So far, the first Iron Man was an all-around excellent superhero film. The Incredible Hulk had a lot of issues, but was still a fairly strong entry. And Iron Man 2? It’s a huge flaming mess.
The film picks up about a year after the first Iron Man (cleverly filling in the details of what’s happened in the meantime through the villain’s wall of magazine covers detailing Iron Man’s career). The world is enjoying a period of protracted peace, since Iron Man has been able to act as a deterrent and stabilizing force against rogue nations. Tony Stark, meanwhile, has maintained his more altruistic life direction, but not without relapsing a bit into self-aggrandizement. This is nicely shown in his opening speech to the ‘Stark Expo’ in Flushing Meadows, New York (basically a world’s fair); he loudly boasts about his accomplishments, but then sincerely turns the subject to “legacy. It’s about what we choose to leave behind for future generations.” This followed by a first-person POV of him moving through a crowd of his fans, giving out autographs, including to a kid wearing a plastic Iron Man helmet, contrasting with his casually dismissive attitude in the first film. In short, Tony is improved, but he’s not a completely different person either.
This is followed by a Senate hearing where the slimy Senator Stern tries to get Tony to turn the Iron Man suit over to the US Government on the grounds that he is a danger without oversight and that it’s important for the military to get hold of the tech before any rogue nations recreate it. Throwing in on the government’s side are Tony’s obnoxious business rival, Justin Hammer, and, unexpectedly, his best friend Rhodey (Terrance Howard is gracefully replaced by Don Cheadle, who is a much better fit for the part and who introduces himself with the deliciously self-aware line, “It’s me, I’m here, deal with it”), though Rhodey qualifies his position as more of a compromise. Tony expertly works the crowd and outtalks the Senator, while throwing up footage to show that no one is close to replicating his suit. Or at least, so he thinks.
Meanwhile, it turns out that the arc-reactor in Tony’s chest is slowly poisoning him, meaning that unless he can find a suitable alternative soon, he’ll die. This leads him to act even more erratically than usual, from donating his modern art collection to the Boy Scouts to appointing Pepper as CEO of Stark Industries to commandeering and driving his sponsored race car in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix.
Tony’s reaction to dying is very believable for someone like him; he of course doesn’t confide to anyone but Jarvis and alternates between quietly trying to set things in order and engaging in reckless, self-destructive behavior. I also like how, when he appoints Pepper CEO, he acts as if it’s a spur of the moment decision, but then when she realizes he’s serious he admits that he’s actually been thinking it over for some time and checking legality of it, suggesting that his continued irresponsibility is at least partially a mask.
Then at the racetrack a hulking, taciturn Russian named Ivan Vanko takes a shot at Tony with his own arc-reactor-powered tech; in this case electrified whips. Iron Man defeats him, but Vanko shrieks, “You lose!” as he’s carried away and subsequently tells Tony that he’s exposed his vulnerability to the world and proven that the great Iron Man is not unique. Justin Hammer sees this and thinks Vanko might be useful to him.
(By the way, one of the things Vanko says is, “If you could make God bleed, then people would stop believing in Him.” Apparently, Vanko forgot the existence of Christianity. That’s not a criticism, just something I thought was amusing).
So, just from that summary you might get a sense of part of the problem: the film is all over the map, covering about four or five different plot threads with no clear through-line. Is the film about Tony facing mortality? Well, what does that have to do with Vanko or the government putting pressure on him or coming to peace with his father or the enigmatic ‘Natalie Rushman’ whose job seems to change from scene to scene? (I’m serious about that, one minute she’s supposed to be a notary, the next Tony hires her as his replacement assistant, then she seems to be working for Pepper as her assistant. And it’s not like a gag where she changes jobs every time we see her; it’s more like the script awkwardly shuffling her around so she can be in as many scenes as possible). Is it about the skeletons in the Stark Legacy? That perhaps they are a family of “thieves and butchers” as Vanko says? Well, no, because Vanko’s the only element related to that, and even then it turns out that he and his father were in fact criminals regardless of what the Starks did. Is it about Tony’s relationship with his late father? No, that only occupies about two or three scenes. Is it about Tony’s legacy? Perhaps, but there’s no payoff for that.
There is material here for about two or three different storylines, but they all jumble together in strange mishmash, so that not enough time is given to any one of them for it to be satisfying.
