This is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Retrospective series (ie. a sane person's marathon of the MCU). All entries can be accessed by clicking here.
Director: Jon Favreau
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 73%
Domestic Gross: $312,433,331; International Gross: $311,500,000; Total: $623,933,331
The first sequel film in the MCU might not seem overly important in the grand scheme of things, but it's a fun ride with a bit more significance than one might think. With Iron Man 2, we get the glorious return of Tony Stark, complete with the surefire confidence and wit that audiences have come to adore. This comes after a 2-year hiatus since the last Marvel film, which would become the longest break between 2 films in the MCU as 2010 was right at the cusp of Kevin Feige’s entertainment empire starting to take hold of Hollywood. Between 2008’s release of Iron Man and the summer of 2010, we got Punisher: War Zone, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Watchmen and Jonah Hex (later in the summer). Yeah, overall, the comic book movie world was not doing too great. In a rather lacklustre crowd of films (and you can include The Incredible Hulk to that list too since it came out a month after the first Iron Man film), did Iron Man 2 break through this mould of mediocrity?
By all accounts, the answer is yes. Iron Man 2 isn’t exceptional by any means, but it’s still a solid ride from beginning to end, and a boost of confidence for the early stages of the MCU. Even though the first Iron Man was a slam-dunk, releasing The Incredible Hulk one month later didn’t leave the greatest aftertaste for Marvel’s fan base. Sure, people were excited about the possibility of an Avengers movie, but the Hulk probably inadvertently smashed up some of those dreams. Which is why Iron Man 2 deserves more credit than it tends to receive. This is a film that instilled confidence to a budding franchise, and squashed any qualms or uncertainties viewers might’ve had. Even though it didn’t really introduce too many new characters (with the exception of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow), it solidified Marvel as a studio that could produce solid pieces of entertainment. Two films might not be enough for certain people to merit a badge of consistency, but for any Marvel fan who had been hoping for success since the very beginning, two films is more than sufficient.
Breaking things down, the introduction of Black Widow has got to be the most important contributions of Iron Man 2. Even though that hallway fight scene was spoiled in the trailers, seeing it for the first time (and even on repeat viewing) marks a clear point of importance for the MCU. It’s the first time we see a female character kick ass, and although female representation on the superhero front is still rather weak in the MCU, things are certainly changing (with Thor: Ragnarok probably being the peak of things so far). Another character worth mentioning is War Machine, and as much as I liked Terrence Howard’s portrayal of James Rhodes, Don Cheadle seems a better fit when it comes to exchanging banter with Robert Downey Jr. Although not nearly as significant as replacing Ed Norton with Mark Ruffalo, still a good move by Marvel nonetheless. And let's not forget about Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury in his first non post-credit appearance. Not that anyone would've doubted Jackson in the first place, but this certainly anchored his presence (a welcomed one, I should add) in the MCU.
I won’t harp on how good Robert Downey Jr. is as Tony Stark, except to say that he is of course perfect for this role. What I will harp on, however, is Mickey Rourke’s ridiculous Russian villain. I liked Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane, and if you ignore The Incredible Hulk like we’re supposed to, this really was the start of the MCU’s villain problem. Or more specifically, its problem of having lame villains that become forgettable by the end of a film. Although in this particular instance, Rourke’s performance (and character, really) is so odd that it’s one you end up not forgetting. Were they trying to emulate a Mike Tyson vibe by doing the whole talking to birds thing? Who knows.
But by acknowledging the MCU’s villain problem here, I also want to acknowledge that the villain often doesn’t matter in a Marvel film. Even though you might not care for the villain itself, you care for the primary superhero and that is always what drives the film. It doesn’t matter that the villain sucks, because Iron Man (and the other members of the MCU) is what you really came for. To me, that’s a true testament to the strength of Marvel’s superheroes. That even in the face of subpar nemeses, you never become disengaged with the film as a whole. The protagonists are all just too strong.
Of course, having uninspired villains does eventually catch up to the franchise, but that seems to fix itself as well later on. But I’m jumping ahead here by way too many films. This might also be a good time to draw comparisons with the DC universe, but that will put me on a steep tangent so I'll defer that to another post. The bottom line is that Iron Man 2 is an important entry into the MCU, and really the official start of what many hoped to be serious franchise material. It might not be as good or significant as the first film, but in its own way, it was pretty damn important.