Iron Man 2 (2010) – The Road to the Avengers
This article is part three of an ongoing feature on my blog, “The Road to the Avengers“, which hopes to convey my thoughts on the current films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, culminating on my thoughts of The Avengers when it is released on Friday, May 4th.
I had terribly high hopes for Iron Man 2 coming off of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk when I saw it in theaters two years ago. I recall walking out of the theater thoroughly entertained but the more I thought about the film the less satisfying it felt. Was it simply the fact that Iron Man was no longer fresh and ripe for the picking? I don’t think so. The film has some fundamental flaws. The action and special effects are top-notch, but some of the elements that made Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk so brilliant were simply not present in this highly anticipated sequel. I’m going to take a different approach to this article and break it into these sections:
- What I liked about the film
- What I disliked about the film
- What I feel could’ve been done differently
- The film’s ties to The Avengers
Check it out after the jump.
The New Cast
Robert Downey Jr. returns of course, along with Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Jon Favreau, Clark Gregg, and maybe a few others. They’re all fantastic. The more time Downey Jr. seems to spend in the role, the better his performance gets. A particular moment that really gets me every time is Justin Hammer’s euphemism about throwing the journalist a bone and Tony just gives a slight shake of disapproval and utter distaste with his head in Monaco. It’s a very subtle moment of pure comedy that really informs the Hammer/Stark relationship. Clark Gregg is brilliant as well, there’s something about Agent Coulson — he’s so cool and collected, even when he’s telling you he’ll taze you and watch Supernanny while you’ll drool into the carpet. Plus there’s no denying Samuel L. Jackson’s ability to stare through Stark’s soul as he reads through Black Widow’s report on Stark himself. But what I really want to talk about here are the newcomers.
Now, for a year-spanning project attempting to weave continuity through films, it’s a bit strange that the recast of Terrance Howard happened. Not that strange, because it involved money, so that’s not surprising, but you’d think Marvel would seek to keep continuity no matter the cost. However, they rectified themselves, in my opinion, by casting someone who I enjoy much more, and that is, Don Cheadle. Cheadle does a great job slipping into Rhodey’s shoes and I quite honestly prefer him to Howard. Rhodey also gets a bigger storyline this time through, and I think Cheadle really nails the worried-friend/tough love relationship between Stark and Rhodey.
I have a deep, deep love for Sam Rockwell. In fact, I’ll watch a movie just because he’s in it (Winning Season? Totally worth it. He even does “the Rockwell” as my friends and I have dubbed it). When I heard he was cast, I was very excited. While I believe the character of Justin Hammer is criminally underused (which I will talk about later), Rockwell’s performance has some brilliant comedy to it. I find it hard not to laugh when he’s on screen. His mannerisms and the small things that are done to inform the character (terrible, terrible spray tan, dessert before dinner, etc.) are perfect and wonderfully pulled off. Every time he calls Stark “Anthony”, you can feel Stark cringe but it’s such a perfect, tiny detail that puts a light to the Stark/Hammer dynamic.
There’s a few other performances I’d like to say a little about. Scarlett Johansson did a fantastic job as Black Widow. She played the double agent very well, and I absolutely loved her character’s action scene in the film. I sing very little praise for Mickey Rourke in this film but he does a great job with what he’s given. John Slattery also plays a convincing Howard Stark in archival footage and really looks the part, too. But more on Rourke/Vanko and Slattery/Stark later.
The Effects and Stark’s Technology/Playtoys
I’ll get straight to it: the suitcase armor is pure sex. One thing that really shined in both Iron Man and its sequel is the unadulterated elegance of Tony Stark’s technology. The suitcase Mark V Iron Man armor is the epitome of elegance. Vanko’s whips are also quite fantastic, they’re a cool weapon and something different compared to Iron Monger from the first film. Not to mention Tony’s workshop interface. Whilst “rediscovering” the new element his father theorized, we get a deeper look at Jarvis’ capabilities and holographic “multi-touch” interface. Stark Expo itself looks absolutely gorgeous and electrifying with scale so large that I must doubt the ability to create it with practical effects. Hammer’s drone army and all three of the larger fights in the film look brilliant, including Tony’s one-off drone annihilation at the climax of the film. There’s two particular flourishes of agility that Iron Man pulls off that I specifically want to cite: (1) the “air brakes” that Tony puts on after being knocked through a wall in his house by Rhodey and (2) something I’ve dubbed the “knee-to-the-face-elbow-drop” that Tony obliterates a drone with in the Oracle-dome killbox sequence in the third act. Tony’s melee fighting skills while inside the suit are always a lot of fun to watch and I hope we see more of that in the future. In any event, the effects are beautiful and there’s simply no complaints that can be waged against them.
