Without a doubt, Iron Man 2 is incredibly despised by the public, which is strange considering it’s praised by the critics. Is this a Rotten Tomatoes conspiracy? I mean, they have yet to pan a Marvel movie, yet have only praised one DC film (fun fact: Warner Brother is a minority share holder, under the majority owner Comcast). At the time of release, Iron Man 2 was another disposable Hollywood blockbuster, but this was before The Avengers turned Marvel into a tour de force. Not only do I think that Iron Man 2 is another of the underrated Marvel films (I will get to the not-so-great Marvel films later) but I think it fails only in expectation.
When I say Iron Man 2 is despised by the public, it is a great exaggeration. Iron Man 2, in my opinion (which is usually correct) was part of an anomaly, which is the Iron Man trilogy, which I will elaborate on when I write about Iron Man 3. Iron Man comes on the heels of terrible Marvel based films such as: X Men 3, Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four 2, so the bar was set low. Iron Man succeeds because of a fun cast, good special effects and a simple, grounded story. Iron Man 2 had a huge hurdle to leap over, in that it followed Iron Man, and I think this was the problem.
So the problems were in two areas: number one, the villain. Whiplash, with an excellent gonzo performance by Mickey Rourke, was not a villain, but a plot device. The audience wanted a clear villain, as part of the simple summer blockbuster. Number two, a change in formula. So now we have become accustomed to the Marvel formula, and Iron Man 2 tested the waters. The film was all character development, and experimented with expanding the MCU balloon. Since IM2, Marvel has scaled these back.
Iron Man 2 is a superior film to the first. Iron Man is a film about a selfish, spoiled, too big for his britches, genius, who learns that the world is bigger than him and must find a higher purpose for himself. Iron Man 2 is about said man who has to learn to live with that burden, quite literally I might add. Iron Man is a unique series, in that the stories focus on Tony and his relationship with Iron Man, not the people around him. A defining characteristic of Tony is his narcissism, so of course his conflict is with his alter ego, the Iron Man suit.
Like I mentioned previously, Whiplash is not the villain, nor is Justin Hammer, but the Iron Man suit, itself. The arc reactor that is keeping Tony alive, is also killing him, so the entire second act of the movie Tony is poised with the challenge of solving the riddle left by his father. Many people pan the second act of the film as being sluggish, or dragging on, but I say this is where the film shines, and separates from the rest of the MCU, and becomes more that disposable action fare. Tony’s primary personality issue stems from his strained relationship with his father, who chose work over Tony. But in a heart-wrenching revelation found in an old film can, Howard Stark reveals that everything he has ever done was to better the future for his son, Tony, calling him his greatest creation. It’s an incredibly touching moment, that gets me teared up, even at the thought of it, and gives a reflection of Tony and Howard.
Now, for the most panned aspect of the film (maybe entire series): the third act. The entire film is building up to the showdown between Tony and Whiplash, right? So when Tony and Rhodey kill him immediately, is it incredibly anti-climactic? Not exactly. Earlier, I brought up that Whiplash is a plot device, over a villain, which is true. Sure, you can use adjectives to describe Whiplash, like he’s a character, but that’s just a sleight-of-hand from the filmmakers to keep you from realizing that Tony’s demons, and insecurities from paternal issues are the real bad guy.
Whiplash is the motivation to kick Tony’s butt into gear to discover what his daddy had been working on, years later. Does that excuse a lazy final stand off? Of course not. The lazy defeat of Whiplash was a cheap way of tying up that loose end. Our real finale of the film is the drone chase at the Stark expo, which leads to the Rhodey wearing the War Machine armor and finally getting to throw down with Tony. The filmmakers were certainly capable of staging a big and clever action sequence with Whiplash, as evidenced by the other action sequences in the film, but I think we (the audience) would have become bored. Too much action causes sensory overload, especially in a light-hearted, character-driven, drama, disguised as a sci-fi action film. The series isn’t about blowing things up and big epic battles, but it needs to masquerade as such to fill seats, but I won’t complain about that.
All this being said, would you consider this to be a bad film? Sure it has flaws, but it isn’t Frailty. The Iron Man series has the unique benefit of being led by Robert Downey Jr. who brings life to a character that is, in many ways, a dark caricature of himself. It’s a film about insecurities of a man that stem from a lack of paternal closure. It really is only hurt by the movie that preceded it, and a lack of fair judgment, due to blockbusters not obtaining repeat viewings. I was lukewarm to this film on release, but repeat viewings have allowed me to get a grasp on the story, and the message. It is a touching and smart film, with modest action, that is driven home by performances.
Give this film another go with the mindset of it being its own product, rather than part of a larger universe.