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Iron Man 2 (2010)

Rating: *** out of 4

"You come from a family of Thieves and butchers, and like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your history, to forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed…. If you could make God bleed, people would cease to believe in Him. There will be blood in the water, the sharks will come. All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you.” - Ivan Vanko

“I’m not saying I’m responsible for this country’s longest run of uninterrupted peace in 35 years! I’m not saying that from the ashes of captivity, never has a Phoenix metaphor been more personified! I’m not saying Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea, because I haven’t come across anyone man enough to go toe to toe with me on my best day! It’s not about me…. It’s about legacy, the legacy left behind for future generations.” – Tony Stark

“We all know why we’re here – in the last six months Anthony Stark has created a sword with untold possibilities, and yet he insists it’s a shield. He asks that we trust him as we cower behind it.” – Justin Hammer

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, and Sam Rockwell.

Writer: Justin Theroux

Director: Jon Favreau (and Kenneth Branagh uncredited)

When Iron Man 2 first came out, the response was somewhat lackluster. It was written off as a feature length glorified trailer for the forthcoming Avengers film; a criticism that holds a lot of truth. Yet, this is a film that works with the benefit of having hindsight. What seemed dismissible at the time, actually holds many key components to the structural integrity of the whole MCU. This film sets up dominoes that don’t get payoffs until Thor, The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Captain America - The Winter Soldier, Avengers – Age of Ultron and the core debate presented by the villainous Justin Hammer and Senator Stern becomes the main focus of Tony Stark’s position in Captain America – Civil War. None of these films work as well without Iron Man 2. The problem with the grand plotting/world building is that it comes at the expense of a focused narrative.

The film picks up at the moment the first film concludes with a shift of perspective. That shift brings us to Ivan and Anton Vanko who had been slighted by Howard Stark decades ago when he stole sole credit for building the Arc Reactor technology. Anton slips into death at the knowledge that this tech is now powering Stark’s son, so his son vows vengeance by using Stark’s own tech against him when he builds his own suit powered by a facsimile Arc Reactor. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is concerned that Stark is unfit to use the suit and wants him to hand it over for military needs as Stark acts of his own accord and has no accountability. When Stark refuses, they turn to a rival industrialist – Justin Hammer – to have him build suits for military use. Hammer is unable to provide so he teams up with Vanko to deliver the suits. All the while, Stark is slowly being poisoned by the Arc Reactor and finds unlikely help from Nick Fury and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. who are trying to keep Tony in the hero game, but his erratic activity may be his undoing.

As you can see, the movie works hard to juggle a lot of stories and it is inevitable that some of these are dropped or yield little pay off. Oddly, the first 30 minutes of this film are stellar and the film works very hard to deliver a great villain in Ivan Vanko’s Whiplash…at least in the beginning. After a tremendous scene on a Monaco race track, his presence all but drops from the film until the climax which renders him a relatively unimpressive villain. Giving credit where it is due, Mickey Rourke does a great job. You just get the feeling that a lot of his material hit the cutting room floor.

The story threads with the senate and Justin Hammer really gel. Sam Rockwell’s performance as Hammer is so damn winning. He steals every scene and delivers some of the best lines in the film. Gotta love that scene where Hammer tries to sell Rhodes his weapons. The plot with the Stark Expo is one of the best executed; tying in Howard Stark and his relationship with Tony. It works in a way that emotionally resonates without being over dramatic. The plot where Pepper takes over Stark Industries and enlists the help of Black Widow almost falls flat, but Downey and Paltrow are so good that they are able to sell it well enough. And, the stuff with Nick Fury, S.H.E.I.L.D., and the Avenger Initiative works but by the point it is introduced, the audience has been trying to follow all of these other stories that they care little for the forthcoming movie. This is ultimately the film’s downfall.

The film suffers from a general lack of focus. On one hand, it is trying to recapture lightning in a bottle (while making a statement about doing so…we will come back to that) and follow the tone and general excitement the first film brought to the table. The film is also trying to adhere to audience demands for a villain who can match The Dark Knight’s Joker, as Heath Ledger was still very much on the mind when this debuted. With a richer villain comes a darker story approach that is at conflict with the tone the film wants to take, so it is at a constant war with itself. Never is this more apparent than when Stark tanks his own party in a scene that is inarguably out of place and mishandled. A damn shame that this is how War Machine is fully introduced. Lastly, it is trying to get people pumped for The Avengers and really sell the idea of a movie featuring many dynamic heroes fighting the same fight. The Avenger stuff sticks out like a sore thumb as being unnecessary for the film unfolding and you get the sense that it is only there because the suits at Marvel deemed it pivotal. This is not the first time that studio interference would harm the movie at hand to get people excited about a property still forthcoming. It is very apparent that none of the trivial stuff was of importance to Favreau when making this movie and that he really wanted to make a movie about Imitation and Legacy.

The film works best when it dissects the concept of the cheapness of Imitation and the film can be viewed from a slightly meta lens. When Iron Man debuted, it was fresh, poppy and felt new. Imitations were inevitable (and we have gotten many), yet they feel mostly inauthentic and have never been able to recreate the lightening in the bottle. It does not go unnoticed that that is the core concept for this film. Stark arrived on the scene with his suit and dazzled the world, but it was only a matter of time before someone else would try to do the same and Stark battles another suited foe who feels like nothing more than a cheap imitation. Moving on to Legacy; how do you move forward after you have done great things? What statement do you want to ultimately leave behind? What do you want your legacy to be? It feels like the filmmakers were really struggling with where Tony should go next and opted to explore this feeling as the general theme for the film and it pays off nicely and yet, at the time felt unearned. Looking back, it fits in totally and tonally with Stark’s journey into the final Avengers films. You just didn’t see it at the time because you hadn’t moved beyond this entry.

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