In the eyes of Marvel Cinematic Universe history, Iron Man 2 will go down as one of the “not great ones” when it comes to the long list of movies within. Certainly, it’s a flawed movie. but upon revisiting it, I was pleased to see I ended up enjoying the movie far more than I expected to, given its reputation. And how it ended up feeling like it belonged in a shared universe more than the two movies that came before it.
Looking back at Iron Man 2, in retrospect, it ends up making me appreciate the later films in the franchise all the more. As the writers of Infinity War and Endgame found a surprising inspiration for Tony Stark’s eventual conclusion out of lines and elements that were established within this very movie.
The True Establishment of Tony Stark
Iron Man is a fantastic movie, one that still really holds up today. But Iron Man 2 is really the movie that establishes the Tony Stark that we’ll be getting throughout the rest of the MCU, between now and Endgame.
Despite everything going on in this movie, between the laying of the roots for Shield and introduction of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, with all the stuff going on involving Mickey Rourke’s character, this is a movie about Tony Stark dealing with his potential mortality, coming off of the sense of invulnerability that the Iron Man suit gave him in the previous movie’s conclusion. It’s a movie that introduces his complicated relationship with his father, a theme that carries with him right up until Endgame.
And then there’s the pressure of the world, and the government to steal and misuse use the Iron Man technology that he has created.
The “core” of the movie is the chest piece within Tony, the thing that saved his life in the first movie is now killing him, and this ticking clock spurs Tony on to eventually make strides in reconnecting with a father who has been dead since before the MCU started. Everything else going on around this story is just padding.
Which becomes something of a reoccurring theme going forward in the MCU; in that the movie focuses so much on the hero and their story, that the villain ends up becoming an afterthought, simply some person for the hero to punch in the final act of the movie.
The Obligatory Bad Guy
With all of the world building and character development going on, adding anything more with the villain might become overkill. Villain overload was certainly a problem in the pre-MCU days of the superhero movie experience. This ends up feeling like the total opposite problem though.
While Ivan Vanko is the marketable villain of this movie, he isn’t really the driving force as an antagonist. Justin Hammer fills that role more fittingly, played by Sam Rockwell. He is a rival weapons manufacturer to Stark Enterprises who seems willing to do just about anything to screw over Tony. Including trying to kill him.
The problem is, both Vanko and Hammer act more like obstacles than genuine villains, they never get any time to display any of the meaningful traits that make genuinely good cinematic antagonists. As complex a character as Tony Stark is, these two are paper thin in terms of their motivations and their characters. If anything the glowing cylinder in Tony’s chest is actuality the most credible villain in the movie.
The movie does make a token effort to make it seem like Vanko has some historical connection to Howard Stark, conveniently timed with Tony’s own burgeoning re-connection to his father. With the implication that Vanko’s father might have been the one to create the arc reactor powering Tony’s suits.
The pair have a brief confrontation in which Ivan calls Tony’s family thieves, but Tony hardly dwells on it. And then they don’t interact again until the final battle.
The Movie itself Undercuts its own villain
With all the hinting of some sinister past between the pair’s father’s, you’d think Tony would meet with some moral dilemma, in a sins of the father type situation. But it never comes to that, in fact, the whole plot point is wrapped with a throw-away line from Nick Fury that basically confirms the Vanko’s were either crazy or criminals and completely exonerates the Stark’s of any guilt.
Also utterly removing a moral dilemma regarding Ivan’s motives. In fact, without a justification for his actions, he becomes a silent, sneering, menacing dude who even looks kind of gross. Sure, he’s painted as being a genius comparable to Tony, but that feels like a means to an end. The end being the ability to get the final action sequence with the “hammeroids”. (a joke I just got as I was writing this).
And a surprisingly short and anticlimactic battle with Vanko in his full Whiplash armour. One that ends with Vanko dead and him never being brought up again. Sam Rockwell is the far more entertaining villain of the pair, but ends up coming across as some toothless comic relief, as he needs Vanko to build the machines that make him a credible villain.
Going forward from here, many future movies in the MCU share this problem, to varying degrees. With such strong leads and focus on their characters, oftentimes the villains are forgotten and, like with this example, become plot points to give the main characters some dramatic action set piece to end the movie on.
The Real Groundwork for the MCU
Iron Man 2 is a character piece, one that focuses on Tony Stark and forges the character we see in the first movie, into the man who we’ll be following throughout the rest of the MCU. While Iron Man is the first movie in the franchise, this really feels like the first movie set in a larger, shared universe.
This movie still feels like it takes place in an approximation of the real world, rather than the comic book world that is steadily morphs into. Between Shield’s increased presence and the Thor teaser at the end, Iron Man 2 is the beginning of what is to come and is the first step towards the first Avengers movie that establishes how big this franchise will eventually become.
It’s a movie that, as it turns out, was a lot better to revisit than I’d expected, despite its flaws, and importantly sets up so many things that end up paying off a decade later when Endgame finally put a period at the end of Tony Stark’s story. It’s just too bad we never got Sam Rockwell back in any shape or form.