He's Back In the Saddle Again

MCU 3: Iron Man 2

People credit the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. with launching the largest global franchise ever, and this is absolutely true. What people tend to forget is that, in the beginning, the MCU was kind of a mess. Although the original Iron Man was a rousing success, The Incredible Hulk, released just a month later, flopped hard, both financially and critically (and poor Hulk, going down as the Avenger whose movie made the least money in the whole of the MCU. Marvel needed a hit to be able to carry their nascent franchise moving forward.

Iron Man 2

What they got was Iron Man 2. Although commercially successful (because Robert Downey, Jr. is a national treasure in the role of Tony Stark), this second outing for our Man of Iron was a flawed film, one that struggles, in a lot of ways, to tell an interesting story. There are a lot of good ideas in the film, and some really interesting choices, but nothing that really gels together into a cohesive whole.

The film opens not with Iron Man but soon to be arch-villain, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), son of Anton Vanko, a one-time collaborator with Howard Stark (Tony's father), right up until the point that the elder Stark suspected Vanko of stealing tech and ideas for the Russians and had the man deported. Ivan, swearing revenge for his dying father (and the life he feels they were entitled to), makes his own Arc Reactor (the thing that powers Tony's Iron Man Suit) from his father's plans so he can build his own powerful weapon to take on Stark and ruin his good name (such as it was).

We then transition to Iron Man, jumping out of a plane to the sounds of AC/DC, flying down to the Stark Expo, a "World's Fair of Tech" kind of celebration. His kicks off the festivities, then flies off to Washington D.C. for a hearing about the Iron Man suit. The U.S. government wants their own suit from Tony, not trusting the billionaire playboy with his own personal WMD. Tony rebuffs them then jets off because he has other things to do, like give Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) his company to run, or taking the lead spot in the driving team he owns so he can race in the Monaco Historic Grand Prix. As we soon learn, his wild behavior is all because he's dying and refuses to tell anyone.

The Arc Reactor in his chest, which along with powering his suit also keeps shards of shrapnel from moving into his heart, is flooding his body with Polonium. So along with dealing with the U.S. Government, and Ivan Vanko/Whiplash (who keeps coming after Tony), and Justin Hammer (a rival weapon's manufacturer, although really just a rival in his own head), Tony also has to find a cure for his sickness. That's a lot to deal with for any man. Oh, and SHIELD is still lurking in the background as well. Damn.

With all that going on, needless to say the film has to keep a lot of plates spinning at the same time. While the film is able to keep everything moving at a brisk clip, none of it seems land with the kind of heft needed to really sell all these plot beats. At first glance, Ivan Vanko would seem to be the main antagonist, a man with claims on the Stark tech who can build it himself and use it for nefarious purposes. The problem here is that Vanko is kind of a non-entity in the movie, a guy that looks tough but really doesn't do much, disappearing for whole stretches so that other plot lines can play out. Certainly, the character isn't helped by Mickey Rourke's performance as the actor seems equal parts bemused and bored by the role, but the simple fact is that Vanko is an afterthought to the plot even after getting a big introduction at the start of the film.

Justin Hammer is the second villain introduced, but he has his own issues. While I think the character in concept could work -- a rival of Tony's with equal access to powerful tech and all the money in the world -- the movie doesn't treat him as a equal. He's written, and played by Sam Rockwell, as a buffoon. He's an also-ran that somehow failed upward to the big leagues largely because Tony stopped making weapons for U.S. Governments and someone had to fill the vacuum. Given enough time, and real weight to the role, Hammer could have been a good heavy. Here, though, he's just not able to compete.

The movie even tries to make up for this by pairing Hammer and Vanko up, as if the two villains would work together to bring Tony down together. In a way, this would have made two sides of Iron Man for the hero to fight, an evil mirror to his corporate side along with wicked, Arc-powered villain for Iron Man to take down. But the two villains spend more time yelling at each other and ineffectually trying to take each other down than they do planning to destroy Tony. Instead of building each other up to be a unified force against Iron Man, they weaken each other, reducing both halves in the process.

In a way, the true villain of the movie is Tony himself. Or, really, his emotionally closed-off ego. Tony does one dumb, immature thing after another, as he searches for some kind of closure in his life before he dies. Tony hitting bottom is an interesting angle for the film to take, and if it could have actually committed to it, making Tony really get down and dirty, that might have been a great plot line to watch. But either the studio wasn't willing to commit to it, to tarnish their big hero after Hulk 2008 flopped, or they just didn't realize the film never goes far enough, but the plot line fizzles out right when it should have hit the hardest.

Tony, in his "darkest hour" simply gets drunk and acts a little dangerously at a party he throws, breaking bottles with his Iron Man suit. That's as far as he gets before his best friend, Rhodey (recast as Don Cheadle for this film and all MCU films moving forward), takes another one of the Iron Man suits, has a fight with Tony (in his own suit), and the flies off. For the film, that's "bottom" for Tony. He still lives in a great house, is still totally rich, and this is just one of a number of dumb stunts the guy has pulled. It's a bad night, not a true bottoming out.

After this, this film shifts gears and gives Tony a way out. A cure, a hope, a chance to redeem himself. But it's not really earned. Tony's time as the villain of the piece is as shallow as the treatment of the other villains, and it's really all because there are so many plot lines to work through at once. There's just too much going on the film has to balance.

Ideally, if the film could have just focused on Tony and Vanko, that would have been something. Vanko builds himself up and reveals that the Iron Man suit isn't a fluke, that any country could have their own. This could have sent Tony spiraling, as much over the tarnish on his legacy as his own impending doom. While Vanko is treated as the next Iron Man, Tony could retreat, move inward, cast everyone around him away. Maybe give him a truly bad episode, like accidentally causing the kind of carnage Superman made in Man of Steel, shifting the popular opinion further away. After that, have Tony come up with his cure on his own. Make him earn his redemption. Only then, right when he's starting to make the turn, then have Vanko turn evil so they remain mirrors to each other. That would give each side their proper due and allow both plot lines to breathe.

Yes, my version ditches a number of plot lines It axes Justin Hammer and also completely wipes away SHIELD and their operative, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). I liked the actors in both these roles, and certainly I will never complain about Samuel L. Jackson being in a movie, especially not here as he enjoys playing Nick Fury so much. Their plot lines, though, just further muddle this movie.

When people complain that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice spent too much time world-building a franchise when it should have been focused on the two heroes, I think of this film and it's similar issues. This movie really wanted to spend a large amount of time setting up characters from future installments -- SHIELD, Black Window, Warmachine -- that it shortchanged the main attraction of the movie. A film that should have been about Tony vs. Vanko relegates this main event to the sidelines for most of the runtime.

It sucks because there's a lot I like about this film. Robert Downey, Jr. is, of course, great as Tony. Even a bad Tony Stark movie is still great in comparison to so many other films out there (looking at you, Incredible Hulk). Scar-Jo really is good in her limited scenes here as Black Widow -- it's such a pity that only now is Marvel discussing possibly giving her a solo adventure when the character shined in her first outing. Sam Rockwell might have played a buffoon (which, too be fair, is his usual shtick), but I still enjoyed his performance. So many great actors are in this movie but the story wastes them.

Eventually the MCU course corrects. This film is just part of the growing pains the franchise went through before it become a global powerhouse. I do get it when people say that they hate this movie as, really, it's kind of ass. It's fun, it has great moments, but it just doesn't work on the whole. I'll still go back and watch it, certainly more than I will the Forgettable Hulk, but I have to agree that it's one of the lesser entries in the MCU. Marvel can, and will, do better in this series.