Anthony “Tony” Stark/Iron Man first lived, walked, and conquered in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39, published in March 1963 and brought to life by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck. Since then, ol’ shellhead has gone through numerous different armours, served on Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, struggled with alcoholism, and shot into mainstream superstardom thanks to am iconic, career-defining portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. and, to celebrate Iron Man’s debut, I’m dedicating every Monday in March.
Released: 7 May 2010
Director: Jon Favreau
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $170 to 200 million
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson
After publicly outing himself as Iron Man, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) arrogantly refuses to hand his technology over to the United States government. Suffering from palladium poisoning, Stark is also targeted by Ivan Vanko (Rourke) who, bankrolled by Stark’s rival Justin Hammer (Rockwell), builds his own Arc Reactor to pursue a vendetta against Stark’s family.
Although the production of Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) and the casting of troubled actor Robert Downey Jr. was a huge risk for fledgling studio Marvel Studios, it ultimately paid off dividends. Development of sequel began immediately after the first film’s release; actor/director Jon Favreau always envisioned the film as the first in a trilogy and chose to skip over some of the source material’s more fantastical elements and draw inspiration from the iconic “Demon in a Bottle” arc (Michelinie, et al, 1979). A big focus of Iron Man 2 was on setting up the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which caused some friction between Favreau and the film’s producers; compounding matters was the recasting of Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle and the cutting of many of Rourke’s scenes. This came to be reflected in the film’s critical response but, despite this, Iron Man 2 was still incredibly successful and made over $620 million at the box office.
Iron Man 2 sees Tony Stark more renowned than ever; his admission to being the superhero Iron Man has made him even more of a beloved celebrity and he relishes in the unparalleled freedom his technology has provided to him. Stark uses his increased celebrity status to help bring more eyes to his Stark Expo, which was originally dreamed up by his father, Howard (John Slattery), as a place for the world’s greatest scientific minds too pool their resources.
Stark, however, faces pressure from the United States government, particularly Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), to hand over his Iron Man technology so that it can be taken out of Stark’s irresponsible hands. Though Stark easily shoots down Stern’s demands and retains the same egotistical arrogance that was such a big part of his public life in Iron Man, it’s immediately clear that this is all an elaborate façade. Not only is Stark still struggling with unresolved issues with his father and living up to Howard’s vast legacy, he’s also being slowly poisoned by the Arc Reactor imbedded in his chest, which is flooding his bloodstream with palladium. Burning through his Arc Reactors faster and faster every day, and running out of options, Stark grows more and more impulsive and reckless; while this starts off rather innocently, with him promoting Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Paltrow) to CEO of Star Industries, he soon makes a very public display of himself when he gets drunk while wearing his armour.
Stark’s primary physical threat in the film is Ivan Vanko, a variation of the comic book Anton Vanko (who was known as both Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo), a hardened Russian technician whose father, Anton (Yevgeni Lazarev), worked with Stark’s father on the Arc Reactor that powers Stark’s heart and armour. Having watched his father die penniless and forgotten, Ivan vows revenge against Stark for stealing all of the credit to the technology and, in scenes that directly parallel Stark’s forging of his Mark I armour, builds his own Arc Reactor and a limited exoskeleton. While Stark primarily fights using projectiles and Repulsor Rays, Ivan favours Repulsor-charged whips that can cut through steel and concrete. Though shown to be just as ingenious and versatile as Stark when it comes to building armours and weapons, Ivan is so focused on humbling Stark in front of the world and driven to near madness by his vendetta that, initially, he forgoes protecting himself (especially his head) and, while he strikes a very public and aggressive first blow against Stark, his campaign is quickly cut short by Stark’s superior technology.
