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Visiting and Revisiting the MCU – Iron Man 2

My daughter and I will be watching Marvel Cinematic Universe media in whatever order she feels like.

Our Progress So Far

As soon as Iron Man ended and the Disney+ menu suggested other movies to watch, my daughter said “Can we watch Iron Man 2?”

“Sure,” I said, having already thrown watching them in release order. Ends up, since we already watch The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 was the next MCU movie in release order.

I completely forgot how early in the MCU this movie came out. They release Iron Man and Incredible Hulk in 2008. Took 2009 off. Then Iron Man 2 was the only MCU release in 2010. Every year since featured one or more MCU theatrical release until a global pandemic shut theatres down.

The Iron Man 2 That I Remember

Iron Man 2 left me with a unique -mostly moderately negative- impression. I couldn’t tell if I disliked it, or if it just failed to meet so many expectations. Whiplash felt like he peaked early and then dragged. The demon in a bottle aspects felt out of place. And the film ending with Nick Fury taking back his Avengers invitation had the opposite affect of the original post credit scene.

It’s no original Iron Man, but is Iron Man 2 that bad?

Revisiting Iron Man II

Confirmed. Iron Man 2 is bad. Not terrible, however. In fact, it’s frustratingly close to being good, that it feels worse than it is.

Tony’s Not Fun

A big reason Iron Man works but Iron Man 2 doesn’t is Tony. In the original Iron Man, when Tony’s at his worst, morally, he’s at his most charming. If we had to spend the whole movie with Iron Man 1 act 1 Tony, he’d lose us, but for the ten or fifteen minutes we spend with willing weapon manufacturer Tony, he’s fun. Then when Tony’s at his most frustrating to Pepper and Rhodes, it’s because he’s a new person driven to do good rediscovering himself. We sympathize with Pepper and Rhodes, but we’re routing for Tony.

Iron Man 2 starts with Tony being pretty obnoxious. It’s harder to get behind how he treats Pepper and Rhodes. He dismisses them like in the first film, but without the moral high ground that we could get behind. There’s a subplot about how he’s behaving erratically because he’s dying. That may justifies his behavior, but it doesn’t make him mistreating his friends and coworkers fun to watch.

Whiplash Doesn’t Make Sense

The MCU regularly gets critiqued for its handling of villains. Unlike Stane and Blonsky before him, who only became super powered in the last act, Ivan Vanko meets the movie’s hero in a super powered fight scene. And, again unlike Stane and Blonsky, Whiplash isn’t an evil doppelganger. His power relate to Iron Man, but the presentation is unique.

Unfortunately, therein lies two problems:

  1. How Whiplash relates to Iron Man. The movie opens with a pretty convincing scene about Tony’s father stealing the arc reactor design from Ivan’s father. The senior Vanko has the blueprints, which allows the younger Vanko to make a power suit. He opts for laser whips instead of armour with laser hands. But halfway through the film, Nick Fury says “nah, Howard really made it”. It hurts Vanko’s motivation, but also feels inconclusive. Are we supposed to be suspicious that Fury’s lying, or was that supposed to resolve that plot?
  2. Whiplash just becomes Iron Monger 2. Whiplash is at his most interesting during the race scene. He’s interesting, mysterious, and dangerous. When he returns in the final, he’s a less interesting version of Whiplash and a less interesting version of Iron Monger. The fight lasts only minutes, and feels like an afterthought.

I do enjoy the Whiplash/Justin Hammer scenes (even the running bird gag that I’ve seen get criticized). The tone of these scenes feels like they’re from a different movie than everything up to Whiplash getting captured, but that’s a minor criticism. I wish that was all I had to complain about Iron Man 2.

How Did Howard Stark Cure Tony?

Tony struggles with living up to his father’s legacy. He also struggles with the palladium core that replaced his heart poisoning him. Two different kinds of struggles. And they’re both resolved when Tony watches outtakes a video his dad made for work.

Nick Fury gave Tony the reels containing these outtakes. In them, Howard addresses Tony, his then young son, revealing that he hid the formula for a new element in the layout of Stark Expo, an annual event that’s been playing in the background of the movie. Using technology Howard couldn’t, Tony makes the element. It’s somehow the cure for his condition. And Fury somehow knew this. It’s all strange and vague, but seems purposeful. Like, other issues I have I can see being from interference or they were rushed. This feels like it plays out exactly as intended. And yet, each time I’ve watched it, I’ve questioned whether I’m dumb for not understanding or it’s dumb for not making sense.

On The Plus Side

Iron Man 2’s not all bad. Nick Fury went from fun curiosity to an actual character. Black Widow’s introduction is not the greatest, but her hallways fight scene is fun, especially contrasted by Happy struggling to take out one goon as she wrecks a dozen on them. Justin Hammer is the best low status villain in all the MCU.

Finally, the Grand Prix fight scene. Whiplash at his best. The creative way the cars split and crash are a visual treat. The sequence of Pepper and Happy getting Tony his briefcase suit, and then the briefcase suit itself, all add up to the high point of the movie. Shame there’s still half the movie to go.

My Daughter’s Thoughts

When I was a kid, I thought Teen Wolf and Back To The Future were equally good movies. The older I got, the more I realized Teen Wolf is a fun novelty, but Back To The Future is a masterpiece. On that note, my daughter liked Iron Man 2. I think she liked it as much as she liked Iron Man 1.

She did mirror some of my issues with the movie. As Tony reverse engineered the Stark Expo into an element, she turned to me and asked “what’s going on?” And as soon as Nick Fury told Tony he wasn’t invited to the Avengers anymore, I had to reassure her that no, this doesn’t stick.

After the original Iron Man, I remember my friend Jon saying “Do you actually think they’ll ever make that Avengers movie?” After Iron Man 2, I worried they might not. So it was nice watching my daughter enjoy one of the few movies in the series I disliked, and for her to remain enthusiastic for more MCU.

What’s Next

2018’s Black Panther! For reasons I still don’t understand…