Written by David Holland
The rewatch continues with Iron Man 2. I’ll be honest, this one was never my favorite entry in the MCU. The upside is that I haven’t watched it very often or in a long time, so this was like watching it for the first time all over again! We’ve got a new villain, a new Stark Industries CEO, and a brand new Rhodey!
The MCU is officially a trilogy. In doing some research on Iron Man 2, I learned that things were already getting bumpy. Samuel L. Jackson almost didn’t come back because of Nick Fury’s limited screen time. Director Jon Favreau got so frustrated with the involvement of the Marvel higher-ups that he chose not to return to direct Iron Man 3. Some of the scenes that got inserted by those higher-ups came at the cost of the plot coherence of this film, a pattern that would repeat itself and cost them more directors.
But there’s no question that Robert Downy Jr. is still inspired casting for Iron Man. This is the first sequel in the MCU, so the usual origin story formula won’t suffice. In this second chapter we see Tony Stark in a sort of dark night of the soul. This is separate from his successes as Iron Man, who has beaten every villain he has encountered, leading Tony to gloat to Senator Sterns at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that he has privatized world peace. No, Tony’s struggles are as Tony: the arc reactor in his chest is slowly killing him and this is leading him to make some reckless decisions – selling his art collection, making Pepper the CEO of Stark Industries, and hopping in the driver’s seat at Monaco, for example. His drunken shenanigans at his birthday party serve as a subtle nod to Tony Stark’s alcoholism in the comic books. Whiplash and Justin Hammer serve as almost side plots rather than a central part of the plot which makes the film sort of weak in the villain department, but Rhodey finally gets to suit up as War Machine and that adds a new dimension to the final fight scene.
How does it hold up?
Okay, it’s better than I remember, but it’s still not my favorite. It’s only Iron Man 2, the third entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and somehow the “Stark Industries Did Bad Things” (previously with the weapons sold by Stark Industries, this time with Anton Vanko, soon with Ultron) and the “Evil Businessman” (previously with Obadiah Stone, this time Justin Hammer, soon with Mandarin) both feel stale. Act Two, which features one scene where Sad Iron Man gets drunk and yells at his birthday party attendees, drags on while we watch Tony sit around and think. This culminates in him “rediscovering” an element that his father had discovered decades earlier that will save him from the palladium poisoning that his father didn’t even know would be a problem? That can’t be right. But Act Three picks back up – SHIELD gets involved, Iron Man and War Machine team up, and lots of things explode.
This is the first time I’ve revisited Iron Man 2 in the context of the larger Avengers Endgame timeline and a line that seemed out of place on first viewing actually became one of the most meaningful this time: Ivan Vanko’s “You’ll lose” refrain to Tony. Both times Whiplash repeats this happen after Iron Man has defeated him – in Monaco and again in the climax – and the first time I watched it I thought it seemed weird. The guy lost and yet he yells “You’ll lose”? But on this rewatch I realize that this will become Stark’s defining arc through the rest of the MCU. The fear that he will fail the Avengers, fail humanity, fail the Earth, becomes his deepest motivation and leads him to create Ultron, split the Avengers during the Civil War, and discover freaking time travel on the path to undoing the events of the Infinity War. In fact, it is this fear of losing that leads Stark to his most iconic and important decision in Endgame. Perhaps the best part of seeing this movie again is realizing that “You’ll lose” is a seed planted by Whiplash that doesn’t actually pay off here but instead continues throughout the rest of Stark’s MCU story-line.
Theme: Who gets to wield the power?
This is a theme to which the MCU movies will return, most notably in Captain America Civil War. I was really struck by it first in the opening montage when a magazine cover is shown featuring Iron Man and the title “Iron Man Stabilizes East-West Relations”. Uncle Ben gave us the famous quotation “With great power comes great responsibility”, but this move is one of the first to flirt with a slightly different questions: Just because you have the means to address a problem, should you? Obviously Iron Man is a good guy, so we as the audience want to give him the benefit of the doubt. And we learn in a later film that the primary antagonist who pushes Tony on this question, Senator Sterns, is a Hydra operative, planting him firmly in the “bad guy” bucket. But this doesn’t change the fact that nobody elected Tony Stark, or trained him, or vested him with any sort of authority. He just sort of shows up and does things because he can and at least through Iron Man 2 it works out. Sure there’s a hiccup with War Machine getting commandeered by the US military, but other than that the stakes stay pretty low. But this film plants that question in our mind – just because you can, should you? And these days it’s worth asking if a white dude who inherited his wealth and wears an arsenal is the best guy to be making unilateral geopolitical decisions.
This is a question worth asking now more than ever – who gets to save the world? Senator Sterns challenges Stark on this question throughout, but Rhodey does the same as a more trustworthy figure – both as Tony’s friend and an officer in the Air Force. The end of Iron Man 2 basically punts on the question. Iron Man saves the day again and everything works out. But this is a question that will follow the Avengers, particularly after the fall of SHIELD and the events of the Civil War. Much like Vanko’s “You’ll lose”, the question of “Who put you guys in charge, anyway?” just won’t go away.