Road to Infinity War – Part 3: Iron Man 2

As Marvel took the next step with their successful Iron Man property, they began to truly look forward to the future and a potential shared universe. They were on the verge of introducing Thor and Captain America, so it became feasible to start planning for the Avengers. Unfortunately their grand plan for moving towards that momentous moment was to saddle their one “sure thing” with the heavy lifting of setting the table. Not only did that game plan ruin Iron Man 2 – it also lost Marvel one of the most solid directors working today – Jon Favreau for future films.

As with the first Iron Man, Iron Man 2’s strength is in Tony Starks’s personal demons, sheer charisma, & growth. The film, as it begins, is poised to take a slightly dark turn as Stark wrestles with his mortality. He’s human after all, and premature death is something that the other Avengers have to worry about much less. His vulnerability and the ways in which he attempts to shield that are what make Tony Stark unique and interesting. So the introduction of Tony’s poisoning as a result of the one thing keeping him alive (the palladium in his arc reactor) is a promising development for the story. He of course tries to handle his predicament as an island of one and throws everything into turmoil around him.

Stark’s birthday party is one of the most tragic, cringe-worthy, and ultimately relatable things in the franchise. And it’s quite possibly the last time the film has much of anything interesting to say or do. Iron Man 2 takes a hard left turn into SHIELD and the Avengers Initiative and in the end Iron Man just gets swallowed up in his own film. It’s a balance we’ll see handled much more deftly later by the Russos who managed to keep Captain America: Civil War a Captain America film despite the multitudes of other character and plot elements. But that is not to say that Favreau is incapable of such deftness – the mandated Avengers/SHIELD plot line and rushed production were elements stacked against him.

The film is so overstuffed that its villain, Ivan Vanko/Whiplash is surprisingly barely in the movie – relegated to sidekick of Justin Hammer who despite some generic writing, in the hands of the remarkable Sam Rockwell is a brilliant anti-Stark. Had Marvel left Jon Favreau alone to his own devices we may have gotten a juicy man vs. self type story in which Tony faces not only his mortality but a sleazy wannabe version of his past self (Hammer) as well. A stripped down plot like that would have given more time and space for Pepper Potts’ development as she becomes chairman and CEO of Stark Industries, as well as a more interesting and satisfying team up between War Machine and Iron Man. The current incarnation of which is both a bright spot in the film thanks to Don Cheadle and RDJ’s chemistry and simultaneously a bit of a by the numbers boss fight with Mickey Rourke’s Vanko with whom Downey Jr. has zero hero/villain chemistry.

Ultimately, while Iron Man 2 adequately sets up the idea that the Avengers are being quietly assembled in the background that one simple point ends up throwing off the course of the whole movie. The flow of the film is weird. Events are disjointed and don’t cleanly lead into each other. We get knocked about from the Stark EXPO to Senate hearings to Monaco with a few scenes of Ivan Vanko peppered in between. We see glimmers of the film that could have been – the evolution of Tony’s ego from one extreme (war profiteer) to the other (“I have successfully privatized world peace.”), the innovation of the Iron Man suit (suitcase suit), and more Pepper Potts and Rhodey. But it’s not enough to make Iron Man 2 more than a second misjudged entry on the heels of The Incredible Hulk on the path to The Avengers.