By now, there is a certain rhythm to the Marvel Cinematic Universe; movies are coming out on such a planned schedule, and they tend to be successes so quickly that their sequels are practically confirmed before opening weekend. And if the MCU is doing anything it is proving that maybe it’s not impossible to have a sequel that’s as good as or even better than, the original. Or perhaps more importantly, that when you look as movies not as true sequels but as the next “issue” in a comic book series, some of the pressure comes off, and you can focus on telling good stories that move the entire universe along. That certainly seems to have been the case with Iron Man 2.
As the story begins, life is getting a whole lot more complicated for Tony Stark, who has revealed himself to be Iron Man. Russian techno-criminal Ivan Vanko builds an arc reactor of his own and some electro-whips to attack Stark in public, in part to get back at him for a pretty big falling out between Vanko’s father and Stark’s own father, Howard. Meanwhile, Stark’s arc reactor is giving him palladium poisoning, and Stark’s pretty sure he’s not going to live. Add to that, rival arms maker Justin Hammer makes his move to outdo Stark in the armored suit business, much to the glee of the U.S. Government, which really doesn’t like the idea that a private citizen with more power than the military is calling his own shots. It all adds up to a combination of stresses that cracks Tony’s cool exterior and reveals a flawed, scared man underneath who realizes that his armor might make him powerful, but his power comes from his own ingenuity and courage.
Iron Man 2 is an interesting chapter in the MCU, as it’s when we finally start seeing the first real efforts to lay down the building blocks for what would lead up to the meta-movie event of the decade: The Avengers. But first, each component hero needs a standalone story, and Iron Man 2 seems to be Iron Man’s. Now that we know who Iron Man is, we need to see how he might fit into a world of other superheroes with whom he must work. One of the movie’s high points is the introduction of Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow, a SHIELD super-agent who will become an Avenger herself, and who is the strongest evidence yet that this Marvel world-building exercise is actually happening. She also steals the show with an outstanding fight sequence during the movie’s finale that is Exhibit A for why the phrase “you hit like a girl” should be considered a compliment.
Iron Man 2 is also the movie that gave us the first really meaningful post-credits scene—that device which has helped to define Marvel movies in general nowadays—with a teaser shot of Thor’s hammer, to announce what is coming next. Oh, yeah.
But what really makes Iron Man 2 great is how it advances the drama of our favorite characters in big, meaningful, exciting ways. The relationship between Stark and his major domo/love interest Pepper Potts takes on more significance especially as he tries to pass off his company to her, while she’s not exactly buying his fatalism. The friendship between Stark and his Air Force pal Rhodes is tested when Stark goes on a drunken bender on what he thinks will be his last birthday, and kicks off a superpowered armor brawl between he and Rhodes that leaves Stark defeated, humiliated and hung-over, and the government with its own Iron Man suit with which to tinker.
But the most fascinating drama is that between Stark and Vanko. Their fathers jointly designed the arc reactor technology that Tony has used to keep himself alive. Vanko sees Stark as nothing more than a flashy fraud, and Stark begins to wonder if maybe Vanko is right. After all, Stark still isn’t exactly a thing of legend, much of hero, or even the son Howard Stark hoped would one day succeed his own achievements with his own. For Tony, defeating Vanko (and by extension, Justin Hammer) is just a rising action, the kind of problem he excels at facing. The bigger challenge is chasing away the ghost of a doubt that Vanko’s allegations, and Tony’s own murky family history, has conjured.
The moment of truth comes after Stark’s birthday brawl, when Nick Fury pays Tony a little visit to slap him back to reality. The world is gonna need its heroes soon, and unless Stark gets his act together, our team will be a little light on the roster. He gives over to Tony some notes form his father that might prove instrumental to solving Tony’s palladium poisoning. All he has to do is invent a whole new element to do it. It’s something his father couldn’t figure out. Can he? The sequence where Tony rises to that challenge is my favorite Iron Man sequence ever because it shows our truest version of Tony Stark: a genius whose greatest joy is in the act of creation and discovery, and who sees every impossibility as a challenge to think his way around. There is an exuberance as Tony throws out the data he doesn’t need, as he tinkers relentlessly, as he absent-mindedly uses Captain America’s shield to shim one of his other tools…and in the end, he creates the element he needs. And the best part about it all? He doesn’t even name it. He just puts it to use and goes back to being Iron Man. There is a lot of bluster and bravado about Tony, and he’s still a pretty smarmy jerk sometimes. But in that moment, we see that whatever Vanko said about him is wrong. Tony Stark is no fraud. He is no thief. He’s a builder of wonders. And a man of iron.