As we continue the Journey to Infinity War, in theaters this May, we come to the first sequel. And it arrives at a time when the MCU is still trying to find it's footing. For one reason or another, Iron Man 2 has always been one of those movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that gets a reasonable amount of hate. Or, at the very least, it's really not looked upon favorably. Taking a look back at it now, knowing where the MCU is currently at, this is a sequel that doesn't quite live up to its predecessor, but is probably a whole lot better than you remember, no matter which side of the coin you fall on, be it a defender or a detractor.
So far we've looked at the first true MCU movie, which was Iron Man, arriving in 2008. It was a massive hit with critics and fans alike. Then last week we came to the second movie in Phase One, The Incredible Hulk. Neither movie was released by Disney. Iron Man arrived from Paramount, and The Incredible Hulk, a character that is still housed at Universal, came as the odd man out. There were a lot of bumps in the road during those early days. That brings us to Iron Man 2, which was also released by Paramount, with the mouse house not yet in control of Marvel Studios.
I, for one, have always enjoyed Iron Man 2. I distinctly remember getting very excited about the fact that the MCU as we know it now was coming together and that these movies were going to start connecting with one another, leading up to The Avengers. The main problem is that this movie is following in the footsteps of the first Iron Man, which is still one of the MCU's finest and quite easily one of the best superhero movies ever made. That puts a lot of pressure on a sequel. Especially one that, for the first time in the history of this franchise, is trying to build out the universe for the future in something other than a post-credits scene.
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This movie does an awful lot to help lay the groundwork for the MCU to come. Not just Phase 1, but really, it even lays a lot of the track that would eventually lead us to the conflict in Captain America: Civil War. It's little things, like the excellent Captain America Easter egg when Phil Coulson holds up that ridiculous looking partial shield, or by really laying out that Tony Stark, from here on out, will be driven by two things; balancing his legacy and the threat of his own mortality. We also have the first seeds of superheroes' actions having real-world consequences, which is really the crux of what gets Civil War going.
But not even thinking that far ahead, there are some very obvious, surface-level things that director Jon Favreau weaves into Iron Man 2 that really build out the universe. We get some proper Nick Fury action, we see just how powerful and well-connected S.H.I.E.L.D. really is, Rhodey becomes War Machine and, easily the most important thing this movie does, Scarlett Johansson is introduced as Black Widow. Whatever issues one has with this movie can and should be set aside for that reason alone. It's a great introduction to the character that Marvel fans all around the world have a great fondness for now. A fondness that has pretty much willed the upcoming Black Widow solo movie into existence.
Still, all of this world building does come at a bit of a cost. This is perhaps a case of "more is better" mentality that often plagues sequels. Iron Man 2 goes bigger with its villains by bringing in Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer and Mickey Rourke, who, at the time, had just revived his career with The Wrestler, as a bizarre combination of Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo. That's a big sticking point for many Marvel Comics die hards, but odds are, most people had never heard of either character prior to this movie. This movie also goes bigger with its scope, with its world building and with the stakes, as Tony Stark has to literally invent a new element to keep himself alive. Yes, the whole blood toxicity thing might be a bit unnecessary in the eyes of many. No question, that clutters things up a bit, which is an understandable place to start when trying to understand why this movie doesn't get more love. And let's not forget that awful scene where Tony pees himself in the Iron Man suit at his birthday party. I fault nobody for indulging in some aggressive facepalm action after that.
Clutter aside, there's a lot to love here. For one, the Monaco racetrack scene is an outstanding action set piece and one that is still incredibly effective today. It hasn't aged a day. Also, let's not sleep on Sam Rockwell. The dude is one of the best actors working today and has been for a long time. It's just a shame that he wasn't able to show up in more movies in the MCU as Justin Hammer, because he really nails it. Unfortunately, he was sharing bad guy duties with Mickey Rourke, who is kind of just there and is kind of just fine in this movie. But he's the muscle needed to bring the action-packed third act home. And that final back-to-back fight with War Machine and Iron Man is pretty fun.
Iron Man 2 really plays like a fun, imperfect superhero movie that was burdened by the road ahead. It also doesn't help, in hindsight, that other sequels like Captain America: The Winter Soldier would go on to dramatically improve upon their predecessors. But what would The Winter Soldier be without Garry Shandling as Senator Stern? He's teed up in this movie quite nicely for what he ultimately becomes later. We also get our first movie with Don Cheadle as Rhodey and I think we can all agree that's one in the plus column.
There are also some kind of interesting cameos sprinkled in here, aside from Stan Lee's great cameo as Larry King. Olivia Wilde shows up as a news reporter for a hot second and Kate Mara, who would go on to become a massive star in the years following this movie, plays the agent who serves Tony Stark his subpoena. There's also that kind of forced and pretty unnecessary Elon Musk cameo, but it's easy to see why, on paper, it seemed like a fun idea. Do these things really affect the overall quality of Iron Man 2? Not so much, but hey, they're part of it.
For what it's worth, Iron Man 2 has a 73 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes from critics and a 72 percent audience score. Prior to Wonder Woman, DC would have killed for that kind of approval. And yet, this is considered one of the lesser MCU movies. It just goes to show that Marvel really managed to establish a gold standard for themselves pretty quickly. Perhaps the line Tony Stark gives to the Senate committee toward the beginning of the movie best embodies what this movie's place in the MCU, when considering the time in which it was released: "What more do you want? For now."