Today (May 7) marks the tenth anniversary of one of the more unfairly maligned films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: 2010’s Iron Man 2, the third film in the MCU (following 2008’s Iron Man and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk). The first Iron Man was a surprise hit: while other Marvel characters had fared well on the silver screen (notably the X-Men, Blade and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man) there were tons of flops: Daredevil, Hulk, the Punisher, Elektra, the Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider. Iron Man didn’t have the recognition factor of other Marvel characters like Spider-Man, Hulk or Wolverine.
In 2008, Robert Downey Jr. was hardly the type of star you’d hang a multi-million (or multi-billion) dollar franchise on. Sure, he was a respected actor, but he hadn’t been a leading man in a hit for a long time. Likewise, John Favreau was still thought of as an actor more than a director, despite having helmed a classic indie film (2001’s Made) and a holiday classic (2003’s Elf, starring Will Ferrell). But Downey was the perfect actor to play Iron Man’s Tony Stark — he even physically resembled him. And Favreau was the perfect director: he had obvious respect for the genre and source material, but he knew that to be a success, the film had to have a heart, and also a sense of humor.
The film worked on every level, establishing Iron Man/Tony Stark as an iconic Marvel character, and to many, Downey was Stark. Jeff Bridges was a surprising choice as the bad guy Obadiah Stane, and Gweneth Paltrow flexed her comedic muscles in a way that she hadn’t had an opportunity to before. And Samuel L. Jackson’s post-credits cameo as Nick Fury helped to set up the greater Marvel Universe.
Iron Man more than doubled its $140 million budget with it’s $318 million domestic gross; worldwide, it made over $585 million (all figures courtesy of Box Office Mojo). Meanwhile, it got at 94% “Certified Fresh” ranking on Rotten Tomatoes‘ “Tomatometer” and a 91% audience approval score. Ask any musician who scores big on a debut album; the sophomore slump is real.
Iron Man 2 topped his predecessor’s box office, earning nearly $624 million, but critics and fans didn’t respond as well; it got a 73% positive score with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and 71% with fans. And the critics haven’t warmed to it over the years: Vox ranked it at #21 out of Marvel’s 23 films to date, above only The Incredible Hulk and 2013’s Thor: Dark World. Collider, meanwhile, ranked it as the worst of the Marvel films (somehow, Iron Man 3 was all the way up at number 10). Rotten Tomatoes also put it at #21 (again, above The Incredible Hulk and Thor: Dark World). Wired UK put it at #20 (above Iron Man 3 and yep, The Incredible Hulk and Thor: Dark World.
OK: Iron Man 2 did a lot of things well, but it wasn’t perfect. The first flaw was obvious: Terrence Howard, who played James “Rhodey” Rhodes in Iron Man didn’t return for the sequel; he was replaced by Don Cheadle, who donned the War Machine armor, and who has played the character ever since. While jarring at first, it turned out to be a plus: Cheadle and Downey had way more chemistry than Howard and Downey did. Cheadle has the perfect amount of snark and comic timing for the role, and more than held his own alongside Stark and the Avengers in five subsequent films.
The main villain this time around was Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko (a sort of mashup of the characters Whiplash and the Crimson Dynamo), played by Mickey Rourke, coming off of what was one of his greatest performances in 2008’s The Wrestler. His performance as Vanko wasn’t as subtle, nor should it have been; anyone comparing Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko to Randy “The Ram” Robinson is just looking for things to complain about.
Another criticism was that the movie was trying to do too many things at once. That happens with a lot of films in the MCU; either you’re thrilled by movies that reference other movies and point to the next few, or you’re not. But that’s something that Marvel comics have always done. Still, hearing Clark Gregg’s SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson basically telling Tony Stark that he’s leaving to go to New Mexico to kick start the Thor franchise was, admittedly, a bit weird and awkward. The post-credits scene where Coulson spots Thor’s hammer Mjölnir was more than enough to whip audiences into a frenzy for that franchise.
One of the areas where Marvel comics has topped its rival DC is that it has been able to make the characters believable. You might be able to suspend disbelief in order to accept that, for instance, a “super serum” can make a 90-pound guy into America’s greatest warrior, and then he could survive being frozen in ice for decades, or that “gamma rays” could turn a scientist into a split personality who shares a body with a raging behemoth, or that being bitten by a “radioactive” spider can give you the abilities of a spider. But after those things happened, how would they act? How would they incorporate their powers and their experiences into their lives? A big part of the magic has always been in the stories of Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner and Peter Parker.
Tony Stark has always been one of Marvel’s most fascinating characters: he doesn’t struggle with being either a millionaire or a guy with a suit that makes him appear much more powerful than everybody else: he loves both of those things. His main struggle was with alcohol (which was only touched upon in Iron Man 2), but he was believable and Robert Downey Jr. embodied him perfectly, both in and out of the armor, as he does in this scene where Iron Man makes his entrance at StarkExpo:
Iron Man 2 further developed his relationship with Pepper Potts and RDJ and Gwenyth Paltrow has serious chemistry (it’s surprising that they haven’t co-starred in non-MCU films); it gave Happy Hogan (played by director Jon Favreau) some great scenes, and — crucially — introduced Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow (played expertly by Scarlett Johansson). It also gave Jackson’s Fury a bit more screen time (they never give us enough Fury).
And even those who didn’t love Rourke’s turn as Vanko had to be charmed by Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, a wanna-be rival of Tony Stark. But the highlights of the film were RDJ’s scenes as Stark, who he played with maximum swagger; it was fun to watch him having so much fun playing a guy having a blast being a millionaire and a superhero, even as he was reckoning with his possible death.
Every Marvel film is expected to be a great standalone film with high stakes and consequences, while simultaneously moving the overall MCU ball forward. Iron Man 2 did both: it provided a mostly self-contained story (although it would be a blast to see Justin Hammer resurface) and it moved the overall story forward by hinting towards Captain America (via a prototype of his shield) and Thor while drawing James Rhodes into the superhero ranks via the War Machine armor, and most of all, introducing Natasha Romanoff.
Yeah, the battle scenes were a (repulsor) blast, but the film worked because of the story’s more human moments; the “Man” was as great, if not greater, than the “Iron.” And that’s something more special effects-driven films could afford to learn something from.