Ivan finds an ally, however, in Stark’s business rival, Justin Hammer. Hammer, who is constantly one step behind Stark in every way, is another mirror of Stark; he’s just as condescending and self-righteous as Stark and enjoys the limelight as much as his rival but is perfectly willing to take any advantage and underhanded tactic he can to get a leg up on Stark. To this end, he liberates Ivan from imprisonment and puts him to work constructing an army of mechanical drones, with which he hopes to make Iron Man obsolete. However, Ivan has little interest in Hammer’s ambitions or money; as long as he has his beloved cockatoo and the resources to destroy Stark, Ivan is prepared to cause as much death and destruction as he possible can to enact his revenge.
As before, Stark isn’t alone in his fights against these enemies; however, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Cheadle), now promoted to a Lieutenant Colonel, identifies that there is a potential threat in third parties attempting to replicate Stark’s technology and, though he stands by Stark and wishes to officially involve Iron Man in the existing military structure, he is forced to oppose his friend when Stark begins to succumb to both his palladium poisoning and one-too-many cocktails. Personally, the switch to Cheadle was nothing but a benefit from my point of view; he’s far better suited to the role and much more believable as a straight-laced military man while still sharing a fun brotherly chemistry with Stark and he has come to own the role in a way that Terrance Howard could only dream of. While it is a bit odd that Rhodey would deem himself more worthy to wear the armour than Stark, and how adept he is at wearing it despite the fact that it seems like he’s never worn it before, he emerges the victor from their scuffle and commandeers the Mark II armour for himself. Bringing it under the jurisdiction of the American government, and being outfitted with Hammer’s technology, Rhodey takes on the identity of War Machine and is fully prepared to lead Ivan’s automated drones into battle for the good ol’ U. S. of A only to find that he has been outfitted with useless weapons and susceptible to Ivan’s control.
Though driven to exasperation by Stark’s continued antics and eccentricities, Pepper takes her role as CEO very seriously and begins to make real headway in turning Stark Industries around. Facing the cold reality that he could die, the budding romance between her and Stark blossoms over the course of the film despite Stark’s eye being caught by Natalie Rushman (Johansson). Initially appearing to be little more than a notary and Pepper’s very capable assistant, Rushman turns out to be Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, sent by Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) director Nick Fury (Jackson) to assess Stark’s for the Avenger Initiative. This leads to some kick-ass fight scenes where Romanoff’s acrobatic versatility is on full display and serves as an alluring introduction to this mysterious character and also ties into the greater MCU by having Fury be so invested in Stark’s suitability.
Like any good sequel worth its time, Iron Man 2 is bigger (and, in many ways, better) than the first film. Without having to spend copious amounts of its runtime establishing Stark’s character and journey towards becoming Iron Man, the film can jump right into the action and picks up about a year after the end of the last movie. While many lamented how much world-building and sequel/spin-off bait was put into the film, I loved it and didn’t feel like the inclusion of Black Widow and Fury or Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) allusions to other superheroic events got in the way of the story at all. If anything, they helped build my anticipation for seeing more from the MCU and the then-upcoming Avengers crossover and I’ve always considered Iron Man 2 to be a far stronger sequel than the third film in the series.
As in the last film, Tony’s journey and growth as a character is a central aspect of the film; clearly still haunted by his experiences in the cave and desperate to hide how critical his condition has become, Stark is, seemingly, more reckless and egocentric than ever. However, this is all merely a front to hide his fear at his impending demise and to cover up the insecurities instilled in him by his father’s harsh upbringing. In the end, though, thanks to Fury, Star sees that Howard did have his best interests at heart in his own way. Indeed, thanks to Howard’s designs for the Stark Expo, Stark discovers the key to his survival and is able (quite ridiculously, I’ll admit) to cure himself by creating a “new element”, which ends the threat of palladium poisoning.
