Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by Justin Theroux
If you were laying out a multiple film team-up franchise like The Avengers, it seems odd that a sequel would be featured as the third film in that series, and yet here we are with the second installment of Iron Man before we even get a third hero introduced via their own film. Looking back it seems an odd choice in world building, but I think realistically it was the only way forward. After the success of the first Iron Man, and the relative lukewarmness of The Incredible Hulk, there was risk of going too deep into the catalog before bringing in the big bang bucks. Iron Man 2 is a safe choice, especially as the franchise was getting going. And the investment really begins to show here, perhaps not in an overly great film, but certainly in the star power the cast delivers, as well as the stakes and detail of the Iron Man universe, allowing the expanded bits to slowly creep into the consciousness of viewers with the introduction of a few concepts and characters in this film which would set the groundwork for all the films to come.
Fresh off the reveal that Tony Stark, billionaire playboy CEO of Stark Industries, was in fact the “Iron Man”, the US government, headed by Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) is looking for Stark to turn over the technology for the good and safety of the country. Stark assures them, as well as rival weapons manufacturing giant Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), that the technology is so advanced no one else could possibly have it within a decade. But while galavanting as a Formula 1 driver in Monaco, Stark is attacked by Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who is sporting some of the same technology Stark said was impossible for others to develop. As the year long Stark Expo continues in New York, Tony has turned the company over to his trusted associate Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), hired a new assistant named Natalie (Scarlett Johansson), who may be more than she appears, and soon has to deal with the greed of Hammer and the vengefulness of Vanko in order to save both his company and nearly all of New York City, incorporating the help of his old buddy Rhodes (Don Cheadle).
As a movie, I don’t think what Jon Favreau delivers here from a filmmaking perspective is any better than the original Iron Man film, however, I also find it all the more interesting in its politics and themes. For instance, the first big fight scene at the Grand Prix in Monaco is really kind of an ugly action scene with not much in terms of choreography or a sense of spatial awareness. The stakes weren’t felt in the way they should have been, which might be partially due to the limited CGI technology of the time, although Starks OS JARVIS and the graphics in his man cave workshop are stunning. For what it’s worth, the rest of the film does feel a little more cool/stylish than the more grounded/grimy first film. But at the same time, brining the character of Ivan Venko, or Whiplash, into the fold raises a lot of interesting questions, least of which are the facts of the past with Tony’s father Howard (John Slattery).
Very early on in the story, we’re treated with an interview of Stark in front of a Senate sub-committee about the Iron Man suit, and why he won’t give it up. The scene in Monaco further underlines the message at the core of the film, which runs throughout: what is the difference between a weapon and an asset, a hero or a villain? Is Iron Man good because the technology is good, or because Tony Stark is good as the controller of the technology? I think we see quite clearly with counterexamples that Stark is our hero, through and through, and what makes the difference with Iron Man. Stark and Hammer are similar, but Hammer is evil, therefore taking his company’s pursuits into the gray area. Stark and Venko are similar as well, but Venko uses his brilliance for revenge, not for good. There is a subtle difference. But ultimately by the end we’re left asking another question about Tony Stark: does Tony Stark define who Iron Man is, or does Iron Man define who Tony Stark is? I hope by the end we can say it is the former, but by exploring these questions and themes throughout the film, it really elevates an otherwise fairly standard, straight-forward action movie.
We do also get treated with the introductions of Black Widow (ScarJo), who bursts onto the scene as a bad-ass. Johansson is really stunning in this film, commanding the room with both her beauty and her brawn. I kind of love that we don’t get to know much about her, which will be a staple of bringing people back to these movies time and again. As an ancillary character at this point, the producers can get away with underdeveloping her character in this film, setting up a larger recurring role in the future. She is just mysterious enough to be intriguing. As for Rhodes, we knew him before, although with a new actor in Don Cheadle, we get a subtle upgrade in performer. I like Terrence Howard, but I think Cheadle feels more comfortable and confident in the role of newly minted War Machine. It’s not a perfect delivery, but Stark feels confident enough in Rhodes as a person to handle the Iron Man suit on behalf of the military. Anyone else and I think it’s clear he would not hand over the suit.
It is strange revisiting these earlier films that I’ve not seen since they were initially released. I don’t have much of a recollection, and yet when I look back upon the franchise it is largely with rose colored glasses due to the successes and how far its come as an interwoven tale told over the span of 23 chapters. The reality is that I’m not sure when the first truly great MCU movie comes along. Iron Man 2 is not great. In fact, I was teetering between not liking it and liking it, but everything I’ve discussed previously is what swayed my ultimate rating of the film. It’s a good movie, another in the line of films that lays the groundwork. But my fear is that we’ll continue getting this good, yet clearly somewhat forgettable, films. Perhaps hiring a truly artistic director will do the job, or finally bringing the team together for the payoff of this leg work will net greater results. For the time being though, the series is good. That’s as far as I can go. But I know greatness lies ahead, even if only in the form of the summation of this collection of good movies.