There’s a really moving moment about halfway through the film where Howard speaks to his son through time, a message for a grown-up Tony hidden away in SHIELD custody until the time was right. Tony hears something come out of his father’s mouth, something that he’d never expect to hear: “What is and always will be my greatest creation is you.” I think the Tony/Howard relationship is a really interesting one, as one’s relationship with their father is usually very formative as to who they become. Tony’s belief that his father couldn’t wait to ship him off to boarding school seems to be extremely far from the truth, or at the very least completely misunderstood. I like Howard’s involvement of the film. I think it means a lot that Tony used the archival footage as a welcome to the Stark Expo, and his message to Tony delivers a great moment in the film. I wish there was more of Howard or about Howard and what Tony thought of him, but maybe we’ll get that later, particularly in Tony’s discussions with Steve Rogers during and post-Avengers.
90% of the Final Fight Scene(s)
I think the “Hammeroids” and remote-controlled-Rhodey sequence is downright awesome. Everything with Black Widow is beautifully choreographed and her fighting style makes me want to see a lot more. When she finally helps Rhodey gain control of the War Machine armor, I think a lot of really fun banter happens between him and Stark. The two of them attempting to one-up each other with their technology while taking out the drones is genius, and it gives room for the flourishes (as mentioned above) and special effects (particularly Stark’s one-off). I’ll mostly ignore Ivan Vanko/Whiplash here, but the drones exploding as a final failsafe is also pretty cool, giving rise to a thrilling time-limit for Stark and Rhodey to get clear/help get civilians out of the way.
What I Disliked About Iron Man 2
This film has a very strange structure to it villain-wise. Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko effectively act as two sides of the same coin, but sadly neither side is particularly polished. Justin Hammer as a character is very cleanly poised to be a fantastic foil for Tony Stark. In the comics, Hammer apparently plays the role of the benefactor much like he does in this film, he provides money to mercenaries to act against his competitors, in this case, Tony Stark. He’s generally shown as an older man in the comics, but in the film he is portrayed as the young, spry, ultra-capable Sam Rockwell, more closely suited to compliment Tony Stark. Sadly, instead of setting up a meaningful relationship between Hammer and Stark, their interactions are mostly played for (albeit great but ultimately insignificant) comic effect. Justin Hammer essentially becomes the butt of every joke in the film (Tony revealing the failed Iron Man replicas as his in the senate hearing, the “ex-wife” failing in battle, etc.), removing any sort of weight the character could really hold in the film, and I think this is a mistake.
As for Ivan Vanko, although representing a bit more of a head-on challenge for Stark, his character amounts to nothing in the end. Okay, so we see his father die in the first scene of the film… Why do we care? We don’t, but we do get a sense of his distaste of Stark. I’ll give him the electrified whips, they’re a pretty cool weapon, but ultimately Director Fury tells us that he and his father were somewhat despicable people, giving the viewer no reason to relate to the villain. Vanko rarely speaks and doesn’t transform through the film. He’s very clearly motivated by revenge that he barely even gets to develop except for one prison scene with Stark. Not to mention that he gets defeated in record time for a “big bad” and in a very lame call-back fashion. I think there’s a lot of wasted potential with both of these characters.
The (Lack of) Imminent Threat of Stark’s Death and Character Development
Okay, so Stark is receiving palladium poisoning from the arc reactor in his chest. We see this in a few elements as he checks his blood
sugar toxicity level a few times through the film, the “high-tech crossword puzzle” on his chest, and a few other moments in the film. However, I don’t feel as though the viewer is ever given a reason to care about this fact in the film. There’s no sense of urgency to underscore it. Sure, Tony displays some textbook self-destruction when he takes over for the race-car driver or wears his Iron Man suit to his birthday party, but never do I ever once feel like his illness is really affecting him. This leads to the fact that by the end of the film, we’re supposed to feel as though Tony’s gotten to a point where he deserves Ms. Potts. She even says to him as Widow deactivates renegade Rhodey — “What do you mean you’re not dying?! Did you just say you’re dying?!” and I feel as though a lot of the audience was probably right there with her.
Not only did the filmmakers misstep in the sense of Stark’s impending doom, but they also drop the ball on developing his character. There’s no defined character arc or change that Stark goes through (a la Iron Man) or any sort of internal struggle that Stark has to deal with (a la The Incredible Hulk), so how is Stark supposed to grow? What is compelling about his story in this film? I believe the character development in the film really leaves a lot to be desired (the villains included, as noted above) and this probably constitutes the film’s biggest flaw. It ultimately damaged the villains, and if you can’t rely on strong, compelling villains, you rely on strong, compelling heroes. Without either of those, the film can feel quite plain. Obviously that doesn’t happen because there’s a special effects lustre that should be (and has been) complemented on its own, and the portrayals of the characters are quite entertaining as well, but I think the lack of character development is really what led to the bad taste in my mouth after contemplating the film over a few days.
What I Would Do Differently?
So I’m not a professional screenwriter or even an amateur journalist for that matter, but I figure it may be interesting if I offer up what I would do differently in the case of Iron Man 2.