In service of outdoing its predecessor as much as possible, Iron Man 2 features a new array of armours and toys for Stark to use; my favourite of these is the Silver Centurion armour, which Stark dons via a suitcase just like in the 1990s cartoon I used to enjoy on a regular basis. While the red and gold armour is very similar to the one from the first film, there are subtle changes and improvements and the special effects are just as good at rendering Iron Man’s actions as before. Add to that an absolutely fantastic adaptation of War Machine, one of my all-time favourite armours from the comics, and Iron Man 2 does a fantastic job of stepping things up a few notches and laying the foundation for the big MCU crossovers that would follow.
In comparison, Ivan Vanko’s armour is, initially, much more improvised and yet he’s no less capable than his rival. Ivan’s exoskeleton is more than capable of withstanding a head-on car crash and Iron Man’s blasts and his electrified whips are surprisingly effective at damaging Stark’s armour and draining his power. Thanks to Hammer’s resources, Ivan is able to construct a far more menacing and formidable suit of armour for himself for the finale; while this does, admittedly, greatly resemble the finale of the first film, which pitted Stark against a hulking grey counterpart, Ivan stands out just enough thanks to being backed up by Hammer’s drones and still incorporating those same whipping tentacles into the design. Mickey Rourke is an actor who has always been a bit before my time but this film was released right around the time of his big comeback and I have to say he regularly smashed every role he had around this time. His performance here is muted and subdued but threatening; he can say more with a glare and a grunt than many actors can with pages of dialogue and he makes an immediate visual impression with all his tattoos and imposing physique.
Hammer, by comparison, is Stark’s business and intellectual opposite and, while Rockwell is no Jeff Bridges and Hammer is visually nothing like his comic book counterpart, Rockwell plays the role of a seedy mirror of Stark to perfection (which is only fitting given that he was considered for the role of Stark in Iron Man). However, Hammer’s ambition to crush and overtake Stark in business and his enthusiasm for Ivan’s genius quickly lead him to getting in over his head and he ends up watching helplessly as his drones are hijacked by Ivan and I am greatly anticipating the character’s eventual return to the wider MCU since he ends the film in jail rather than dead. Speaking of endings, Iron Man 2 concludes with Tony in a much better place, physically and mentally, thanks to having solved his palladium poisoning and officially hooking up with Pepper, but is deemed unfit to be a part of the Avengers due to his many personality defects. Instead, Fury positions Stark as a liaison to help build the team, which is looking in good stead when Coulson leaves to investigate a mysterious hammer in New Mexico.
I often see a lot of people online, especially on my social medias, bad-mouthing Iron Man 2 and, even now, I really don’t understand why; the first film was fantastic, almost lightning in a bottle, but the sequel is a pretty damn decent follow-up. Sure, you can argue that it’s awfully convenient that Fury just dropped the key to Stark’s survival into his lap but I just saw this as world-building and setting the stage for a greater purpose. None of it takes away from Stark’s growth as a character, or his character arc in this film which, we now know, was all part of a much bigger and longer arc of redemption. Facing a different but no less challenging odds and delivering a taste of the extent to Stark’s imagination when it comes to his armours, Iron Man 2 is an intense story of Stark facing the ghosts of his past and setting himself on the path to a greater future while also effectively sowing the seeds for the rest of MCU’s first phase of movies in an entertaining and action-packed spectacle that I feel deserves more credit than it gets.
What are your thoughts on Iron Man 2? Do you think it deserves the hate it gets or, like me, were you a fan of how it built upon the themes and action of the first film? What did you think to the sub-plot of Tony being slowly poisoned and the solution to that problem? Did you enjoy the introduction of Black Widow and the hints towards the larger MCU? What did you think to the film’s villains, specifically Rourke and Rockwell’s performances, and Rhodey’s promotion to War Machine? Which of the film’s armours was your favourite and why? What are some of your favourite Iron Man characters or stories? Where does Iron Man rank in your hierarchy of comic book characters? Are you doing anything to commemorate Iron Man’s debut appearance and, if so, what is it? Feel free to drop a comment down below and be sure to check back in next week for the final part of Iron Man Month!