“Welcome back,” says Tony Stark as he emerges from his Iron Man suit after a thrilling entrance at the Stark Expo. With the same breath, Robert Downey Jr. is also welcoming us back to the Avengers prequels after a two-year gap. There have been some changes in Iron Man’s world since we saw him last, however. He’s battling blood poisoning, he’s facing inquiries from the government, and his best friend now looks like Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard. “I didn’t expect to see you here,” Tony says at a congressional hearing. “Well, it’s me, and I’m here,” fires back Cheadle-Rhodes, “so get over it and move on.”
These meta-moments get Iron Man 2 off to exactly the right start. The rest of the film’s two hours fails to live up to the promise of its beginning, however. Iron Man 2 wants us to see the growth of S.H.I.E.L.D., wants us to watch Stark battling both for his life and for control of his greatest creation, and wants to introduce us to a bevy of new characters – Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) foremost among them. This leads to an over-packed, underdone script and a disjointed, occasionally haphazard film. The most frustrating thing for me, though, is that all the material was here to make a movie that was not only a good sequel, but an outstanding movie in its own right. With some judicious plot-pruning and a little re-directed emphasis, Iron Man 2 could have been the best of the Avengers films. Instead, it’s…well, not the worst, perhaps, but certainly the one I dislike the most.
Where to begin? Well, let’s start with the biggest problem: the theme.
At two key points in the movie, the word “legacy” is used. This is a movie that desperately wants to be about what the past has left us, what we can do with it, and what we can leave for generations to come. But Iron Man 2 ignores a far more compelling theme that would have sprung much more directly from the last film: the consequences of responsibility. Had the movie chosen to center itself on that theme, most of its problems would have fallen away.
You may recall that at the end of Iron Man, Tony Stark publicly revealed his secret identity to the world. This was both a completely in-character moment and an assumption of responsibility for his inventions and his actions – a fitting climax, in other words. Here, though, we see him grandstanding in front of United States Senators, boasting about how he has “successfully privatized world peace.” The claim is ridiculous on its face, and ought to be the basis for further plot development. Yet it is not.
The fact is, though Senator Stern’s questions are hostile in the extreme, they are not off-base. Tony Stark hasn’t privatized world peace. He’s helped to endanger it. If the world didn’t know Stark was Iron Man, he might have a point. No one knows when Superman or Batman will pop up, so their mere existence might serve as a deterrent for crimes in which they were interested. But that’s because no criminal knows to coordinate their appearances with the schedules of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. As a high-profile figure who has just announced he is a superhero, Tony Stark’s movements are in the news. Criminals only have to wait for him to be occupied elsewhere to pursue their life of crime. More to the point, they only have to track his schedule to find a time when he’s likely to be out of his suit and vulnerable to bullets. If Stark dies, the deterrent threat he poses is gone. In fact, that’s what Whiplash nearly does in this movie, and it is only through a series of the most blatant script contrivances that Stark is allowed to live through the encounter.
Also, if Iron Man’s identity were secret, there might be some reasonable speculation about his motives. Since everyone in the world knows that Iron Man is Tony Stark, his motives become both plainer and more subject to deliberate misinterpretation for propaganda purposes. His possession of such a formidable weapon (and it is a weapon, regardless of Stark’s insistence that it isn’t) would both undermine the authority of the United States government abroad and make them be seen as responsible for any and all of his mistakes. There is every reason in the world for the government to want to bring him, or at the very least his technology, under their control. They even have a perfect opportunity to do both, when he behaves so atrociously in front of a standing committee of the United States Senate that he opens himself up to multiple citations for contempt of Congress. Unbelievably, he is allowed to leave the chamber as a free man. More unbelievably, there are absolutely no official consequences for his behavior.
This is the point (yes, this early) when Iron Man 2 goes completely off the rails. And the real pity is that it didn’t have to. By being so openly hostile to elected officials, Stark has set up a perfect antagonist for the film: the United States government, in the person of Senator Stern. A United States Senator, as anyone with any knowledge of American politics knows, has a thousand official and unofficial ways to make your life absolutely miserable. They are among the most powerful people on the planet, with more power at their command than any but the most influential heads of state. Senator Stern would have been a fantastic villain, not least because ultimately he is right (though he’s being a prick about it), and I would like to believe that somewhere out there is an early draft of the Iron Man 2 story which recognizes and takes advantage of this.
Unfortunately, the external conflict is centered instead on the alliance of Whiplash and Justin Hammer. And while Whiplash is a lot of fun, Justin Hammer is too obviously a moron. He showboats as much as Tony Stark, but without the dizzying intellect to back it up. He fails to deliver competent technology. This is not a man who would ever be successful as a defense contractor. This is not a man who would ever be successful in anything – business, love, putting on his pants in the morning. If handled correctly, Hammer could have been a great subsidiary villain, a man plotting not simply to embarrass Stark but to destroy him professionally, who switched to Stark’s side when his schemes were undercut by the even more villainous Whiplash (or as we know him in this movie, Ivan Vanko). In fact, this is one of those instances where I’m inclined to blame the casting. If played by someone more serious, like Eric Bana, Hammer could have been great. Instead, Hammer is played by Sam Rockwell. And that’s enough to tell you about the type of performance we get. Rockwell is just funny, in everything he does; casting him as the villain undercuts the effect.
