An outsider’s take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe: ‘Iron Man 2’ (2010) (Movie review)

This blog series chronicles my first viewing of the complete MCU movie saga. I’ll examine each film under various categories that reflect popular discussion points. Next up is the third film, “Iron Man 2” (2010):

STRENGTHS

We get to spend more time with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony/Iron Man, the most likeable corporate magnate in comic-book history. And this is a slicker production than the first, with bigger and more confident action scenes.

WEAKNESSES

This is the first film’s plot and themes all over again, complete with Tony needing another upgrade of his bionic heart. At two hours, the film is unnecessarily decompressed. This is one of those superhero films where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

HEROES

But some of the parts are cool, including S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson). She is a great addition to the saga, and I don’t say that because ScarJo is hot (in terms of “Ghost World” leads, I’m more of a Thora Birch man myself), but because Natalie is so competent at her job and I want to know her full story. Tony’s Air Force pal Rhodes (Don Cheadle, taking over for Terrence Howard) becomes War Machine here. How so? Well, he dons one of the suits. His is silver.

VILLAINS

Sam Rockwell as arms dealer Justin Hammer and Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko, the vengeance-seeking Russian equivalent of Tony, are both great actors. But Hammer is a corporatist stereotype, and Ivan’s reason for wanting revenge is that Tony’s dad stole ideas from Ivan’s dad years ago. While this backstory is clear, it’s not fleshed out. In the end, Ivan (in a battle suit) fights Tony (in his suit), plus Rhodes (in a suit). So the MCU is now three-for-three in having the hero fight a Bizarro version of himself in the finale.

WOMEN

Natalie is not just a prominent female character, she’s by far the film’s most intriguing person. And “Iron Man 2” becomes the first MCU film to pass the Bechdel Test, as Natalie and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), now the company’s CEO, talk about Stark Industries business. In what I suspect is a nod to comic lore, but also works as a meta-commentary on the MCU’s boys’ club tendencies, Tony sees them having a pleasant conversation and incorrectly surmises: “I thought you two didn’t get along.”

MIRROR TO REALITY

Like the first film, “Iron Man 2” digs into the military-industrial complex, but it adds another level. Offscreen between the two films, Tony achieves world peace (by being Superman, essentially). But then a few idiots around the world try to make their own iron battle suits. Although they fail spectacularly, it provides the excuse the U.S. government needs to get back in the biz. Since Tony ain’t selling, the government – personified by Garry Shandling as a slimeball senator — aims to use its might to legally steal his invention on the grounds of national security. “Iron Man 2” effectively makes the point that – for all our talk of checks and balances and the Bill of Rights – “national security concerns” is a free pass for a government to get what it wants.

BEST ACTION SCENE

Natalie enters Hammer’s headquarters and mows through guards using a variety of tactics – mostly gymnastic martial arts, but also the occasional bit of S.H.I.E.L.D. weaponry, plus one low-tech approach: Pepper spray to a poor schmo’s face. For all the film’s heavy-metal action, I enjoy the physical purity of this sequence.

BEST COMEDIC MOMENT

Like the first entry, there’s a lightness to the proceedings despite the serious theme, yet not many moments of outright comedy. An exception is when Happy (Tony’s assistant, played by director Jon Favreau) insists on joining Natalie on the Hammer HQ infiltration. He spends the whole time fighting the first guard while she blows through a dozen. I saw the gag coming a mile away, but still tip my cap.

WORLD BUILDING

This film’s best reasons for existing are to show Tony firmly joining S.H.I.E.L.D.’s camp and to introduce Natalie (later to be called Black Widow). We get a good sense of the competence of S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Nick Fury. Samuel L. Jackson portrays him as cocky, but I get a sense that it’s earned. While we don’t see Fury in action, we do see Natalie do her thing, and I get a broad sense that these S.H.I.E.L.D. folks are legit. “Iron Man 2” is plugged into the idea of a grand saga, with Fury and Coulson (Clark Gregg) peppering in teases to an incident in the Southwest that is currently occupying most of their attention.

FINAL THOUGHTS/EXPECTATIONS

“Iron Man 2” doesn’t descend into unwatchable, but nor does it coalesce into a good movie, and I suspect there’s a fresher story going on in New Mexico. I’ll find out in “Thor.” (I hope he doesn’t battle Bizarro Thor in the finale.) I’m looking forward to learning more about Natalie, but I am disappointed to see no “Black Widow” film on the docket. I want to know more about the specifics of why S.H.I.E.L.D. (a branch of the government) can be trusted as being on the side of good, whereas the government in general clearly can’t be. (I trust Fury, Natalie and Coulson, but those are people, not the department itself.) I also want to find out who the Big Bad is (if any) for which it’s so important that Fury dreams up the Avengers Initiative. I assume it’s not the U.S. government itself (although that would be a cool surprise).

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