Like I said in last week’s “Retro-Review” regarding The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 is also considered to be one of the three worst MCU movies. That assessment is indeed valid, but I do not think that it tells the whole story. Without going into all the numbers I included last week, Iron Man 2 has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 72%, with an audience rating that is also 72%. This is the third-lowest of all the MCU movies to-date (ahead of The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World). However, even though that isn’t a great rating, it’s still considered “Fresh.” It’s in the same range as The Wolverine (70%), The Amazing Spider-Man (73%), and Michael Keaton’s Batman (72%). And you can look at all the movies with lower ratings that I mentioned last week.
So even when Marvel makes a bad movie, it’s really not that bad!
Side Note: I realize that there’s a lot of variance when it comes to Rotten Tomatoes ratings. The two reasons that I use Rotten Tomatoes for this are because they compile a ton of different reviews for their ratings and because it’s a quick and easy way to compare how different movies were received.
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Iron Man 2 is the primary jumping-off point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is when things really start moving as the universe expands, both deeper and broader. It seems like every cinematic universe needs one of these movies—one which exists more to connect the other movies together than for itself—and it seems like these movies rarely succeed. Take the collapse of The Amazing Spider-Man franchise after The Amazing Spider-Man 2: they tried to plant seeds for a half-dozen spinoffs, and all the seeds washed away. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is another example: it attempted to set up two Justice League movies, as well as spinoffs for Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and The Flash, but got so bogged down with universe-building that it never really got its own plot right.
Iron Man 2 is certainly not a perfect movie—as I said above it’s not even a “good” movie by MCU standards—but you have to admit that it succeeds in what it is trying to do. And by comparison with other “universe-building movies,” Iron Man 2 does a very good job of getting its own plot across.
The movie’s plot offers quite a few opportunities for the universe-building to fit in. It borrows from and adapts two comic book arcs, though neither looks quite the same in movie form. The first is the “Demon in a Bottle” arc, in which Tony Stark struggled with his alcoholism. However, the movie’s version of this places the focus instead on Tony suffering from palladium poisoning due to the ARC reactor in his chest—a condition which is accelerated by his use of the Iron Man armor. Because he is dying, Tony engages in various self-destructive behaviors such as binge-drinking, drunken fighting-while-wearing-his-armor, and even driving in the Monaco Grand Prix. However, most of his self-destructive behavior stops once Nick Fury brings him a goodie box from his father which includes the key to finding a viable replacement element for palladium. Once Tony is no longer dying, his alcoholism and death wish either disappear or are greatly diminished.
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The second comic arc is “Armor Wars,” which in the comics saw several nations attempting to duplicate the Iron Man armor, some of them by stealing elements of Tony’s technology to reverse-engineer it. This actually plays a major role in the movie, but again it is not quite the same as in the comics. Though other nations are attempting to create their own versions of the Iron Man armor, all the tests revealed are catastrophic failures, leading Tony to conclude that most countries are 5-10 years away from a working prototype. This all changes, however, when Ivan Vanko builds his own miniaturized ARC reactor using the same blueprints as Tony, and then uses his reactor to power the first Whiplash suit. This kicks off a major arms race on the part of Justin Hammer to turn Vanko’s knowledge into a viable weaponized suit of armor. Instead of suits, Vanko builds drones, though he also builds his own “Whiplash Mark 2” armor. In addition, the military and government make repeated attempts to seize the Iron Man armor to use it for military purposes. This finally succeeds when Rhodey takes the Mark 2 armor and flies away with it. Hammer weaponizes the suit, creating the first War Machine armor. This arc comes to a head at the Stark Expo when Tony must fight both the Hammer drones and a hacked War Machine, all of whom are being controlled by Vanko. After this, Iron Man and War Machine must team up to defeat Vanko himself.
The plot of the movie is definitely complete, and it does take a primary role throughout the movie. All of the main characters receive a satisfying arc. There is no time in the movie that it is not about Tony self-destructing because he is dying or about his efforts to keep his inventions out of the hands of those who would misuse them.
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Having said that, this movie is certainly not without its flaws. There are a lot of elements which are primarily included for universe-building and only tangentially related to the plot at hand. Most of the universe-building is directed towards The Avengers: Nick Fury and Phil Coulson appear, Tony talks about Fury’s “Super-Secret Boy Band” a couple times, and at the end of the movie they even show a map which indicates locations of potential Avengers (New Mexico, Wakanda, the Atlantic, etc.). Even the inclusion of Scarlett Johansson’s Natalie Rushman, a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, is a way of planting seeds for The Avengers. Natasha gets a very good introduction in this movie, but she really doesn’t receive much of an arc. Of course, her role in this movie is less about character development and more about character introduction: she’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, master of undercover work, and kickass close-quarters fighter.
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There are also a couple of teases directed towards Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, starting with Coulson leaving for New Mexico about 2/3 of the way through the movie. When Tony is trying to figure out the new element there is a diagram of the Tesseract, something which becomes extremely important in Captain America and then The Avengers. These elements really do not distract from the plot of the movie because they are far enough in the background that they can’t overshadow the Iron Man-related stuff.
Robert Downey Jr. of course does an excellent job as Tony Stark—partly because the “Demon in a Bottle” elements probably hit very close to home for him as a recovering drug addict! He makes Tony’s struggle and self-destruction very real and believable. He also has very good rapport with Don Cheadle as James “Rhodey” Rhodes—better than Terrence Howard in the first one! Rhodey makes a good “straight man” to Tony’s comedy.
One of my biggest hang-ups with all of the Iron Man movies (actually any movie with Tony Stark) is with the Heads’ Up Display (H.U.D.) acting, which is very hit-or-miss. These are some of the most difficult sequences to film, as they must be done after the fact with very little input from what’s happening in the scene. Additionally, all of the acting must take place through facial expressions. That being said, a lot of times it is spot-on, but there are a small number of places where the H.U.D. expressions are either lacking or wrong. Several places in all the movies show a facial expression which can best be described as “Iron Man pooping.” Cheadle doesn’t do as well in this area as Downey—in several places he doesn’t have any expression at all.
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Even with those acting hang-ups, I really enjoyed all of the action sequences in this movie. The fight scene in Monaco is surprisingly innovative with its use of the briefcase suit and Happy running into Vanko with the car. Iron Man and War Machine fighting the drones is also a really fun fight. It’s basically mindless violence, but it’s the kind of mindless violence that we like seeing in Iron Man movies. The final fight sequence with Whiplash is also fun because we see more of Iron Man and War Machine’s teamwork, but there were only two elements in it that stand out: The “Ex-Wife” turning out to be a dud and the “Sidekick” moment with Iron Man and War Machine.
Long story short, Iron Man 2 is certainly not the best MCU movie ever, but in my opinion it is a cohesive movie with a lot of fun elements. The universe-building elements are almost overwhelming, but they still connect with the movie’s plot in logical ways.
What do you think of Iron Man 2? Which do you think is the worst MCU movie? Let me know in the comments!