For instance, there’s the scene where Rhodey arrives at Tony’s house to find him drunk and screwing around in the Iron Man suit. He’s furious because he had just been sticking his neck out for Tony, and seeing things are getting out of hand he puts on one of the older suits, leading to a fight. Now, why is Tony so ready to knock Rhodey around, to the point where he gleefully asks for a soundtrack? It’s as if there were a few earlier scenes of their friendship fraying before this, but no; Tony just decides he wants to knock his best friend around and smash up his own house doing it. Even if he’s drunk, it’s a strange thing for him to do, especially as he doesn’t seem to be really angry with him.
Or there’s the Vanko-Hammer subplot: the first third of the film we see glimpses of Vanko building his tech, traveling to Monte Carlo, and then there’s a fight on the raceway, then the next hour or so of the film Vanko basically just preps for round two while Hammer gets more and more impatient. This leads to an admittedly cool climax with Vanko’s new drones, but then when Vanko himself shows up to the battle in his own new suit, the fight lasts about a minute. I’d say the main villain of this film is basically a sideshow, but I don’t think I could tell you what the main event was supposed to be.
Vanko’s an okay character; Mickey Rourke is intimidating as heck with his massive, tattooed muscles and inscrutable gaze, and he has a few humanizing touches like his love for his “burd,” though the efforts to give him a sympathetic backstory kind of fall flat when we learn that his father was a spy looking to get rich and that Vanko himself sold plutonium to Pakistan (I don’t mind that as a development, by the way, only that it doesn’t make him any more interesting of a character). And about the time he starts indiscriminately murdering people.
As for the other villain, Justin Hammer is amusing, especially when he’s trying to smooth talk Vanko like a bow-tie-bedecked salesman trying to get a commission off of the leader of a biker gang. But the trouble is that he’s much too much of a lightweight to be in any way a convincing threat, not to mention that he’s so grossly incompetent that it’s hard to see how he ever made it to his position in the first place, or why the government buys anything off of him.
Which, I suppose, brings us to the plot holes, and boy there are quite a few. I can buy Vanko knowing Tony would be at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, since he sponsors a car in the race, but how would he be able to predict that he’d be in the race, since it was an impulse decision on Tony’s part? Wouldn’t Vanko be more likely to be targeting the high-rollers lounge? When Vanko is arrested after publicly showing off Iron Man-like tech, why is he taken to an ordinary jail cell? Shouldn’t the US or French governments be tripping over themselves to make a deal with him to give them his tech? Everyone focuses on how this discredits Tony, but no one seems to consider the question of where Vanko got the technology, except for Tony, and even he only gives the question a cursory nod. How come there are almost no repercussions, except for personal ones, to Tony losing it in the Iron Man suit? They discuss the possibility, but nothing happens (I’m going to guess that Nick Fury kept them off him for that one, but it’s weird nonetheless given how much the film emphasized that he was on thin ice up until now).
Later in the film, Fury puts Tony under guard so that he can go through his father’s notes and figure out the new element he needs to fix his arc reactor and cure himself. Our old friend Agent Coulson returns to watch him, assuring him that he won’t be allowed to leave. So a scene or two later, Tony is driving down the street in his open-top sport’s car to visit Pepper, then drives back with several table-sized pieces of his father’s scale model of the expo sticking out of the passenger seat, and Coulson doesn’t confront him about leaving until a few scenes after that! How the heck did he get in and out of the house? Then Coulson just leaves to deal with a problem in New Mexico (“Land of Enchantment,” Tony comments). Meaning that Coulson literally served no purpose in this film: the one role he has in the story is ignored the moment he is off-screen.
Also, why did Jarvis say synthesizing the new element was impossible, when Tony simply does it the next scene; no question of “it might be possible if this,” or “the odds are against that;” Tony just sets up a prism tube and makes the thing in his garage in the space of about two or three minutes after Jarvis said it was impossible.
Not to mention there are jarring tonal shifts, with jokey humor clashing hard with serious drama. Like when Tony’s blow-up at his birthday party, involving a drunken brawl with his best friend cuts to him chowing down on donuts while sitting inside the giant donut sign. Some of it can be excused as reflective of Tony’s own mood swings, but a lot of it just feels like the film was edited in a hurry.
So, I think you can see why I say this film is a mess. Is there anything else to be said?