Justin Hammer, particularly Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, deserves a much better storyline. Don’t make him the utter failure that he is in the film, maybe tone down the comedy as well. It’s fine to use him as a benefactor to Vanko, in fact, make him do so a bit more subtly, maybe set him up for a starring villain role in Iron Man 3 or a later sequel. Give him the role of The Emperor from Star Wars as a sort of orchestrator of Vanko’s. Seriously, Hammer is very analogous to Stark in that they’re both defense contractors (or were, in the case of Stark Industries), but Hammer presumably doesn’t have the world-renowned father that Stark did. Make that a point! Let Hammer shove that fact in Stark’s face in a “I actually had to work for my recognition and success!” kind of way, even though Stark can still retort with “I’m still Iron Man…” It would even be nice to flesh out the rivalry Hammer has with Stark through Hammer’s interactions with Vanko. There were hints of that in the film (“What I saw you do to Tony Stark on that track […], that was, wow!” or “I wanna make Iron Man look like an antique, I wanna go to that Stark Expo, I wanna take a dump on Tony’s front yard.”), but more of it would be appreciated, maybe even some bonding between Vanko and Hammer over what Stark has done to them/their families. I just think there was a lot of squandered potential in Justin Hammer, and I hope his open-ended exit from the film leaves room for him to come back later as a serious threat.
As stated earlier, Vanko is also underdeveloped. Before this most recent viewing of the film, I thought Vanko was completely useless, but I’ve recently found that his father’s work with Howard Stark really provides an interesting place to mine character development from. I think if more focus was put on Howard and Tony’s relationship, it would be easier to help develop Vanko through his father’s experience with Howard. Give the viewer a reason to sympathize with Ivan, make us understand how his drunken father completely indoctrinated him into thinking Stark was the root of all of his problems. Maybe even give us a reveal in the final battle where Tony shows Ivan that Ivan’s father was a terrible man, thus turning the final fight into Whiplash, Iron Man, and War Machine vs. the Hammeroids, where Vanko gets to go out like a champ instead of getting destroyed by a high-five between Stark and Rhodey. That’d be infinitely more interesting in my opinion. Once again, some wasted potential when it comes to Whiplash/Vanko.
Tony and Howard
As I stated earlier, I loved Howard Stark’s role in the film, but I think there could’ve been a lot more to it. It would be interesting to get a better look at Tony’s childhood. This could give more satisfying character development in the sense that as a kid, Tony feels like a burden to his father, where in the end, Howard wanted to foster his brilliant son into the man who would ultimately change the world. It may be cliché, but we could even tie in the palladium poisoning. What if Tony has dreams about his childhood that end suddenly with him waking up in a cold sweat and his “high-tech crossword puzzle” glowing in the middle of the night? Let’s use those dreams for Tony’s perspective on his father, and have it all culminate into the moment I described above that is currently in the film with Howard’s secret message to future Tony. Not only would that give the palladium poisoning some urgency (yeah, more would need to be done as well), but it would also inform the relationship between Tony and Howard while ultimately giving the viewer the feeling that Tony has really turned a new leaf and understands his life due to revelations about how his father felt about him. This would even mirror a revelation to Vanko about his terrible father. More Howard would’ve done the film some good, and more John Slattery is always a plus.
Those are just a few ideas as to how I’d improve the film. Clearly they’re pretty half-baked and honestly a few comments could make me realize how dumb some of the ideas are, but I honestly think there’s a film just as compelling as the first one somewhere beneath the underdeveloped characters.
Iron Man 2‘s Ties to The Avengers
A few of the reviews of Iron Man 2 felt as though the film was too much of a stepping stone to the Avengers. They felt as though it was just building the franchise, but as stated earlier, a movie without character development feels quite plain, and I think that left the framework tacked to The Avengers glaring quite obviously. Nick Fury obviously plays a bigger role than the quick cameo from the last film, with Coulson probably holding roughly the same amount of screen time (possibly a little less) that he did in Iron Man. We also get an introduction to Black Widow, who, at the time, seemed like an underling of Fury’s, but we now know she’ll be a bigger player in The Avengers. I think most feel as though everything with Director Fury in this film feels like a commercial for The Avengers but I don’t think that’s true. His role holds some significance, and offers Tony a more objective view of his father, which is interesting. There is the scene near the end of the film where Fury refuses Tony for a role on the team, but instead offers to use him as a consultant, but I feel this is a scene that really ties the universe together. You’ve got the news report on the Culver University attack from The Incredible Hulk on a screen in the background, and we also raise the question of “Under what circumstances does Fury throw out Widow’s assessment of Stark and still ask him to be an Avenger?” I honestly feel that if the film was stronger overall, there would be no complaints about The Avengers roadwork that is present in the film.
Finally, post-credits, we receive a quick scene, shot by Kenneth Branagh on the set of Thor of Agent Coulson pulling up to Mjölnir’s crash site in New Mexico. I thought it was a fantastic way to tease the next film before we saw any real footage of it. It was also pretty cool that Coulson references leaving for New Mexico within the confines of Iron Man 2, building an even deeper connection between the films. Avid viewers will realize that it’s extremely interesting how the events of Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk all seem to be running concurrently. I, for one, can’t wait to see it all come together in just another day or two in The Avengers.
Stay tuned tomorrow for a write-up on Thor! Leave me some thoughts on what you think of my possible changes to Iron Man 2.