Andy Markham kicks off another week of Difficult Second Movies with a look back at Iron Man 2.
Back in 2008, Iron Man took everyone by surprise. Although very popular with comic book lovers, Iron Man had never been as ingrained into the public consciousness as the likes of Spider-Man or The Incredible Hulk. Almost overnight, Robert Downey Jr.'s bold, hilarious and highly likeable take on billionaire genius Tony Stark became an instant icon and the film a great success. Of course, the film has taken on much greater significance since, acting as the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, now one of the biggest franchises in movie history. All this considered, no one ever doubted the inevitable sequel.
And it's a film that feels the pressure. Director Jon Favreau takes note of the huge attention now being focussed in on the Iron Man series, not to mention the rapidly emerging MCU that surrounds it, and strives to embrace this newfound glory, aiming to make Iron Man 2 bigger, better and more expansive than the first. Whether or not the film succeeds in this goal is one of the most popular debates in the MCU fandom. Well, to put it more simply, the debate that usually rages is "is Iron Man 2 any good?"
So let's explore the good, bad and the ugly of Iron Man 2. First of all, the good - and there really is plenty of it. Too much to mention, to be honest. I can't hide the fact that I love this film where it counts. Once again, the heart and soul of the film is the perfectly cast Downey Jr., who simply is Tony Stark from start to finish. There's actually a decent central premise at the heart of the film, too - Tony's brush with mortality at the beginning of the first film was for my money the most interesting part of that film, and here Tony once again faces imminent death from the arc reactor in his chest, allowing for a great deal of character development and soul-searching.
As for the rest of the cast, they're a mixed bag, but generally earn a thumbs-up. Gwyneth Paltrow (who I usually strongly dislike) turns in another very entertaining performance as Pepper Potts. Sadly, there's a lack of the natural improvisation on show here that was such a wonderful feature of the first film, but Downey and Paltrow have excellent chemistry again nonetheless. Don Cheadle makes a very different but basically fine recast for Rhodey, who gets to become a superhero in his own right, and of course, we have the introduction of a brand new Avenger.
It's extremely strange in retrospect to watch Scarlett Johansson in this movie, and I just don't know what to make of her. We've got to know Natasha Romanoff extremely well ever since The Avengers, and she is one of the most fleshed out characters in the whole MCU. However, in this film, she is such a background character, and spends so much of the time undercover in the guise of a sexy PA, that this doesn't really feel like Black Widow's debut - in fact, she doesn't really seem like the same character at all. Nevertheless, she's still heaps of fun to watch (as always) and adds an interesting new dynamic to Tony and Pepper's relationship.
However, there is plenty in Iron Man 2 that proves to be pretty irksome. Staying with the cast, we have the extremely talented Sam Rockwell appearing in the absolutely bizarre role of Justin Hammer. Honestly, I'm not sure why he's even in this film at all, let alone receiving probably the second most screen time after Robert Downey Jr. Hammer is completely inoffensive and not remotely dangerous as a villain, and is also so annoying and pathetic that we seem to be encouraged to openly laugh at him. Not only does this seriously skew the tone of the film a little too far from dramatic into full-on comedy territory, it also means that Hammer loses his importance - what is he supposed to be? If he's a villain, why is he so obviously rubbish? If he's just a pawn, why does he get so much more screen time than the real villain?
And onto the real villain himself - a well-cast Mickey Rourke as Russian scientist Ivan Vanko, better known as the Whiplash. Never has such an excellent actor been so utterly wasted in a Marvel film. Vanko barely speaks throughout much of the film and his character is underdeveloped almost to the point of caricature. He looks very cool and commanding in action, but really, the less said about either of the villains the better.
And then there's the downright weird. Chief amongst the common complaints surrounding Iron Man 2 is that it is overly focussed on expanding the wider MCU - probably the earliest example of what has become a very serious problem with other comic book films in recent years, such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Even aside from Black Widow's presence, there's also a long segment with Nick Fury which brings the whole film to a crushing halt, as well as an entirely unconnected epilogue with Fury that is purely there to remind us about the "Avengers Initiative", both very jarring aspects of the film. The shout-outs and quick reveals become rather too frequent, with things like Cap's shield, Thor's hammer, SHIELD history, footage of the Hulk, and a laborious early allusion to the Tesseract popping up all over the place.
It's fair to say that this is indeed a major problem with Iron Man 2 - it threatens to buckle under the weight of the larger world that the franchise has found itself in. However, it is only fair to go easy on the film in retrospect - this was the first sequel in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the first film of any kind produced after the MCU had been initiated. Personally, I can forgive Favreau and Co. for panicking a little and perhaps over-egging this particular pudding.
But in amongst all the mania and nonsense that needlessly fluff up the film, there are true gems and dazzling highlights. The main strength of Iron Man 2, just like its predecessor, is that it is truly hilarious. Some of the one-liners are amongst the best in the whole Marvel pantheon - my particular favourite is "you look like two seals fighting over a grape". Tony and Pepper's relationship is riddled with very amusing awkwardness and relentless back-and-forths - and Favreau is at pains to avoid cliches and make their relationship as arduous as possible. When Tony brings Pepper a box of strawberries to try and win her affections, it turns out that strawberries are the one thing in the world she is deathly allergic to. And when he tries to talk to her in a heartfelt way, he becomes hopelessly distracted by her desk toy instead. The humour in the film feels real, natural and not at all forced - and those kinds of moments are a joy to watch.
The action is also absolutely top-notch throughout - with the Monaco Grand Prix scene a real highlight of all three Iron Man films. Thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities to see Iron Man in action - unlike the at times painfully tedious Iron Man 3 - and he never disappoints.
However, it's not a film without its major problems. One scene always gives me a chuckle, towards the end, at the Stark Expo. In this scene, Justin Hammer dances around inanely and entirely alone, to a song titled "Make Way for Tomorrow Today" in front of a crowd of confused and unlaughing onlookers. Literally every problem with the film is entirely and succinctly expressed in this moment.
Because Iron Man 2 is a film that very much does make way for tomorrow today, often for the better but sometimes to the detriment of the film itself, an extra 20 minutes with Agent Romanoff, Ivan Vanko and Rhodey would have made the world of difference, whilst the likes of Nick Fury and Agent Coulson needn't have showed up at all. The Iron Man series is strong enough to support itself without the Marvel Cinematic Universe carrying it on its shoulders, and there are many moments throughout this film that prove it.
So it's a shame that Iron Man 2 is ultimately a bit of a missed opportunity that could have been fantastic with just a little more clarity. As a sequel, it strays a little too far from its roots and sadly falls into the traps that plague so many franchise sequels. However, it's so full of life, so much fun, and so eager to please that it's impossible for me not to really enjoy it.
Oh, and if all else fails, there's always a fully-suited Iron Man getting drunk to Daft Punk. 10/10 for that alone.
Andy is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger
glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast.
Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the
subject. Follow Andy on Twitter.