As noted, I do like some of Tony’s reactions to his terminal illness; things like struggling to find a way to tell Pepper, or the way he swings from quietly desperate to reckless and overblown. This all does seem to fit with his personality. His attempts to advance his relationship with Pepper are well-done as well; again, he wants to tell her how he feels, but his psychological baggage keeps getting in the way, as does his irresponsibility, not only because of his bad behavior, but simply because he forgets things like the CEO of a major corporation can’t just drop everything and go on a vacation during a crisis.
There’s a good scene where he goes to her office to apologize for the fiasco at his party and brings her strawberries. Turns out, those are the one thing she’s allergic to.
“This is progress,” he says. “I knew there was a correlation there.”
It’s funny, but it’s also heartfelt as he tries to make his case, but is able to get the words out, while she is simply fuming at him for landing her in this mess (a nice touch is that when he walks in she’s trying to get the suit that Rhodey took back from the government, showing that, angry as she is with him, she’s still on his side).
The subplot involving his father was rushed, but the scenes it does comprise are very sweet, mostly centering around a promotional video that Howard Stark shot in the 1970s for the last Stark Expo, the outtakes of which turn out to contain a message for his son. The videos are openly reminiscent of Walt Disney’s films promoting EPCOT, with a similar sense of optimistic futurism. Howard’s final message to Tony, saying what he never said in life, is touching and lends a new layer to their complicated relationship, though it would have been better with more buildup.
There are a number of good character moments, like when Rhodey takes out the arc reactor of his suit before letting Hammer fiddle with it (still not willing to let Tony’s enemy study his greatest invention, even though they’ve had a falling out). Or when Tony and Rhodey make up and Rhodey clarifies, “It’s your fault, I just wanted to say I’m sorry” (as this indicates, the rapid-fire banter of the first film is back, if not quite of the same caliber).
Then of course there’s “Natalie Rushman,” AKA Natasha Romanov. Her introduction in this film is, unfortunately, only a shadow the great character she would become, with most of her dimensions yet locked away, but she is nevertheless a striking figure (and not just for the obvious reasons) as she coolly inserts herself into Tony’s circle, efficiently doing her ostensible job without turning a hair, only to let loose her formidable fighting skills when need calls for it. Her fight against a hoard of Hammer’s guards is probably the best action scene in the film, with some very smart choreography that has her using her agility and precision to take down her larger opponents with strikes to joints and soft targets rather than simply slugging it out (Stark’s driver, Happy Hogan, joins her and spends the entire sequence trying to take down a single guard, which is funny, but I also found it sweet how he refused to let her go in alone, even though she clearly knows what she’s doing).
Meanwhile, the film tacitly establishes why she was assigned to watch Tony with an early scene where he gets served with a subpoena because he was too distracted by the beautiful woman doing the serving. Women are Tony’s weakness; he doesn’t think clearly around them, so SHIELD naturally assigned Romanov, including working up a cover ID of an ex-model, knowing that Tony wouldn’t be able to resist adding her to his staff. It’s a smart bit of writing, following from a well-established part of Tony’s character.
I also like that when Tony shows up at Hammer’s demonstration at the end in his new Iron Man suit, Rhodey (part of the show as the newly built War Machine) accepts Tony’s story very quickly with only a little suspicious posturing; bad blood though there may be between them, they’re still old friends and he can tell when Tony’s being serious.
The final battle, involving a chase with Vanko’s drones and a back-to-back fight with Iron Man and War Machine taking them on, is very cool, even if it’s rushed, and the banter between the two of them flows very well, very much like old friends and equals (which is another advantage Don Cheadle brings to the table: Terrance Howard always seemed a little overwhelmed by Tony, but Cheadle is able to give and take on an equal footing with him, making their friendship more interesting).
I also like the film’s take on revisionist history, with Vanko sneering at Tony for trying to forget “the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” Only, as it turns out, Vanko and his father were in fact guilty and brought their own destruction upon themselves, meaning that the ‘official’ history was actually more correct than the alternate perspective. Not sure if the film meant for that, but it’s appreciated in any case. Likewise I appreciate the subplot of Tony trying to keep his own property in his own hands and resisting efforts to force him to nationalize it.
In summary, the best I can say of Iron Man 2 is that it’s mostly entertaining. It drags quite a bit in the middle, and seeing Tony be a drunken lout isn’t very fun, but the heart is there, especially in his scenes with Pepper, and when it does get going, it is fun to watch. But it is an extremely shaky entry, a good example of what happens when a plot is completely unfocused and a film tries to tackle too many things at once. A real disappointment considering how strong its predecessor was.