4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“I’m going to have to ask you to exit the donut” — Iron Man 2

One thing that made the release of Iron Man a bit of a risk was that Iron Man has always been a B-list Marvel character. Important enough in the grand scheme of things to be a major player, but not someone who had impinged much on the popular consciousness beyond comics readers. Spider-Man, thanks to three successful animated series and his use in The Electric Company kids show in the 1970s, and the X-Men, thanks to their immense popularity in comics as well as a hit animated series of their own, had a Q-rating outside comics readers. So did the Hulk, thanks to the Bill Bixby TV show and followup movies. Indeed, going into 2008, Iron Man was a much bigger risk in most people’s eyes than The Incredible Hulk.

Then 2008 actually happened, and by 2010, everyone was waiting for an Iron Man sequel…

Where the first movie took dual inspiration from the character’s 1963 origin and the 1980s storyline involving Obadiah Stane’s dismantling of Stark’s life, this second movie went back to the late 1960s and 1970s for inspiration, using two of Iron Man’s villains of the era, Whiplash and Justin Hammer, as well as copious use of S.H.I.E.L.D. Tony Stark was established as a major part of S.H.I.E.L.D. when the spy organization was introduced in 1965, and S.H.I.E.L.D. has remained a supporting presence in ShellHead’s comics ever since.

The second movie in particular feels like it was right out of the David Michelinie/John Romita Jr./Bob Layton era of the comics—when Hammer was a major bad guy of Iron Man’s—and it’s worth mentioning that initially director Jon Favreau, star Robert Downey Jr., and screenwriter Justin Theroux considered adapting the “Demon in a Bottle” story that Michelinie et al did, which established Stark’s alcoholism.

This movie also introduced two new heroes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the Black Widow and War Machine, both characters who originally debuted in Iron Man comics.

War Machine was set up in the previous movie with the use of the character of James Rhodes. An Air Force colonel in the movies, in the comics he was initially introduced in Iron Man #116 as Stark’s pilot, and in Iron Man #144 was retconned into Iron Man’s origin as the pilot who flew Iron Man out of Vietnam after he escaped from imprisonment by Wong-Chu in Tales of Suspense #39.

In the very same storyline that gave us Stane, Stark descended into alcoholism, to the point that Rhodes wound up having to take over as Iron Man. Even after Stark was eventually able to get back on the wagon, Rhodes continued as Iron Man, participating in the Secret Wars event and becoming a founding member of the West Coast Avengers.

Eventually, Stark wound up back in the armor, but unlike most status quo restorations in comics, this one proved less popular because Rhodes as Iron Man had actually been rather successful. Later on, Stark faked his death, leaving Rhodes to take over as Iron Man again, as well as head of Stark Enterprises. When Stark revealed his deception, Rhodes got pissed, but Stark let him keep the armor he’d been using, and he changed his name to War Machine. From that point forward, Marvel was able to eat its cake and have it too, with both Stark and Rhodes as armored heroes. The MCU, starting with this movie, did likewise, as Rhodes, now played by Don Cheadle after a rather acrimonious split with Terrence Howard, has continued to appear in the MCU after this, in Iron Man 3, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War and its forthcoming sequel.

Natasha Romanova first appeared as a Soviet spy in Tales of Suspense #52. She was a recurring antagonist for Iron Man, along with a former carny she seduced named Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye. Both Romanova and Barton eventually switched sides, becoming heroes and allies. In her initial appearance, Romanova was going after a scientist named Anton Vanko, who was also the Soviet armored adventurer known as the Crimson Dynamo. Iron Man 2 opted to fold Vanko together with the villain Whiplash—in the comics, Whiplash was named Marco Scarlotti, and he worked for the mob—and later the comics would bring this version of Whiplash (with no relation to the other Vanko) to the mainline canon.

Romanova was originally to be played by Emily Blunt, but she was unavailable for filming, so was replaced with Scarlett Johansson, who has also appeared in Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel. That she hasn’t yet gotten her own movie remains utterly inexplicable, though that’s allegedly being rectified.

