Why it Almost Works: "Ironman 2" is Only as Good as its Villain...or Villains
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
While I wouldn’t say that there have been any outright flops or cinematic failures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (apart from maybe The Immortals, which doesn't really count), like any franchise, there have been story bumps and script hiccups along the way. Thankfully, most of them came relatively early in the game as the studio and franchise were still finding their footing.
Last week I talked about some of the missed opportunities with The Incredible Hulk, Marvel's lowest box office film to date. This week, I want to look at the third film of the MCU and the one that always seems to come up when people talk about their least favorite in the franchise:
Almost ten years later, is Ironman 2 really deserving of its reputation? Does it get put at the bottom of everyone's MCU list simply because the other films in the franchise are that much better, or is it rightly maligned on its own merit?
My answer to all of these questions, after going back and reviewing Ironman 2, is a resounding yes and no.
The problem with Ironman 2 is that the bad and the ugly overshadow the good. So let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Good: Tony’s Arc
If we want to look at the entire character arc of Tony Stark in the MCU, legacy seems to be the driving force behind everything he does.
Don't waste your life
This was the charge given by Yinsig to Tony Stark in the cave in Ironman.
What do we choose to leave behind for future generations?
This is the question Tony asks his fans (and self) at the opening of the Stark Expo in Ironman 2.
Tony Stark was given a second chance at life in the first Ironman and follows up by trying to do something with the life he has. That doesn't mean he's going to get it right every time. His heart is right, but his machinations, like his machines, are flawed. Ironman 2 shows just how flawed Tony Stark can be on his own.
In my analysis of the first Ironman, I wrote about Tony Stark's agency and will are the heart that powers the MCU, and I stand by that. Ironman is one of the strongest characters in the MCU even if his solo films are not.
In Ironman 2, Tony Stark attempts to solve the riddle behind the flawed arc reactor that's killing him, he must also learn to accept the reality that he can't do everything on his own. Here, Ironman 2 introduces or expands the role of several key characters to assist Tony in his journey or pick him back up when he's disillusioned, defeated, and knocked down.
The Really Good: Supporting Characters
Perhaps more than any other film in the MCU, save Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers, Ironman 2 boasts one of the better supporting casts for its hero, each character worthy to be called a hero in their own right.
Just look at Tony Stark's team in Ironman 2:
· Pepper Potts
· Colonel Rhodes (War Machine)
· Happy Hogan
· Natasha Romanov (Black Widow)
· Agent Coulson
· Nick Fury
· Howard Stark
I struggle to even label any of these characters as "supporting". They're that iconic.
Tony Stark is deeply flawed and at times unlikeable as a hero. But when he is at his weakest, he always has people in his life to fight for him, fight with him, and sometimes even fight against him when he needs his ass kicked. In Ironman 2, the support team steps up BIG TIME!
Great allies and supporting characters pick the hero up when they've been knocked down and knock a little sense into them when they've gotten too high.
No one in Ironman 2 (or the MCU) can do what Tony Stark can do. But that's the point. They're not meant to. The writers of Ironman 2 don't introduce characters to step in and do Tony's job for him. Yes, Pepper is given control of Stark Industries (where she thrives), but Tony Stark isn't meant to be a CEO or executive. His true purpose is to be the Ironman.
Other characters push Tony to do what only he can do while filling in the gaps of what he cannot, complimenting his strengths with their own.
Rhodey (War Machine) is the best friend who becomes the ultimate wingman.
Happy Hogan is the lovable sidekick who will follow the hero into any fight, even ones he knows they'll lose.
Natasha Romanov (Black Widow) is the ally the hero never knew he needed.
Nick Fury is the all-seeing (or half-seeing) mentor who pushes the hero to become something more.
Agent Coulson is the good-natured conscience that sticks with the hero and keeps him grounded and on task.
Pepper Potts is the life partner, equal, saving grace, and heart armor the hero cares about and needs most.
And then Tony gets the ultimate assist from the legacy and wisdom of his father, the late Howard Stark.
The Okay: The Stark Legacy
In a story where the hero questions his own legacy, forcing him to confront the legacy of his legendary father, a man he's always respected but never fully understood, is appropriate.
Through video footage reminiscent of the Walt in the Wonderful World of Disney, Tony learns that his father saw him as his greatest creation, knowing he would go on to do greater things than he ever could.
Limited by the technology of his era, Howard Stark left the secrets to a revolutionary technology discovery for Tony to find and refine.
This technology is not only the key to the future but the solution to fixing and improving the arc reactor. This is a solid enough plot to drive this story.
As Nick Fury tells Tony, "only you can solve the riddle of your heart." Ironman 2 proves this to be true but also doesn't hesitate to offer the hero the resources, support, and ammunition to help him figure things out and fight the battles ahead.
