After a first-film origin story, superhero sequels invariably seem to follow one of two templates. The movie could delve deeper into what drives our hero and how he reacts to his newfound role (like in Spider-Man 2) Or a sequel could choose to go “bigger”, uping the scope of the action by introducing more villains who pose even greater threats (like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Batman Returns). Almost always, these incidents result in the hero retiring (or contemplating it), only to ultimately return when they realize their city needs them. This method can work very well, but it gets a bit dishearteneing to see such a varied bunch of superheroes all find their franchises steered down the same path.
Which is what makes Iron Man 2 both refreshing and a bit of an odd duck. The follow-up to 2008’s Iron Man, it was the first sequel within the fledgling Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man 2 deftly avoids the clichéd arc in which the hero contemplates resigning from crimefighting; Tony never wavers from his certainty that the existence of Iron Man is best for the world. Instead, director Jon Favreau and his crew focus on a different angle: how the world feels about having Iron Man in it.
As confidant as Tony is that he’s managed to “privatize world peace”, pretty much every other character in Iron Man 2 questions that belief in one form or the other. Gwyneth Paltrow‘s Pepper Potts sees the suit as a showy distraction, diverting attention away from more important programs, and Paltrow gives a delightfully exasperated performance as a woman who just wants to run a normal company. Don Cheadle‘s Rhodey champions a different perspective: that the Iron Man tech is dangerous and needs to be controlled. Replacing Terrence Howard from the first film (a change the film wryly comments on by having Rhodey’s first lines be “It’s me. I’m here. Deal with it.”), Cheadle’s charisma brings a lot to the role. He and Robert Downey Jr. have tremendous chemistry together, and they manage to echo a classic “buddy cop” duo while still keeping a clear underlying level of tension between them. Their disagreements are respectful but pronounced, and the film and Cheadle do a lot to make Rhodey’s case sympathetic and convincing.
Meanwhile, less noble forces around the world see Stark’s technological breakthrough as an opportunity. Mickey Rourke‘s Whiplash is a serviceable villain who ties back to Tony’s continuing struggle with the idea of what he and his family’s legacy will be. But the real scene-stealer is Sam Rockwell as rival businessman Justin Hammer. Rockwell is perfect in the dry role, portraying the smarmy businessman who desperately wishes he was Tony Stark, and since that can’t happen, he tries to out-Stark Stark. The scenes where Hammer and Whiplash interact are a study in contrasts and hilarious highlights of an already funny film, but they also serve as a nasty counterpoint to Tony’s claims about his tech’s uniqueness.
As for the hero himself, RDJ remains the man born to play this role. Downey’s genially dickish take on the character is rightfully iconic and manages to make us love the character even during his more questionable decisions. But while Downey’s Tony Stark remains just as lovable as he was before, Iron Man 2 does not give him a whole lot to do. The character still acts overly flippant until he needs to be serious, still favors plans that he has to do alone, and still grapples with the question of what his legacy will be. In short, his emotional arc in Iron Man 2 is pretty much the same as it was in Iron Man; it’s not bad, but it’s also not new.
The big change between the two films is that here, Tony is being confronted with his own impending death, courtesy of blood poisoning from his arc reactor heart. This sickness lets the film cleverly replicate parts of the character’s pivotal Demon in a Bottle arc (Tony’s self-destructiveness and his pushing away of his friends) while avoiding having to directly comment on alcoholism, a taboo topic given both the mainstream nature of the film and Downey’s own personal struggles with addiction. Unfortunately, this storyline never properly lands. Part of the problem is that while we are told Tony is being reckless, for the most part what we SEE him do isn’t much more showy or snarky than what he did in the previous film. A bigger problem, however, is that the poisoning never feels truly dangerous or threatening. Weird neck tattoos do not equal physical deterioration, and when Tony is still effortlessly embarking on massive renovation projects, the disease just becomes numbers on a screen.
This speaks to Iron Man 2’s greatest problem: at no point does it build up a real sense of tension or suspense. Look, it’s not as though people go into Iron Man 2 expecting Iron Man to die. The basic tenets of storytelling and franchises mean the hero will win out in the end. But even if an ultimate victory is assured, the best films have elements of danger to them. Here, Tony spends most of the movie unaware he even has a villain plotting against him. The drone chase that dominates the third act is impressive, but is more about Tony trying to protect civilians than fearing for himself, and both fights with Whiplash barely last more than two minutes. Bringing whips to a laser fight may look cool, but it’s not particularly intimidating.
Part of this lack of a compelling threat is a result of how scattered the film’s story is. There are a LOT of characters and plots spinning around in Iron Man 2 that fail to cohere into a strong whole. The government pressure put on Stark Industries varies sporadically over the course of the film and an inspiredly cast John Slattery is wasted in two brief appearances as Howard Stark. S.H.I.E.L.D. is thrust into the film at the midway point as little more than a blunt teaser for The Avengers. Meanwhile, as much as the film is about how Iron Man fits in the world, the movie’s own stance on the issue is muddled. Tony continues to argue only he can handle the suit even when faced with more and more examples of the technology spreading, and there are times when it’s unclear whether the audience is intended to take Rhodey or Pepper’s side instead of Stark’s. There’s a compelling amount of ambiguity to be mined out of whether it is in the world’s best interest to have Iron Man be privatized or government-sanctioned, but Iron Man 2 ends up handling the topic so noncomittally its unclear whether or not the filmmakers really intended to get into this debate.
Despite all these issues, Iron Man 2 remains extremely entertaining. It’s one of the more casually rewatchable superhero sequels, and when one considers how many new MCU elements the movie had to set up and that it was released just two years after the first installment, it’s remarkable that the film holds together as well as it does. But it never attempts to push itself beyond what worked in Iron Man and leaves us with a film that is good, but could have been great. Still, Iron Man 2 is a fun way to spend two hours, even if it’s the most disposable of Marvel’s strong crop.