Downey Jr. as Stark, Favreau as Happy Hogan, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Leslie Bibb as Christine Everhart, Paul Bettany as J.A.R.V.I.S., and Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson all return from the previous film. Newly cast, besides Cheadle and Johansson, are Sam Rockwell as Hammer, Mickey Rourke as Vanko, John Slattery as Howard Stark, and Garry Shandling as Senator Stern. Elon Musk also makes a cameo as himself.

Downey Jr., Johansson, Paltrow, and Bettany will next appear in Avengers. Jackson and Gregg will next appear in Thor. The character of Howard Stark will next be seen as a much younger man during World War II and its aftermath played by Dominic Cooper in Captain America: The First Avenger and the TV series Agent Carter, while Slattery will return to the role of the older version of Howard in Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War. Rockwell will return in the one-shot All Hail the King, and Shandling will be back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

 

“Not everyone runs on batteries, Tony”

Iron Man 2
Written by Justin Theroux
Directed by Jon Favreau
Produced by Kevin Feige
Original release date: May 7, 2010

In Russia, Anton Vanko and his son Ivan are watching Tony Stark’s press conference from the end of Iron Man. Anton dies, and the younger Vanko starts working on an ARC reactor based on the original blueprints, which he has a copy of, and which has the names Anton Vanko and Howard Stark on it.

Six months later, Stark hosts the opening of the Stark Expo, a year-long World’s Fair-style science exhibition held in Queens, New York. (If you look carefully, you can see the unisphere and the two spaceships from Men in Black.) The last Stark Expo was hosted by Howard in 1974, and Stark even plays the intro film his father showed back then.

Stark is also concerned because his blood toxicity level is high. The only power source for the small reactor in his chest that works is palladium, which is slowly killing him. It’s one reason why the large-scale reactor was never practical. He hasn’t actually told anyone about this.

He and Happy Hogan head out in one of his new cars, but are intercepted by a very lovely woman, who gets Stark’s attention long enough for her to serve him. He’s been subpoenaed by the U.S. Senate.

In Washington, he’s grilled by Senator Stern, who wants him to turn the “Iron Man weapon” over to the government. Stark refuses, saying it’s his property, and that he’s privatized world peace. Both Jim Rhodes and Justin Hammer are brought in as witnesses, the former to Stark’s lack of being fit to be a full-time asset of the government, the latter as the government’s new big weapons contractor since Stark stopped making weapons. Stark shows how incompetent Hammer is—including his trying to sell knock-off Iron Man armor to America’s enemies—and Stark leaves the hearing triumphantly even as Stern tosses profanities at him. Stark testifies before the Senate committee (and all the cameras) that the rest of the world is 5-20 years away from achieving this technology.

Pepper Potts tries to get Stark to focus on the company, which is in free-fall after the hearing, and his solution is to make her CEO. Potts is flabbergasted, but goes along with it, and gets Natalie Rushman from legal to prepare the paperwork, which Stark signs while working with Hogan on boxing. Stark flirts with Rushman, who puts Hogan on the floor when they’re in the ring together. Stark immediately hires her as his personal assistant, to Potts’s chagrin.

Stark goes to Monaco for the Grand Prix Monaco Historique, where one of his cars is in the race. Also present are Elon Musk, Larry King (who looks just like Stan Lee), and Hammer, who is being interviewed by Christine Everhart.

In the interests of showing up Hammer, Stark fires his driver and decides to race his stock car himself.

Also present is Vanko, who has spent the last half-year creating electric whips powered by an ARC reactor of his own design. He walks onto the race track and uses the whips to destroy one car, cause others to crash, and eventually slice Stark’s car in twain. Hogan and Potts take the Iron Man armor, which is in briefcase form, out onto the track. Hogan slams the car into Vanko several times, but his armor holds up to the punishment. Eventually, Stark gets the briefcase and armors up, making short work of Vanko.

However, Vanko doesn’t mind being captured, because he’s accomplished what he set out to do: show that Stark was wrong in what he said to Congress about the technology. Stark is able to visit Vanko in prison, where he gives him advice about cycle rate, and Vanko returns the favor by saying that the Stark family stole from the Vanko family.

