Iron Man (7)2(0): Tony Throws A Party
First things first: Terrence Howard got body-swapped with Don Cheadle, and nobody noticed. It’s like, “Tony, your lifelong best bud Rhodey looks completely different, and you haven’t said a single thing about it!” I get that Iron Man 2 takes place during MCU’s formative years, and maybe it was hard to convince major actors to sign contracts for a term length of “Um, as many of these movies as we want to make,” but still - this was pretty jarring, especially because it goes unremarked upon (the internet suspects that Terrence Howard’s “infamously” difficult personality is to blame for his ouster from the mega-franchise). When Gloria Foster, the oracle in the first two Matrix movies, died, the Wachowskis at least barfed up some convoluted sci-fi garbage to explain the recasting. Here, no such luck.
Whatever. That’s too many words spent on a casting change, and there are other characters I want to talk about. Iron Man 2 opens in Moscow, and we’re immediately introduced to our obligatory big bad, and we know that’s what he is because he’s played by Mickey Rourke cosplaying as a grimey, puffy, steampunk-influenced Steven Tyler, and even regular real-world Steven Tyler spells hide-your-daughters-style trouble. As far as antagonists go, I’m on board with Ivan Vanko. Dude has beef with Tony, although the grade of beef isn’t clear until a good bit later (my read: their dads were collaborating scientists until Howard Stark deported Anton Vanko back to Russia for not timely delivering some promised tech or something), and he pursues his own brand of justice with a pair of fantastically electric whips that he built by reverse engineering Tony’s arc reactor technology. Mickey Rourke doesn’t exactly ooze charisma in the role, but it’s pretty satisfying to watch him act quietly smarter than everybody in the room and wreck large objects with his weapons. Side note: if I got my hands on those sick whips, there is a one hundred percent chance I would lop off one or more of my own limbs within five seconds.
Iron Man 2’s plot is more convoluted than either of the previous movies. That stands to reason, given that this is the second Iron Man entry - the story should certainly be allowed to build on established characters and themes and grow in complexity - but character motivations are hard to follow at times, and it’s the third MCU story in a row that, when you break it down, is really just “Government Wants Superhero Technology”. The screenplay is credited to Justin Theroux of all people, and I’m not exactly sure what to do with that factoid other than slam it on the table here for you to look at. Following the events of Iron Man 1 (notably, I detected zero nods to The Incredible Hulk), the ENTIRE WORLD appears to be enjoying a period of “uninterrupted peace”, which, if we’re to believe that’s due to Iron Man, really makes you wonder about what sort of Santa Clause-ish time-bending voodoo Tony might be tapping into. Regardless of logistics, Tony feels comfortable that his proprietary arc reactor technology remains safe and secret, so he’s spending his time organizing lavish Entertainment 720-style expos, zooming around the skies to AC/DC (clearly the favorite band of someone in production), getting sloppy drunk, and ogling the ladies. When confronted with Scarlett Johansson, who, dubiously, is “from legal”, he notes, “I want one.” Classic Tony!
Anyway, arc reactor technology is not quite as locked up as Tony thought, and meanwhile, Sam Rocking Fuckwell (sp.), playing a weapons manufacturer named Justin Hammer - a strong name, to be sure - is in cahoots with Senator Stern (Garry Shandling in one of his rare acting roles) to wrest control of said technology from Tony’s hands by any means possible. To Hammer, delightfully corrupt, those means very much include blowing up an entire prison to break out Ivan in hopes of friendly scientific collaboration re: illegal weapons. Also, Rhodey and the Air Force are somehow entangled in all of this. Like I said, this part of the plot was hard for me to parse.
