Having made its debut with two films in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would continue in 2010 with the release of Iron Man 2. The two-year wait between movies would remain the longest gap, to date, between instalments of the franchise.
Released in 2008, the first Iron Man movie was the colourful, fun one of the two big comic book blockbusters that made their way to the cinemas of that summer. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight took Batman and his antagonistic relationship with The Joker into the realm of a classy and brooding Michael Mann-style thriller that has not lost any of its power.
Iron Man, which was released a few months before The Dark Knight, was also an incredible success that managed to gross $585 million at the box office, becoming one of the top 10 highest grossing of the year, while also cementing the comeback of its star and leading man Robert Downey, Jr after having spent the last few years working his way back after years in the wilderness due to highly publicised personal problems.
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That same year also saw the release of The Incredible Hulk, which rebooted the character of Bruce Banner after the mixed reception afforded to Ang Lee’s Hulk, elegant and psychologically operatic take on the character from 2003. Once again, an Incredible Hulk film was afforded a mixed response, but coming from the stable of Marvel Studios that had been set up by Kevin Feige, the film contained several points of crossover with Iron Man, the biggest of which was a cameo appearance right at the very end from Downey Jr as Tony Stark, as well as several on-screen references to S.H.I.E.L.D. dotted throughout.
Iron Man 2 would give audiences its next taste of Marvel Cinematic goodness, but it would be a substantially more mixed bag. Jon Favreau returned to the director’s chair with a script provided by actor Justin Theroux. Amazingly for a film that was only the first sequel to Iron Man, it would be plagued with many of the narrative and structural problems that affect most superhero movies whenever they get to their third and fourth sequels.
Like the later instalments of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series and Joel Schumacher’s Batman entries, there is a feeling that in only the second Iron Man film, and third entry into the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that the franchise is trying to squeeze in way too much, way too soon. As such the film never feels like it has that polished, energetic feel that made the first such a surprising joy.
In this case, that problem has a sense of nobility to it in a manner that the likes of Schumacher’s Batman films and Spider-Man 3 never had. While those films were spoiled by trying to be over the top in a manner to outdo the previous entries (although Raimi’s film may have been better if he had been allowed more creative control over what villains to use, or not use as the case was), Iron Man 2 feels somewhat bloated and creatively stifled. Partly due to what Feige and the film was trying to achieve in crafting a fully-fledged cinematic universe like that of the comics on which it was based, something that had never been attempted in live action cinema before.
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When the Iron Man delivered what would be the first in an ongoing set of teases after the end credits had rolled (although it should be pointed out that the MCU did not create the concept of the post-credit scene), it did so via a cameo appearance from Samuel L. Jackson making his debut as Nick Fury talking about something called The Avengers Initiative.
With Iron Man 2 much of the screen time would be taken up with a more substantial setting up of S.H.I.E.L.D., the work of Nick Fury, Agent Coulson (a sadly underused Clark Gregg this time who simply shows up to say he’s heading to Thor which is coming soon to a theatre near you, essentially), and the first appearance from Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, who arguably gets the best action sequence in the film.
The problem with all that is it sometimes feels like it’s being forced into a film that has its own separate storyline going on involving Tony’s rivalry with fellow weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (a scene-stealing Sam Rockwell) and the emergence of new supervillain Ivan Danko (a bizarrely accented Mickey Rourke playing a character strangely obsessed with his bird), who inevitably ends up joining forces with Hammer to bring down Stark. Iron Man is also having to deal with the US military and the government trying to get him to hand over his technology and his suit as a means of a deterrent against the country’s enemies, eventually leading to his best pal Rhodey having to take the Mark II suit, thus leading him to become War Machine.
Any of these plot strands would be more than enough to sustain a film on its own, but here it is buckling under its own strain of trying to be its own great sequel and setting up plot threads that would come into play down the road in The Avengers. On the plus side, it is unafraid to make Tony a more complex figure, although there are times when it threatens to fall into the realm of unsympathetic. There is always something fun about a superhero movie that isn’t afraid to have its hero in costume eating doughnuts post-hangover at a key moment and while in the first film his cocky attitude was all part of the fun, with this being a sequel and follow-ups are all about going “darker,” the cockier aspects of the character does have a touch of less humour and potentially bring a touch of that borders on unlikable.
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Yes, his suit and the arc reactor in his chest is slowly poisoning him and the film isn’t afraid to bring a more complex level to the character than seen previously. It’s just that when it pauses to have scenes like him being drunk at his birthday party showing how he urinates in the suit, it’s hard to feel that the film is being a touch self-indulgent and is simply Favreau and the film having fun on its own and forgetting to bring the audience along.
Once again, Downey Jr proved to be an immense and charismatic presence and his performance is one of the saving graces. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, continuing the pair’s witty banter that always feels like it’s being improvised on the spot. As for Rhodey, audiences were given the first change of appearance for one of the main supporting characters. The role had been portrayed by Terrence Howard in the first film, but was now played, and would continue to be played in future films, by Don Cheadle.
With the film once again choosing to portray this side of the Marvel Universe through plotlines that concerned weapons manufacturing and with a subtle political subtext, as well as embracing the post-9/11 world in comparison to the comics and their initial Cold War setting, the film does have a satirical centre. This is represented best by an appearance of Garry Shandling as a Senator trying to get Stark to provide his Iron Man suit to the government. But the film as a whole never shakes off the unfortunate bloated feeling in order to try to set up as well as accommodate future instalments that the studio clearly is planning ahead for; which is no bad thing, it just gives this movie the impression of being some sort of stop-gap while trying to fight itself through as its own entity.
The film in 2019 plays somewhat better because there’s the feeling that we have a better handle on how these films are playing out as part of the course of a larger story, but it still cannot help but feel messy when viewed not long after the fresh rush of that first film. Iron Man 2 eventually builds to a high-octane climax involving Iron Man and War Machine fighting Hammer’s drones, controlled by Danko, over the skies of New York and it does provide a brilliant jolt of adrenalin. One of the most admirable things is that it doesn’t shoehorn too much in the way of action sequences, with one high octane Monaco Grand Prix sequence and Tony and Rhodey duking it out in their suits during taking up a small part until the climax where the film lets loose.
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It’s just that the downfall of the movie is that there’s simply way too much going on, almost as if the script from Justin Theroux needed more work, or that so much has been cut down to get it to manageable running time that story cohesion has been sacrificed, to the point where it feels as if there is too much plot for the film to manage. Even massive plot developments such as Tony figuring out how to synthesise a new element created by his father in the 1970s feels like it relies too much on coincidence since there’s no way that Howard Stark (John Slattery’s first appearance in the role) could have ever known that his son would need that element in the future.
Rumours abound that the reasoning behind Favreau’s decision to not return for Iron Man 3 was the influence on the creative decision-making by Marvel and Feige to push more of the threads that further set up S.H.I.E.L.D. and Avengers Assemble and it does feel like the film is trying to serve two masters in that way and cannot find a sense of cohesion.
In the end, Iron Man 2 was critic-proof and subsequently grossed $623 million worldwide, outgrossing the first and paving the way further for more instalments of the MCU, the next of which was given a post-credit tease, this time for a film to come the following summer. We follow Coulson all the way to New Mexico and are given our first glimpse of a certain hammer.
The next summer would see a return to the two film approach of 2008, with the introduction of The God of Thunder and not long after, The First Avenger.