Joe Shearer is co-owner of The Film Yap (www.thefilmyap.com) and a fan of comics and comic book movies stretching back to the early 1980s.
Among the more reviled MCU titles in a library of largely beloved films, Iron Man 2 is a misunderstood beast — one roundly criticized for a lack of focus but that, without a hint of irony, exists mostly to establish the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a larger entity. However, Iron Man 2 is a strong film that both stands on its own and broadens the MCU in a way that no film of its type had done to date, regardless of imprint inspiration.
For all that Iron Man did—the fancy flyboy daredevil bombast of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., fully comfortable in this skin), the captured thrill of flying with just a thin layer of high-tech armor separating you and a long plunge to your death, making footage of a guy tinkering in his workshop riveting—what that film didn’t do particularly well was create good fight scenes. Iron Man 2 markedly improves upon the first film in that respect, while keeping all of the tinker-shop hijinks that make Tony Stark such a fun character to be around.
But what Iron Man 2 builds on most is continuing, and raising the stakes of, Tony’s internal struggle. At its heart, Iron Man 2 is about a man with out-of-control daddy issues learning something about himself (and his father) that lets him live with himself and move into life with some degree of self-actualization.
He doesn’t sweat the federal government, coolly spurning and openly mocking U.S. Senators who demand he turn over his highly advanced, completely dangerous technology, calling the Iron Man suit a “high-tech prosthesis,” saying “it is me.”
But with that arrogance comes guilt at the knowledge that he built a fortune on death and destruction, and no amount of swashbuckling or day-saving can assuage that. In essence, then, Iron Man 2 is a film whose thematic protagonist and antagonist are the same being: Iron Man and Tony Stark.
As the film begins, Tony is at his most arrogant, flying down into a yearlong celebration of himself, an expo bearing his name and designed as much to pump up his own accomplishments as it is to celebrate and demonstrate the scientific and technological achievements of others.
But there are dark consequences to Tony’s lifestyle, the culmination of his past, present and future that drives Tony to perpetually inflict self-punishment even as he strives, as he says early on, to pleasure himself. The suit that saves his life, it turns out, poses as great a danger to Stark’s life as Obadiah Stane’s Iron Monger or, as this film’s chief baddie, Ivan Vanko / Whiplash (Mickey Rourke). The metal inside the device that saves Tony’s life, the device that powers the Iron Man suit, is also slowly poisoning his blood — in essence fighting with and killing him. And as Iron Man is (theoretically) the heroic side of the character, he works to best those who would profit from death and destruction, which means he has to battle Tony Stark.
And it’s Tony’s “screw it, and damn the consequences” attitude that nearly gets him killed several times over, capped off in the sequence when he decides to hop into the Formula One car he owns to participate in the Grand Prix at Monaco, where Vanko is waiting. Tony’s attitude is his own worst enemy.
Vanko is Clubber Lang to Stark’s Rocky Balboa, a hungry upstart who takes down the champ by simply outworking him. Given a few different changes in the timeline, Vanko would be Tony’s buddy, perhaps his “man in the chair” or even War Machine himself. Vanko is the son of Anton Vanko, an old friend and contemporary of Howard Stark, who, it is revealed, was a Soviet defector who helped the elder Stark create the arc reactor technology that is the linchpin to the Iron Man tech.
Vanko, however, was suspected of espionage, so Howard Stark had him deported back to Eastern Europe, where he lived in exile and poverty. The implication is that he was tossed aside as much for taking some of the elder Stark’s glory as for any nefarious activity. Either way, Vanko lived out his days in Russia, raising a son who was brilliant, bitter and merciless rather than brilliant, self-absorbed and spoiled. He is the dark mirror image of Tony Stark, and perhaps the reason he isn’t able to ultimately best him in Monaco is simply the small window of time he has to develop and change his antiquated arc reactor, creating only a “reasonable facsimile” in a few months rather than having years (and teams of scientists) working on the real thing.
Whiplash is, if not a stronger villain than Stane (Jeff Bridges) was in Iron Man, at least more clearly defined. His arc opens the film, not Tony’s, and he has just as personal a connection to the Stark family as Stane, although Tony is unaware of it as the film begins. He’s certainly more mentally and physically formidable next to Stane’s obsessed businessman persona.
If Vanko is a dastardly clone of Stark as hero, Stark as playboy billionaire finds his evil twin in the guise of Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) — in essence the Tony Stark who evaded that cave in Afghanistan and continued wantonly peddling instruments of destruction. He’s a douchey Stark wannabe, from his pursuit of the government weapons contracts Stark casts aside to his blind admiration of Howard Stark to his pursuit of journalist Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb), whom Stark bedded and then cast aside in the first film.
Tony, for his part, recognizes the poser in his midst, perpetually humiliating Hammer, more because he can (and wants to) than because he is a credible threat to his company. But Hammer proves to be just dangerous enough to get everyone into trouble when he stages a prison escape for Vanko and requisitions him to develop his own Iron Man-type suits.
So if Tony is wrestling with his own inner demons, his mirror-universe counterparts provide a little outside interference in their own name. Each tries to take advantage of the uneasy partnership they have forged with each other in hopes of screwing over their counterpart. Hammer hopes Vanko will build him suits that will make him billions, bring him fame, fortune and respect and get him into a high-ranking government position. Meanwhile, Vanko, bent on revenge, uses Hammer’s resources to turn his suit prototypes into drones he can control while building his own armor to take on Stark.
The film’s climax, then, is Tony exorcising those demons. Much like an addict looking to go straight, it’s not a task he can accomplish alone. Finally willing to accept help, Tony and his new partner, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) in the War Machine suit, lay waste to Hammer’s drones, then have a final face-off with Vanko, who has developed a new version of his suit.
This thread of the story highlight’s Tony’s support system: gal Friday-turned-romantic-interest-turned-Stark-CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, who gets just a moment or two to be more than a damsel-in-distress); Rhodes as his buddy-turned-sidekick; and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as his mole, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannsen).
With Fury and Romanoff, along with S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), Iron Man 2 creates the connective tissue that will create the MCU’s body. But outside of a few grumblings of goings-on in a small New Mexico town (soon to be revealed as the arrival of Mjolnir, Thor’s legendary hammer), this is done in the context of the main narrative.
The film, then, accomplishes both of its directives — a continuation of the Stark story, pretty easily the most compelling in the Marvel Universe (and, as Evan Dossey says in his “Iron Man” essay, too big for even two films), and setting up the MCU at large.
And it’s his failures and successes in this film that drive Tony in films to come, shaping his willingness to sacrifice himself for Earth in The Avengers, which leads to his Iron Man 3 PTSD, which leads to his desire to create a super-smart robotic force that would turn on him in Avengers: Age of Ultron, to his final 180-degree turn to submission to the government in Captain America: Civil War, to his responsible surrogate-parent actions in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Tony Stark is, unequivocally, the character who has undergone the greatest change across 10 years in the MCU, and Iron Man 2 cements the path on that journey.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer – some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week when Aly Caviness forges ahead with a look at Thor.
PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”
Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey
The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers