Iron Man 2 marks the first sequel in what was to become a long line of sequels, three-quels, and intertwining crossovers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I personally feel Marvel films work best when there are multiple superhero characters at the forefront, something these earlier entries in the series lack. Taking this into account, I wouldn’t rank Iron Man 2 among the top MCU films, but it still has a lot going for it and is a promising indication of what’s to come.
Marvel opening sequences tend to be strong, and Iron Man 2 is no exception. However, instead of a big action scene à la later films like Age of Ultron or Civil War, the opening sequence here is a slow, dramatic build. It starts with audio of the news conference that concluded the first Iron Man, in which Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) flippantly reveals his superhero identity. As the televised news clip replays in the background, a scorned Anton Vanko (Mickey Rourke) watches his father die. He vows to take revenge on the Starks for stealing credit from his father for creating the Arc Reactor (also a major component of the Iron Man armor). The audience watches as Anton follows his father’s blueprints to slowly create his own Arc Reactor-powered weaponry. It’s a great way to quickly recap the previous Iron Man without bogging this one down with backstory.
Pending inevitable showdown with Vanko aside, Tony Stark/Iron Man has several major issues plaguing him. The government wants him to hand his Iron Man suit over to the U.S. military to be used for military operations and to keep it out of the hands of those who may want to create similar suits for nefarious purposes. Tony considers the suit and himself one and the same and refuses to part with it, talking himself out of an Armed Force Committee hearing as only Tony Stark can. I love seeing the actions of our heroes have real-world consequences, and this subplot of the film plays out nicely with the threat of government interference hanging over Tony’s head.
On top of that, the Arc Reactor in Tony’s chest, which is keeping him alive after the incidents of the first Iron Man film, is also slowly poisoning him. The audience sees him checking his rising blood toxicity levels in secret on multiple occasions. Tony Stark can act impulsively and irrationally on a good day, so a Tony believing he’s about to die becomes an increasingly interesting train wreck to watch.
He names his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) CEO of Stark Industries, and finds a new assistant in the mysterious Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson). His recklessness reaches an all-time high when, at the last minute, he takes the place of the professional racer representing Stark Industries at the Monaco Grand Prix.
As if this life-threatening move isn’t dangerous enough, we learn that Anton Vanko is at the Grand Prix too, and he’s brought along his new Arc Reactor build, complete with a pair of electrifying whips. In one of the more intense scenes of the film, Anton walks onto the racetrack mid-race and begins taking out the race cars with his weaponry.
Pepper and Tony’s bodyguard/chauffeur Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) manage to bring Tony his Iron Man suit so he can defeat Anton, but major damage has been done. The world now knows that replicating the Iron Man suit is not only possible, but that it’s already been accomplished – with deadly consequences.
Now Tony needs to keep the government off his back while finding a cure for his rapidly accelerating condition and dealing with the threat of Anton’s duplicated Stark machinery.
The organization S.H.I.E.L.D. does get some screen time in Iron Man 2, with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) returning and Tony’s new assistant Natalie revealing herself to be Natasha Romanoff, also known as the Black Widow. Natasha is a welcome addition to the roster, but her character definitely lacks the depth she takes on later in the MCU. Unfortunately, here she’s mostly eye-candy with some badass fight moves.
We also have the return of Tony’s pal Rhodey (now played by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard), who ends up donning some of Tony’s armor when his friend takes his antics too far at his birthday celebration. The grounds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are being laid, and while the business with S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t detract from the core story in this case, it’s a major tease.
There may have only been one other Marvel Studios movie to compare it to at the time (The Incredible Hulk), but the Iron Man films had already established a distinct style. You know from the moment AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” starts playing in the film’s first main scene that this is going to be a movie with action, attitude, and a whole lot of well-placed rock music. Iron Man 2 also continues the balance of seriousness and comedy that most of its successors, and the MCU as a whole, have become known for.
Having originally watched the MCU movies out of chronological release order, one thing I find especially interesting in the early Iron Man films is the development of Tony Stark’s character. Moviegoers who only see Tony/Iron Man in the Avengers movies or large-cast installments like Captain America: Civil War are only seeing one part of him. He’s one of the more polarizing members of the Avengers; you can truly love and feel bad for him one moment, only to be cursing at him the next. The complexity of Tony’s character isn’t always apparent in the group films, and it’s worth it to see the Iron Man trilogy for this alone.
Final verdict? Iron Man 2 is quite good, but not the first MCU movie I would pick up for a rewatch. Granted, that assessment may be a little unfair considering this is only the third movie in what has become a series going on twenty, in which the films have only been getting better and better with time.
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes