As Coronavirus cases continue to rise, I continue to avoid going to public places as much as possible. To fill in the time, we will continue our rewind of the entire MCU. After the drop off from Iron Man to The Incredible Hulk, I was excited to revisit Iron Man 2. I have watched Iron Man 2 a couple of times since it's original release, but only in stand-alone viewings and not as part of the larger MCU.
It's funny watching through these first few films knowing the totality of the story that is about to unfold. The whole MCU is a delicate balancing act, weaving intricate storylines throughout standalone movies all while they connect to the larger universe around them. Iron Man 2 is the first film of the MCU that tries to balance both of these, though to varying success.
Iron Man 2 was greenlit immediately after the release of Iron Man. Jon Favreau, the architect of the first film, was brought back to direct along with a script from Justin Theroux. Robert Downey Jr. was also set to return with an expanded cast featuring Samuel Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, and Mickey Rourke along with Iron Man holdovers Gwyneth Paltrow and Favreau himself.
Of course, one of the original cast members from Iron Man is missing from that list. Terrence Howard, who originally portrayed Colonel James Rhodes in the first film, was famously replaced before filming started by Don Cheadle.
Everyone seems to have their version of the story. Rumor has it that Howard was difficult on set. Subsequently, Favreau and Theroux moved to reduce Howard's role in the sequel. As his role was reduced, the studio approached Howard about taking a pay cut.
Marvel only offered Howard an eighth of what he was originally contracted for, instead of increasing the salary of star Robert Downey Jr. Interestingly, Howard claims to have helped Downey land the role of Iron Man, but when he called his friend for help, Downey never returned his call.
This was the second film in a row where Marvel had to replace an actor in a major role. In a lot of ways, the MCU experienced some growing pains after the success of Iron Man as it looked to expand on its universe. Once it got its groove, the MCU worked like a well-oiled machine, but it did take a few movies for it to get its footing.
Iron Man 2 is the perfect example of this struggle, as the problems feel more glaring now then upon its original viewing. Still, Iron Man 2 is an enjoyable viewing experience, most of the time at least, and does lay the groundwork for future films.
Iron Man 2 continues the story of Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy who survived a kidnapping and attempted murder by constructing the Iron Man suit. After revealing his identity as Iron Man, Stark's celebrity is at an all-time high. So is his arrogance.
With this notoriety, Stark's side hustle as Iron Man has brought quite a group of adversaries to the table. The US government is trying their best to get their hands on the Iron Man technology believing this technology to be a danger to society, though Stark manages to outmaneuver Congress at every turn.
Meanwhile, two foes begin positioning themselves to take down Stark's business. Justin Hammer's weapons manufacturing company has taken over the government contracts that once belonged to Stark Industries. Hammer ultimately wants to make his own Iron Man suit, but his poorly designed weapons are no match for Tony's tech. In Russia, Anton Vanko designs his version of the arc reactor in Tony's suite using plans developed by his father and Howard Stark. Vanko believes the Stark's stole their family legacy and wants to exact his revenge against Tony now that his father has passed.
On top of all of this, SHIELD Director, Agent Nick Fury, is still keeping a watchful eye on Tony as the Avenger's Initiative begins to take shape. I only mentioned this small plot thread to highlight how much Favreau and company stuffed into Iron Man 2. It is debatable if that was the right move for the film.
Anyways, Tony's arrogance quickly turns into recklessness when he learns that the palladium in the arc reactor in his chest is slowly poisoning him. He is willing to take risk, including stealing the spot of the Stark sponsored car at the Monaco Grand Prix, because, you known, it's common for civilians with no Formula 1 experience to just hop in the car and race with professionals.
During the race, he is attacked by Vanko wielding electric whips powered by an arc reactor. Stark stops Vanko but is nearly killed in the process. Vanko is sent to jail until Hammer, desperate to provide his government contacts with a useable Iron Man suite, fakes Vanko's death and recruits him to build a new prototype.
After the events at Monaco, Stark's emotional state continues to decline as his condition worsens. Unable to let others in, Tony turns to other vices, mostly work and booze, to deal with impending fate. At his birthday bash, a drunk Stark is confronted by his friend, Colonel James Rhodes when his antics get out of control. This leads to a battle between the two in Iron Man suits, subsequently destroying Stark's house.
The aftermath of the fight finds Rhodes seizing the Iron Man suit as government property, leaving Tony successful in his mission to push all those close to him away. Fury pays a down and out Stark a visit, revealing his new assistant, Natalie Rushman, is SHIELD agent Natasha Romanoff, assigned to keep an eye on Stark. Fury also reveals that Tony's father Howard was a founding member of SHIELD that worked with Anton Vanko to develop the arc reactor, but Stark had Vanko deported after Howard learned he was trying to sell it.
Fury's visit inspires Tony's to take a trip down memory lane. While reviewing some of his father's old materials, he discovers a diagram of the structure of a new element hidden in the diorama for the 1974 Stark Expo. This new element ends Stark's dependency on the palladium core from his original arc reactor, ending the poisoning effect that has slowly been killing him.
After Tony saves himself, he quickly learns that Vanko has escaped jail. Under Hammer's employment, Vanko helps design new armored drones that will debut with the newly designed Iron Man suit at the Stark Expo. Of course, Vanko is only helping Hammer to get materials, as he secretly designs his version of the Iron Man suit that powers larger, electronic whips.
At the Expo, Vanko takes control of Hammer's drones, as well as Rhodes, redesigned suit. This leads to a battle between Stark and Vanko's army. After Agent Romanoff returns the power to Rhodes suit, he teams up with Tony to battle Vanko, who commits suicide when he is defeated by the duo.
As the film closes, Fury reveals that Stark is only being asked to help SHIELD as a consultant due to his difficult personality.
What holds up
With Don Cheadle stepping into the role of Colonel James Rhodes, there was a lot of uncertainty over how the transition would play out on screen. While Iron Man 2 is certainly flawed overall, the casting of Cheadle cannot be seen as anything less than a success for the MCU.
Make no mistake, Terrence Howard is a fine actor, who brings an intensity few actors can match; however, there is a levity that Cheadle has brought to his time in the MCU that perfectly plays off the charm of star Robert Downey Jr. Looking back now, it is hard to believe anyone other than Don Cheadle was considered for the role of Jame Rhodes, to begin with.
Outside of Don Cheadle, the cast is once again a solid foundation for the film to build from. Scarlett Johansson, while having a smaller role than future MCU films, is a delightful welcome to the cast who provides takes a fun yet mysterious turn as the ultimate SHIELD spy. Favreau, Paltrow, and the rest of the returning cast also turn in fine performances.
Of course, Iron Man would not be what it is without star Robert Downey Jr. Downey Jr. is his usual fantastic self as Tony Stark. There is a clear connection between actor and character that shines through Downey's performance.
What doesn't hold up
One of the major criticisms of the MCU is its struggle to consistently depict compelling villains. Few of the universe's main antagonists have been able to provide more than one note performances, often in one-off appearances.
The few times that Marvel has succeeded in developing strong villains, such as Loki, Killmonger, and even Thanos, it is because the audience can empathize with their views while still vehemently disagreeing with their actions. Their stories are personal while their actions are unfathomable.
Unfortunately for Iron Man 2, the villain problem was in full effect. Sam Rockwell has some fun moments, but he feels underutilized in his role as Justin Hammer. It is a shame we have yet to see him again as he is one of our generation's most versatile actors.
Mickey Rourke's turn as the bird loving villain Vanko doesn't hit the mark either. His motivation for revenge makes sense, but he isn't able to chew up enough screen time to truly make us care about him. His storyline revolves around the Stark's wronging this family, but at no point does the movie paint the picture that the Stark's ruined the lives of outstanding human beings. Both Vanko's were criminals from the start, hardly the backstory that makes it easy to root for Rourke's Whiplash.
Outside of the lack of luster villains, Iron Man 2 struggles at times to service both this film and future films of the MCU. It is a rather difficult task to tell a cohesive narrative while also setting up key elements for future stories, but Iron Man 2 doesn't always balance them well.
There is just too much stuffed into the 124 minutes run time, yet somehow the plot feels devoid of any moments that truly stand out. The first Iron Man felt so personal, but Iron Man 2 left the personal story on the cutting room floor in favor of a grand story featuring larger than life battle scenes, explosions, and a plot that just doesn't match the success of its predecessor.
Should You Rewind It?
This is honestly a complicated answer. In terms of quality, Iron Man 2 does not live up to the standard set by the first Iron Man nor does it match the same level of storytelling found in future MCU installments. This would seem to indicate Iron Man 2 isn't worth a rewatch.
With all of that said, the film still plays an important role in the journey of Tony Stark. Yes, it is riddled issues but it also shed light on the complicated nature of Tony's relationship with his father. This relationship between Tony and his father ends up playing an important role throughout the entirety of the Infinity Saga. This journey, which culminated in Avenger: End Game with a heartfelt interaction between Tony and Howard, defines much of Tony's journey to becoming a hero.
With that in mind, skipping over Iron Man 2 would be a disservice if you are watching the Infinity Saga from the beginning. If you aren't watching the Infinity Saga from the beginning though, feel free to avoid the rewind because Iron Man 2 just doesn't stand out enough on its own to warrant a rewatch.