But that’s enough plot recapping, you’ve already seen this movie; I’m the n00b here. Instead, let’s talk about the stuff I liked in Iron Man 2, because there’s quite a bit of it, and it went down like a shot of Listerine after the bitter taste of The Incredible Hulk (“went down” figuratively, of course - don’t swallow Listerine). In these early stages of the MCU, Iron Man is far and away the better mini-franchise of the two that have been introduced so far. In terms of characters and their personalities, plotting, acting, and sheer entertainment value, both Iron Man movies knock the purple bloomers right off Hulk. Tony Stark, for all of his problematic personality issues (which you could argue really just serve to make him more recognizably human, unlike personality-free Eddie Norton), is a character we’ve grown to know and understand and root for, so when it’s revealed that he’s slowly dying due to palladium leaching out of the chest implant that keeps his batteries running, real, individual stakes are established, and I imagine those are going to be sorely needed in the midst of all this potentially world-ending superhero calamity. That storyline does a great job anchoring Tony in the broader plot, even if some of the twists are unlikely-bordering-on-absurd (Roger Sterling hiding the secret recipe for a new element that will save Tony in his map for Future Robot City makes for a dramatic reveal, but Roger’s rationale for doing so is pretty bogus).
Nearly all of the action set pieces are extremely slick: I don’t quite understand why Tony Stark is qualified to compete in Monte Carlo’s Grand Prix, but I’ll let that slide in exchange for the delightful chaos instigated by Vanko’s appearance and Jon Favreau repeatedly ramming Vanko against a fence until he sets off his car’s airbag; and the final fight scene - Tony and Rhodes v. Vanko and Drone Army - appears to be staged in an artificial Japanese flower garden, and I loved the weird juxtaposition of the garden’s serenity against oodles of mechanical and electrical mayhem. Best of all, though, is Scarlett Johansson single-handedly delivering outrageous amounts of justice via ninja gymnastics during the slow-mo infiltration of Hammer Industries; she hands out the kind of old-school martial arts beatdown that other characters in the MCU, given that they’re mostly engineers and/or big green science experiments, tend to avoid, and it’s smooth as hell. Still, though, I’m confused about Johansson’s character: she’s initially introduced as Natalie Rushman, and while she is noted as having a connection to some ambiguous legal purpose, there’s never any real justification provided for why she’s suddenly entrenched with Tony and Pepper, making Tony martinis, dressing him for a party, attending events with Pepper, etc. Thankfully, the cat’s out of the bag by the end of the movie and we can all rest easy knowing she’s actually Black Widow, part of Nick Fury’s band of misfits, and likely to continue selling fist sandwiches in future MCU installments.
So yeah, Iron Man 2 is a good one. As long as the ratio of Incredible Hulk to Iron Man movies remains favorable to Iron Man, I’m on board for this ride.
Bits & Pieces
I’m going to keep harping on the gender stuff as long as it insists on showing up: in Iron Man 2, Tony’s throwing parties staffed with bottle-blonde cheerleader types tossing around watermelons; he’s running into Kate Mara in a non-role, and she’s inexplicably into him (bizarrely, she’s also, like Natalie, connected to something unspecific but “legal” in nature); he’s referring to Scarlett Johansson as an object he’d sure like to own, etc.
Agent Coulson shows up with his usual amount of sass and mystery; his only role here seems to be to smugly (and ineffectually) confine Tony to his house.
I’m pretty sure that was Stan Lee cameo-ing as Larry King. I also caught the BILL O’REILLY cameo, which, from up here in 2019, is maybe the most outrageous part of the whole movie.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Ricky Bobby sprinting around “on fire” in Talladega Nights during the fight scene with Vanko on the racetrack. No reason to point that out, I just thought you should know.
The funniest part of this very funny movie for me was Tony’s reaction to the swoopy gewgaw perched on Pepper’s desk while he’s attempting to talk to her. That thing is distracting to an almost criminal degree. I also like that one of Tony’s consistent, understated personality points is that he doesn’t like people handing him things.
As far as connections to other movies: Nick Fury pops in a couple of times to deliver deus ex machina type stuff, and at the end notes that, while he wants Iron Man for SHIELD, he does not want Tony Stark; he also cryptically mentions some business in the southwest, and the post-credits scene confirms that Coulson found himself a big hammer in New Mexico. I smell Thor.