the director’s chair for his second and last outing in the MCU. Jumping back into Tony Stark’s life just six months after the event of Iron Man, the playing field has changed significantly since Stark championed the Iron Man moniker in front of the world’s press. The military is seeking intervention by means of claiming the Iron Man suit technology for their own, as they see it to be a threat against the United States best interest. Over the pond in Russia, rogue scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is planning his revenge against Stark, believing Howard Stark unfairly cheated his father Anton out of his career.
At the same time, Tony is trying to manage his declining health as the arc reactor technology begins to have detrimental effects on his body. With seemingly no solution in sight, Stark’s lone saviour complex is amped to the maximum.
We also see a new MCU player enter the scene in the form of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow, moonlighting as Stark’s assistant with an agenda closer to Stark’s personal matters than he knows. Samuel L. Jackson also reprises his role as Nick Fury in a chunkier role than his Iron Man after credits appearance. Rumour has it that behind the scenes Marvel was intent on expanding the lore and presence of S.H.I.E.L.D in the MCU, in the build-up to the eventual Avengers movie. Despite how true this might be, it is certainly evident in the latter half of the movie how involved these ideas are with Favreau and Justin Theroux’s story.
On first glance, Iron Man 2 is dealing with almost too much at once, even against the standard sequel mantra “bigger is better”. From the get-go, the weakest element of the narrative is definitely Ivan Vanko / Whiplash’s plot to conspire against Stark for personal gain. While the typical beats of a super villain do provide Iron Man 2 with some superb action setpieces, Vanko is never really fleshed enough for you to be truly invested in his plan. This should be a huge crack in the foundation of the story but fortunately gives way to the real enemy of the story: Tony Stark himself.
Iron Man was about Stark course correcting to be on the righteous path and as fellow JumpCut writer, Elena mentioned aptly in her review: accountability. Iron Man 2 deals with the newfound responsibilities and consequence of staying on that path, in the face of adversity and personal torment. Evident from the opening awards ceremony in Iron Man, it’s immediately clear that Tony is living in his father’s shadow. Despite his all genius and achievements at such a young age, owning his father’s legacy still doesn’t make the cut for Stark.
While he relinquishes his CEO duties to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in a gesture of immense goodwill for her selfless efforts, it could be seen as more of relinquishment of a legacy he’d rather avoid than bury the hatchet with. Stark is committed to his lone saviour act in a suicide mission fashion. If he’s going to go out, he’s going to out with what he thinks is a heroes death. The newfound burden of bringing peace the world is one that Stark thinks only he can action to the correct measure. Iron Man 2 truly hits its stride in dissecting Stark as a kid, not a man, still trying to impress and live up to his parents towering achievements.
Using his playfully childish persona to play verbal ping pong with the government or to dodge personal questions, Stark is walking defence mechanism always putting on a front. His ego is pulled apart when Vanko unleashes his makeshift arc reactor technology to the world, in the pulse-pounding Monaco race. After debunking imposters trying to ape the same technological feats just days ago, impossibly there is a man in front of Stark now wreaking havoc with the tools of his own redemption. To make it worse, Vanko has sided secretly with rival tech mogul Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who Stark quite simply views as a joke.
After confronting Vanko face to face whilst he’s held in police custody, he’s provided with a stern reality check in the form of Vanko mocking Stark’s health. How could someone break him down that quickly, whilst he knows nothing about his foe? It’s a swift catalyst for Stark to lose himself into alcohol (taking loose tidbits from the Demon In A Bottle storyline) and seemingly abandon his mission for the cure to his health.
To make matters worse, even Stark’s best friend James Rhodes (now recast with Don Cheadle in his first outing), has taken it upon himself to secure to the Iron Man suit for the U.S government. Coming to a head inside Stark’s own home, Rhodes bests a drunk Stark and takes the MK II armour to be studied and replicated in partnership with none other than Justin Hammer.
Nick Fury and his compatriots are working their own big picture. Natasha is S.H.I.E.L.D’s mole on the inside, trying to disarm the time bomb that is Stark. Johansson is an epigrammatic presence. Her interpretation of Natasha is playful enough to be entertaining but mysterious enough to hold back what makes her tick.
Whereas most superhero movies use action setpieces to highlight the tenacity of hero, Favreau uses them to here to put a spotlight on just how unprepared and deluded Stark actually is. He barely makes it out of the Monaco race alive, despite how undeniably badass that suitcase armour is. He’s defeated by an inexperienced user of the Iron Man suit within minutes. It’s not until the climatic Hammer Drone / Whiplash battle that we see Stark level headed in the battlefield.
The set pieces are spaced out a fair bit in the just over two-hour runtime. Iron Man 2 is far more content spending time with a scientist trying to fix impossible odds than see him deploy his arsenal at any given opportunity. The set pieces absolutely deliver when they arrive nonetheless. The finale’s Hammer Drone battle in a blossom soaked garden is as exciting as it is brilliant framed D.P Matthew Libatique (back when they shot these adventures on film).
Reinstating the presence of the Stark Expo (a tradition upheld by Howard Stark) is definitely in line with Stark’s nature to nurture young minds. Inspiring new feats of wonder and discovery, which we see later explored fractionally in Iron Man 3 and Civil War. Even if he’s struggling to escape a shadow, why shouldn’t he give others the opportunity to do the same? The truest form of poignancy comes in the form of Tony discovering a message from Howard on an old reel of marketing promos.
It’s here that Stark realises all along, underneath the hard exterior, that Howard was looking out for Tony for decades to come. And while it may be a little far fetched (even for a comic book movie) that Howard would have this solution waiting, it’s the fact that Stark’s saviour is the entity that he thought to be his downfall. It’s a genuine emotional gut punch to see Howard declare his fatherly love for Tony, preserved forever on celluloid.
Stark doesn’t have to be Iron Man anymore of necessity. At the end of Iron Man, it was more acceptance of the namesake, despite Stark’s retroactive life correction. With Fury and Co. working on a temporary cure behind the scenes, it’s clear to Stark that there is more than just him in the equation. He chooses to be Iron Man because it’s the right thing to do, not the most glamorous or ego fulfilling thing to do.
Iron Man 2 also plays with one of the more compelling romantic relationships in the MCU. Pepper Potts refuses to let Stark trample on his life, let alone Stark Industries. She’s the only element of Tony’s environment he can’t control and it’s for his own good. If Tony wants to sustain any kind of relationship, he needs to change the biggest element he refuses to control: himself.
Iron Man 2 could understandably be written off as a sequel that is muddled and too ambitious for its own good. However, I think Iron Man 2 has always been an excellent example of pre-crossover stories in the MCU, that truly focuses on what makes a hero emotionally volatile and susceptible to the consequences around them. It mostly delivers on the checklist that a comic book movie should sport, whilst also playing more as a character piece than anything else. We have the benefit of time to look back on these previous MCU entries, given that nearly ten years have passed since Iron Man 2 first hit cinemas.
A time before we have colossal stories in the form of Infinity War or Age of Ultron. Iron Man 2 stands the test of time and proves to be one of the MCU’s strongest singular character study adventures on redemption, legacy and growth.
“ It’s not about me. It’s not about you, either. It’s about legacy, the legacy left behind for future generations”
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle, Samuel L Jackson