Hammer watched Vanko’s demonstration at the racetrack and immediately moves to get him broken out of jail, the body of another inmate subbed in for his to die in an explosion. He then has Vanko create Iron Man-style armor for him to sell to the U.S. government.

Stark has become more unstable, the palladium poisoning getting worse. He holds a birthday party at which he gets spectacularly drunk while wearing the armor. Rhodes shows up, having just assured the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Stark is fine, only to find him using his repulsors to blow up bottles of liquor. Fed up, Rhodes goes to the basement of the house and puts on one of the alternate armors, which is silver. The two of them get into a major fight, badly damaging the house. Rhodes flies off and turns the armor over to the Air Force. Stark flies off and eats a donut.

Nick Fury confronts him in the donut shop, with the help of “Rushman,” really S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Natasha Romanoff. Stark is grumpy at having a deep-cover agent assigned to him. Fury is less than impressed that Iron Man managed to let his best friend just walk off with a suit of armor like that. He also reveals that he knew Howard, and that Howard in fact co-founded S.H.I.E.L.D. All Stark remembers of his father was that he barely paid any attention to his son. Fury leaves Stark with a case full of Howard’s stuff, including the raw footage of his Stark Expo intro film, including some drunken outtakes.

Along the way, he comes across a message Howard recorded for Tony: the technology isn’t far enough along for him to take the final step for the ARC reactor, but he’s hoping that his son will live long enough to be able to manage it. The Stark Expo, he says, is for him.

Stark slips his S.H.I.E.L.D. minders (one of whom is Phil Coulson, though he slipped when Coulson was off duty) to talk to Potts, and he tries to tell her that he’s dying, but she’s too pissed at how much crap she has to deal with as CEO that he never gets to tell her. It doesn’t help that he got her strawberries—the one food she’s allergic to. (He knew she was associated with strawberries in some way, he just got it backwards.)

Potts and “Rushman” leave with Hogan to fly to New York for Hammer’s presentation at the Stark Expo. Stark sees the map of the Stark Expo on the wall and realizes that the pattern of the buildings is an atomic structure. It’s the element that is needed to power the ARC reactor. J.A.R.V.I.S. is able to fabricate the element and Stark applies it to the reactor in his heart. (In the midst of this, Coulson reveals he’s been called away to New Mexico.)

The Air Force calls in Hammer to work on the Iron Man armor that Rhodes brought in. He adds a ton of weapons to it, and also is fed up with Vanko dicking around with the technology. He imprisons Vanko and goes to the Stark Expo to present the drones (his design, but heavily worked on by Vanko) and the War Machine armor (the modified Iron Man suit worn by Rhodes).

Vanko, however, escapes captivity, er, somehow. First he calls Stark to taunt him that he’s going to destroy the Expo, which gets him to fly across country to New York, then he takes over both the War Machine armor and Hammer’s drones. Potts works to evacuate the Expo from the drones that are firing on the crowds. Romanoff commandeers Hogan and has him drive her to Hammer’s headquarters in Flushing. Stark leads the drones and the helpless Rhodes away from the people, and manages to destroy a whole mess of them.

Romanoff kicks all the ass, taking out about a dozen of Hammer’s security goons singlehandedly in less time than it takes Hogan to subdue just one of them with his mad boxing skillz. She’s able to reboot Rhodes’s armor, giving him control back, but she can’t take control of the drones, the last of which are converging on our armored heroes. (Along the way, Romanoff offhandedly comments that Stark isn’t dying anymore, and Potts is on the line, and she’s rather appalled to learn that Stark was ever dying.)

Vanko shows up in a suit of armor of his own, but Stark and Rhodes are able to subdue him. As he lays on the ground in broken armor, Vanko says, “You lose,” and then red lights go off on all the drones and on Vanko’s armor: they’re going to blow. Potts has helped the NYPD evacuate the Expo, so no innocents will die—except Potts herself, until Stark manages to save her at the last minute. She claims she’s going to quit and then they kiss, and it’s all very cute. Rhodes also makes it clear he’s keeping the War Machine armor.

