Halfway through what’s now known as Phase 1 of 3 in the Infinity Saga, Iron Man 2 clearly builds towards a larger, exciting plan while keeping Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) at the center of the story. Although the second film in the Iron Man trilogy may not be as structurally sound as its predecessor, and requires some severe mental gymnastics to buy into, it’s still one of the MCU’s most enjoyable flicks.
Iron Man 2 brings multiple new heroes into the fold, including War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who have had a profound impact in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even into the newest chapter known as the Multiverse Saga. Despite the many head-scratching decisions throughout this film, there’s an immense amount of fun to be had through Robert Downey Jr.’s charm as Tony Stark, and Tony’s budding relationships with those who would go on to be important figures in his life, until the very end.
Iron Man 2 review: many plot holes that inevitably don’t ruin the fun
Iron Man 2 is one of the franchise’s most controversial films to date, developing a cult-like following among some corners of the fandom, while others claim it to be near unwatchable. Truth be told, it belongs somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. There are certainly better and far worse projects to compare it to, but Robert Downey Jr.’s very existence as Tony Stark is enough to breathe life into any MCU film.
This movie includes the first of two major recasts to come out of Phase 1 in the Infinity Saga, with Don Cheadle stepping in to replace Terrence Howard as James Rhodes. Downey and Howard’s chemistry doesn’t hold a candle to that of Downey and Cheadle. In their first on-screen appearance together in Iron Man 2, Tony and Rhodey embody the ups and downs of a love/hate relationship to near perfection. Despite the pair navigating through constant turmoil in this film, there’s never a doubt that they’re going to stand side by side (or back to back) in the end as the closest of friends. It takes Cheadle no time to make this role his own, as he is instantly engaging.
One of the many outlets of delightful charm and entertainment is Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). He acts as an anti-Tony in this film, chasing the same fame and power that accompanies the Iron Man suit, but for far different reasons. Hammer is unbearably naive, loaded with empty threats and promises, but Rockwell’s performance is what makes it all work. The idea of loving to hate someone is achieved perfectly with this character, and although he hasn’t been seen in a feature film or show since Iron Man 2, Marvel would do well to bring him back in a future project like Armor Wars.
Unfortunately, the choice to pair Tony Stark with a villain who is close to being his intellectual equal does not pay off. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is a ghost from the Stark family’s past, but not one Tony is familiar with. Chalk that up to bad parenting from Howard Stark (John Slattery). The idea that Tony has destroyed countless lives as a result of his life’s work is compelling groundwork for a villain, but unfortunately not fleshed out enough to matter in the end. This is a classic “show, don’t tell” scenario. While Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) provides a quick rundown of the Vanko’s, a few flashback scenes for any extra depth would serve the movie well.
However, Vanko is not the worst case when it comes to gross character mishandling. Natasha Romanoff’s introduction in this film is perhaps the most embarrassing treatment for a character in the entire MCU to date. Who is the Black Widow in Iron Man 2? As described by the film, “a very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit.” Having Natasha serve as a floater at Stark Industries to keep an eye on Tony as a plot device is fine, but the sexualization of her character is not.
Fortunately, for both Scarlett Johansson and fans everywhere, Marvel learned their lesson from the disgusting treatment of Black Widow in this film, and Natasha Romanoff has gone on to become one of the most beloved and celebrated characters in the MCU—a feat accomplished through a beautiful arc, not sexualization.
On top of the frustrating and unacceptable character decisions within Iron Man 2, there are also some baffling plot holes. Everyone is willing to suspend a certain amount of belief for a superhero movie, so long as the creators play by the rules they establish, but things have to stay realistic to a certain point. How did Vanko know Tony would end up on the track when it’s a last second decision? Why is Tony constantly flying in the path of civilians with a trail of blazing gunfire behind him at the expo? These head-scratching mistakes are littered in left and right, but fortunately the cast’s charisma disperses the frustration fairly quickly.