Iron Man 2 wants to introduce us to both these major characters within the Iron Man mythology, as well as Black Widow (Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff), a top assassin and S.H.I.E.L.D. operative. This movie also contains a hefty role for two other members of S.H.I.E.L.D., Director Nick Fury and Agent Coulson. Only Coulson was in the previous movie at any length, and three of the characters weren’t there at all. And too many new characters spoil the broth even more surely than too many cooks. New characters eat up minutes. Those minutes have to come from someone else. And with Cheadle’s Rhodes being too important to the story this time around, it’s Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts who is criminally underused. At precisely the point we should be seeing a burgeoning romance between Stark and Potts, she has foisted on her the role of Stark Industries CEO. In another movie, this would provide a new and intriguing level of conflict between the star-crossed love interests, as Potts runs the company in a manner not entirely to Stark’s liking, and they are forced to clash. Here, there’s a bit of that, but mostly Pepper being CEO just means that Pepper is offscreen too long.
Moreover, when she is onscreen, she’s usually associated with stupidity. And there’s no way around having to state this frankly: Iron Man 2 is dumb when it doesn’t have to be. Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan charging to Stark’s rescue with a spare Iron Man suit is one thing, but they do so by driving the wrong way through the Monaco Grand Prix, which in a just world would result in their immediately forthcoming fiery deaths. They get through, of course, because the plot requires it. Similarly ridiculous is the contrived battle between Iron Man and War Mach…sorry, between Stark and Rhodes. Let’s set aside, for the moment, the fact that we didn’t need to see a drunk Iron Man making jokes about how the urine in his suit is drinkable. Rhodes comes to Stark’s birthday party with the stated intention of getting the Iron Man tech for the government. Yet he doesn’t even try to persuade Stark. Nor, once he sees how hopeless that would be, does he simply steal a suit and take it to the government.
Instead, Rhodes puts on a suit and challenges Stark to a fight. In the man’s house. On his birthday. In front of a hundred drunk party guests. And then Stark openly strains suspension of belief with respect to dialogue by calling him War Machine. That is beyond stupid. These two incidents aren’t the only ones, either. There were several other plot contrivances, too-cute conversations, and similar incidents. None of them sunk this movie on its own. But together, they were more than enough.
As the crowning misfire in this script, the writers (I refuse to pin this just on Justin Theroux) one-up the worst decision of The Incredible Hulk’s screenplay by giving Stark an obvious personal problem that will even more obviously be solved. The palladium core in Stark’s arc reactor is poisoning his blood, you see. He has to find some way to fix that problem or he’ll die. Since Stark’s dying would mean no more Iron Man movies, and also no Iron Man in The Avengers, of course he’ll solve the problem. The question is not if he’ll do it, but how. And as befits such a lame attempt to create suspense, Stark literally gets all the components to the solution handed to him when Fury drops off the Box of Incredible Secrets (my name for it) at his mansion. Sure, Tony Stark still has to put the solution together. But you already know he will. There’s no suspense at all.
So how would I have fixed the movie? Easy. Start by excising the whole Vanko/Whiplash plotline from it. Mickey Rourke is great in the role, but this movie needs less to focus on. Save him for Iron Man 3. Also, get rid of the Stark Expo and the palladium core subplot. Instead, focus the external confrontation on Stark’s troubles with the government. They want the Iron Man suit, but he doesn’t want to give it up. This creates tension between him and Rhodes (a good military man who is Stark’s friend, but who recognizes the government’s position as well). And Senator Stern should make Tony Stark’s life miserable…he may not have Stark arrested for contempt, but Stern should start a publicity war against Stark Industries, and set the IRS on the task of a long and uncomfortable examination of Stark’s books.
In response, Tony could give the company to Pepper, believing that once he’s no longer the public face of Stark Industries, Senator Stern will be forced to back off. Instead, Stern redoubles his efforts, and Pepper starts giving in. Stark is now forced to fight the two people who are most central to his world (not named Tony Stark), which is internal conflict enough. Meanwhile, a terrorist threat of copycat Iron Man drones springs up, which Iron Man is most equipped to face. If you play everything right, you could still have an Iron Man/War Machine team-up against that threat at the end (after a battle earlier), and a reconciliation between Tony and Pepper once he realizes that she is a capable woman and not simply an extension of his whims. You can even still have the great final scene where Stern is forced to commend both Stark and Rhodes.
Most importantly, this allows a meaningful role for S.H.I.E.L.D. Simply make Agent Romanoff the point-agent, hidden (as she already is) in Stark Industries as an evaluator for Tony, who gets caught up in the escalating war between Stark and Stern. S.H.I.E.L.D. might be forced to navigate between the interests of an elected federal official with enough power to shut them down and the one guy they need most to make their Avengers Initiative work. And you could still have an ambiguously happy ending, where Stark turns over his Iron Man tech to the government on two conditions – that Col. Rhodes be allowed to oversee the program, and that he can continue being Iron Man under government auspices – only to be shot down by S.H.I.E.L.D. after Romanoff decides that he’s too unpredictable to be used as anything other than a consultant.
All the pieces were definitely there to make a great movie. And if I’ve come down somewhat harder on Iron Man 2 than I did on The Incredible Hulk, that’s no accident. Hulk is the worse movie, but this one is by far the more disappointing. We knew the cast was good. We knew the director and cinematographer were good. But they could only do so much with the script they were handed. Ultimately, even an Iron Man can get dragged down by a lead plot.