The Bad: Whiplash
Where do I begin with one of the MCU's oddest and ineffective antagonists?
From the moment casting for the Ironman sequel was first announced, many people were confident that actor Mickey Rourke was going to step into the role of Ivan Vanko (Whiplash) and somehow parallel Robert Downey Jr.'s comeback with a cinematic comeback of his own. Let's not forget, Rourke had just returned to the spotlight following his Oscar-nominated performance in 2008's The Wrestler, and many just assumed that he'd be a natural and worthy choice to step into the ring and go toe-to-toe with RDJ's Ironman. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case.
If you've followed my writing or analysis at all, you'll know that I tend to be pretty critical of stories that are unclear about their antagonist or create weak obstacles for their heroes. I don't believe every story needs an outright "big bad", but if you're not going to create a viable threat to challenge the hero's goal, their ultimate triumph won't feel earned or even triumphant.
The son of Soviet scientist Anton Vanko, Ivan has grown up in exile, enraged at the Starks for destroying his family. This makes sense, but what's his motivation? What's his end goal? Revenge? Against who? Howard Stark? He's dead. Okay, then... um... Tony Stark? I guess he'll do. But what does he hope to accomplish?
Killing him? Embarrassing him? Making money off of his technology? Taking credit for his father's science? Destroying the Stark legacy? How far is he willing to go?
Ivan's motivations are unclear, his plan is weak, and he never poses any real threat to Ironman or Tony Stark's superior technology.
Also, when Whiplash first shows up in Monaco, everyone panics because someone has found a way to replicate Ironman's technology. But have they?
The government's fear is that a foreign enemy will eventually find a way to build Ironman suits for themselves. This is why they want to seize Tony’s technology for military applications. But is the Ironman suit the real achievement (and threat), or is it the arc reactor? Hasn't the arc reactor technology been at Stark Industries for a while now? What tech are people afraid is going to fall into the wrong hands?
Whiplash shows up with a poor man's arc reactor and a couple of whips, and everyone freaks out. I'm sorry, but was this even a challenge for Ironman?
What was Whiplash hoping to accomplish with his Eastern Promises, car splitting, whip cracking demonstration?
Revenge is boring as a primary motivation when it's not grounded in a viable plan or measurable end goal.
Compare Whiplash to Erik Killmonger of Black Panther or Loki of the first Thor and first Avengers.
Erik Killmonger wants revenge for the death of his father, but he is after more than just burning down Wakanda or destroying T'Challa. He pursues the throne so he can use Wakanda's technology to empower his people around the world with the means and weapons to finally rise up against their oppressors.
Loki also wants the throne of Asgard for himself. Becoming king and defeating his brother are just his way of gaining power so he can ultimately prove his worth.
There are reasons why Loki and Killmonger as two of the MCU’s best. It’s fair to say Marvel needed characters like Whiplash to figure that out.
A Missed Opportunity: Justin Hammer
I personally love Justin Hammer as a villain and wanted to see him step up as the primary antagonist of this film. As the head of a competing weapons manufacturer, his motivation is arguably MUCH clearer.
Tony Stark changed the game with the advent of the arc reactor and Ironman suit. In doing so, he also obliterated the competition and probably put a lot of companies out of business, without even a thought of remorse.
Tony Stark has always been smarter, better, and gleefully arrogant about everything he does, including embarrassing Justin Hammer. This is a prime set up for a greedy, unscrupulous, and disenfranchised competitor to fight back.
Films like Aquaman, Creed 2, and most entries in the James Bond franchise have multiple antagonists. However, in these stories, there is usually a hierarchy of power to the villains, bosses, henchmen, and goons.
For example, in Aquaman, Black Manta has a personal vendetta against Arthur Curry, but he’s only a second-tier villain to King Orm (Ocean Master), who is the much more powerful foe.
In great stories with multiple antagonists, there should be an order of power. Obstacles need be tackled and villains defeated in ascending order, saving the biggest threat for last.
The marketing of Ironman 2 made Whiplash out to be the big bad and made Justin Hammer a secondary villain. In my opinion, the roles should have been reversed. Justin Hammer should have been the primary antagonist and Whiplash his pawn.
The villain problems of Ironman 2 probably became its biggest distraction and ultimate downfall, which is too bad. With a few character changes, I think Ironman 2 could have risen beyond its flaws and gained elevation in the MCU standings. At its core, Ironman 2 can feel like more of a setup than a standalone piece of storytelling, but as part of the greater universe, it's small bump in a larger, and more incredible story.
Anyway, that’s all for now. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, don't forget to tap the heart below or subscribe. And feel free check out my other perspectives, including my analysis of Ironman and The Incredible Hulk.
Check back in a few weeks my story analysis of Thor and the God of Thunder’s dramatic entrance into the MCU.
Until Today, Storytellers