Speaking of charisma, this is where we arrive at the bow who, once again and not for the last time, ties everything in this movie together: Robert Downey Jr. It’s often said that he deserves to be nominated for his final performance as Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame, and while that may be true, he deserves praise for his portrayal of Tony in the early days of the MCU as well. Iron Man 2 may very well be the most interesting version of Tony Stark.
In a race against death and alienated from those closest to him, RDJ channels drive, determination, and loveable charm through Tony in the most heartfelt manner. Still coming to terms with what it means to be a hero the world depends on, he must grow up quick, or face the consequences. This is the second of many performances that make RDJ as Tony Stark the most iconic superhero casting of all time.
The legacy of ‘Iron Man 2’
Iron Man 2 is mostly remembered as a deeply flawed and forgettable sequel that fails to live up to the original, but it’s so much more. Despite meager teases in Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, this film truly begins laying the foundations to assemble the Avengers for the first time. Nick Fury plays a sizeable role, providing relief to Stark in his time of need, and officially lets him in on the project known as the Avengers Initiative. Iron Man 2 may not be a large scale team-up effort, but it can be considered a crossover film with appearances from Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, and Nick Fury.
Iron Man 2 will also be remembered for the aforementioned poor handling of Black Widow. There is so much more to Natasha Romanoff than what this movie presents, and she deserves better than to be degraded to an object merely designed to be ogled by powerful men. It’s an immature choice from everyone involved to write her character this way, but fortunately this version of Natasha is so far in the rearview mirror, it feels completely irrelevant.
Although one of them is handled inappropriately, Iron Man 2 is still the foray into the MCU for two of the most popular and longstanding characters. Black Widow finally received her long-overdue origin story to kick off Phase 4 and a new generation of Marvel stories, and James Rhodes is going strong, ready to get back out into the world following his appearance in Secret Invasion. With Rhodey in line to receive his own upcoming project with Armor Wars, and Scarlett Johansson set to produce a future MCU project, it seems the pair will be lingering in our hearts and on our screens for the foreseeable future.
Iron Man 2 fun facts
- Ghost was considered as a villain for this film, but creators decided on Whiplash and Justin Hammer. Ghost was later introduced in Ant-Man and The Wasp.
- Emily Blunt was in talks to play Black Widow, but she inevitably had to pass as she was contracted to star in Jack Black’s Gulliver’s Travels.
- Scarlett Johansson was also interested in playing Blonde Phantom and Wasp, but decided to go with Black Widow.
- Sam Rockwell was so excited to play Justin Hammer and work with Jon Favreau again following their previous partnership in Made, he signed on without even reading the script.
- To get Samuel L. Jackson to star as Nick Fury in Iron Man 2, Marvel offered him a nine-film deal, which was absolutely unprecedented at the time.
- Mickey Rourke says the most challenging part of playing Whiplash wasn’t speaking Russian or pretending to throw electric whips around, but having to act like he knew anything at all about technology.
- There is a photo of Rourke when he was arrested on drug charges in the film.
- All of Sam Rockwell’s dances in this film are completely improvised, and creators enjoyed them so much they remained in the final cut.
- Iron Man 2 was nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
‘Iron Man 2’ was a crucial stepping stone for the MCU
Fortunately for the fan base, and for Marvel Studios executives at the time, the good far outweighs the bad in Iron Man 2. Most of all the cast brings a loveable charisma to the table, and as usual with any Iron Man movie, the action is an absolute blast. This film is far from perfect, but it’s everything the MCU needed at this time.
With the massive database of MCU movies and comic book movies to compare with this film, it definitely doesn’t hold up as well as it could. Ultimately, it’s still worth a rewatch for Robert Downey Jr.’s undeniable charm and to see some MCU veterans navigating their way through their first Marvel performances.
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'Iron Man 2' Review'Iron Man 2' Review
- Robert Downey Jr.'s charm
- Don Cheadle is awesome
- Beautiful action as always
- Interesting, troubled take on Tony Stark works well
- Mishandling of Black Widow
- Whiplash isn't compelling
- Frustrating plot holes