Stark meets with Fury, who makes it clear that he’s not really fit for the Avengers Initiative. But he’d like to keep him on as a consultant. Stark points out that Fury can’t afford his consulting fee—but he’d be willing to waive it for a favor.

Fury pulls some strings, and gets Senator Stern to present Rhodes and Stark with their Congressional Medals of Honor. Stern hates every nanosecond of it, to Stark’s enjoyment, though Stern does prick Stark with the pin.

Meanwhile, Coulson arrives in New Mexico to find a big crater in the middle of the desert, at the center of which is a very funky-looking hammer…

 

“Funny how annoying a little prick can be”

This movie does a wonderful job of picking up on the character beats from the previous film, of showing the greater tapestry of the MCU’s setup, particularly with regard to the Stark family and S.H.I.E.L.D., and gives us some great character set pieces.

The latter, in particular, make the movie shine. So many great double acts here: Stark and Rhodes, Stark and Potts, Stark and Fury, Stark and Coulson (every time I hear Coulson’s line about how if Stark gets out of line he’ll taze him and watch Supernanny while he drools on the carpet, I giggle), Stark and Hammer (Sam Rockwell is inspired casting for Hammer, playing him as a rich dudebro who can’t get out of his own way), Hammer and Vanko, Potts and Hogan, Hogan and Romanoff, Potts and Romanoff, Hammer and Rhodes, and so on—even, in an odd way, Stark and his father. Plus there’s the Senate hearing, the very well-filmed action of Vanko’s attack on the Monaco race (though it falls apart when Hogan starts driving the car into Vanko over and over while Potts keeps not giving Stark the armor, as if Favreau temporarily forgot he wasn’t making a comedy), and the general World’s-Fair-on-steroids vibe of the Stark Expo.

Unfortunately, it’s all in service of a movie that doesn’t actually have much by way of a coherent plot. The pathos of the Vanko family is hard to give much of a damn about, especially with Fury making it clear that the elder Vanko tried to sell Stark tech on the black market, which is how he got deported back to the Soviet Union. But while Mickey Rourke does an excellent job with Vanko’s physicality and laconic attitude masking a deep-seated anger, he doesn’t really sell the character’s pathos. A strong villain is one we understand, and it’s just not possible to feel sorry for Vanko as Rourke performs him.

Also, Vanko’s plot, such as it is, is phenomenally stupid. Get his ass kicked on the racetrack just to make Stark look bad? That’s it? If Hammer hadn’t freed him, his real plan would never have kicked in, and that, at least, makes sense—wanting to destroy Stark’s legacy by blowing up Stark Expo and taking innocent lives, using technology pioneered by Stark and perfected by Vanko, based on work done by their fathers. But even then, it all feels perfunctory.

The development of Stark’s relationship with Potts—his complete inability to actually talk to her (or anyone) like a person—is a delight, watching Rhodes try to balance the needs of duty versus his friendship with Stark is compelling (especially with Don Cheadle now in the role), and the whole movie is worth it to see Samuel L. Jackson be Fury for more than half a second, and it’s truly magnificent. In fact, S.H.I.E.L.D. is responsible for most of what’s great in the movie—besides Fury, you’ve got even more of Clark Gregg’s deadpan awesomeness as Coulson, and the triumphant debut of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who here establishes her role in the MCU as one of the few actual grown-ups, a role she will continue to fulfill in subsequent appearances.

The sum of its parts is greater than its whole, but Iron Man 2 remains at least an enjoyable movie, one that continues to at least build the world nicely.

 

Next week we find out what Coulson is after in New Mexico, and how the Norse gods fit into the MCU as we look at Thor.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is a keynote speaker at the Creature, Crimes, and Creativity Conference this weekend in Columbia, Maryland. His full schedule can be found here. Also there are only a couple of days left to support his Kickstarter for the story “The Fall of Iaron,” a tale of the Dragon Precinct universe.

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