Iron Man 2 is no longer the worst MCU movie

Iron Man 2 isn't particularly a good movie, but it is significantly better than some of the more recent MCU outings.
Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2 (2010). Image courtesy Marvel Studios
Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2 (2010). Image courtesy Marvel Studios /

I remember the first time that I watched Iron Man 2. I felt a mixture of emotions after it, but underneath all of them there was one dominant emotion: Disappointment. Iron Man wasn't necessarily my favorite superhero, but the first movie was a brilliant superhero movie in a decade that was full of very different types of superhero movies. The second was just there, sacrificing solid character arcs for spectacle and indulgence.

Over a decade (and a full Infinity Saga) later and its reputation hadn't gotten any better; in fact, the completion of the Infinity Saga highlighted just how skippable it was. There are important elements for sure, such as the beginning of Tony's relationship with Pepper Potts, the recast of James "Rhodey" Rhodes, and the introduction of Black Widow; but all of those elements are reintroduced or explained in subsequent outings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making Iron Man 2 an unnecessary watch. And as such, it has languished among the "bottom 3" MCU movies for years, sharing the misfortune with Thor: The Dark World and The Incredible Hulk.

However, when Marvel Studios kicked off the Multiverse Saga, misfires became a bit more of a regular thing for the typically-high-quality franchise. As such, fans have begun re-evaluating what the worst MCU movie actually is. That includes me, as I decided to take another look at Iron Man 2 and decided whether or not it truly deserves its reputation. Let's review it and find out.

Iron Man 2 takes on too much, but it's still a good time

One thing that became pretty clear to me early on in Iron Man 2 is that it tackles a lot of interesting storylines. Tony Stark's struggles to hold onto life due to what the Palladium core was doing to him, Ivan Vanko's grief-fuelled quest for revenge turning him into Whiplash, the government's attempt to take the Iron Man technology for themselves, and Justin Hammer's inherent desire to outdo Tony at, well, anything. It's all very interesting, but listing all of those, you might see the problem with Iron Man 2; it fell victim to that age-old superhero movie trope of the 1990s and 2000s: It took on far too much.

Honestly, I had forgotten that Tony's life-or-death predicament was even part of this movie; that's how deeply it got buried in everything that was happening. Oh I remember the reckless behavior it results in, with Tony's birthday party being easily the most eyeroll-inducing moment of the whole franchise, but if you remember the fallout more than the actual story a movie is telling, then you have a problem. And Iron Man 2 had a huge, recurring problem with that.

Iron Man 2 review
Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 2 (2010). Image courtesy Marvel Studios /

Just like the fight scene that took place in Tony's house between Iron Man and the War Machine, the film sacrificed storytelling for spectacle, resulting in underdeveloped storylines and overindulgence to make up for that. Look no further than the film's own villain, Ivan Vanko, who - in spite of a committed performance from Mickey Rourke - never got the material to stand out. And that's so frustrating because the backstory was there, and yet he never felt like the main villain that he should have been.

The MCU did have a villain problem early on, and the Iron Man movies weren't exactly known for producing the franchise's best, but this was poor even for a glossy 2000s superhero movie. Whiplash's two most memorable moments in the film were his two showdowns with Iron Man himself, and even then, he was defeated extremely easily both times. As much as the movie wanted him to be the primary villain, it overcompensated with Justin Hammer being his benefactor, as a scene of either one was used to service both characters' arcs, and that wasn't effective when they had different motivations and weren't even once on the same page.

The film didn't learn from the mistakes of 1997's Batman and Robin or even more recently 2007's Spider-Man 3, in that too many villains can undercut all of them. That's exactly what happened here, because for every overly indulgent monologue from Hammer, we had a grunt from Whiplash, making it hard to buy who the main villain was and why these two were even sharing the screen. The truth is that Whiplash had a lot of potential but the finished product failed to make the most of it, and Hammer was just there; never truly feeling like the threat to Tony Stark that he so badly wanted to be.

Whiplash, Iron Man 2 review
Mickey Rourke in Iron Man 2 (2010). Image courtesy Marvel Studios /

But for all of Iron Man 2's faults it's still an incredibly enjoyable movie. It doesn't take itself too seriously (which is again a major problem because it wants us to take it seriously) and that makes it a relatively smooth watch. I probably wouldn't feel that way if it wasn't for Robert Downey Jr.'s committed performance, because when that man is playing Tony Stark, he can sell you anything. And he truly is fantastic, selling Tony's conflicted feelings better than the script should allow him to.

There are moments of real nuance in his performance that elevate the movie, particularly the scene between him and Don Cheadle's Rhodey, when the latter discovers that something is wrong with Tony. You can see the gravity of the situation in Stark's eyes, and that almost makes his reckless behavior feel, well, more justified than the scene itself actually is.

On that note, I have to take a moment to credit Cheadle for his brilliant performance as Rhodey. It's his debut, as he replaces Terrence Howard from the first movie, and he immediately finds a chemistry with RDJ that would imply they had played opposite each other in these roles before. It was a moment, and again, it sold some of the more lackluster moments between the two characters in the movie.

Iron Man 2 review
Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2 (2010). Image courtesy Marvel Studios /

Speaking of the movie's strengths, its biggest came in the debut of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. We couldn't have known then what an intricately important character she would become, and yet the absolute allure of Johansson's performance teased us all with the amazing journey that awaited Natasha Romanoff (and all of us ready for the ride she would take us on). It's definitely the most different of the roles that Widow has played in her various MCU appearances, and it's interesting to revisit the beginning of her journey now that we know where it culminates. The character is exhilarating to watch and that hallway fight scene was one of the film's most enjoyable sequences.

The film's other important element was the further development of the relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. It could have used a lot more exploration than it got (it was one of the multiple plots that never really got the focus it needed), but the chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow was electric enough to hook us whenever they did get their moments - no matter how far and few between they were.

Iron Man 2
Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2 (2010). Image courtesy Marvel Studios /

All in all, Iron Man 2 is an overindulgent romp that wastes the majority of its potential with half-baked executions of pretty strong storylines. It lacks the depth of its predecessor and it's still one of the more skippable entries in the MCU. The irony is that it has the time of its life doing all of that, producing larger-than-life set pieces, overly indulgent action scenes, and plenty of explosions just because it can. That results in you at least having a good time while you're judging it for the abundance of opportunities that it misses.

In all fairness to Iron Man 2, the MCU was not the well-oiled machine that it is now, and it needed to fill a slot on the way to The Avengers, so if that meant having Tony Stark act a bit more recklessly than usual, my goodness were they going to make it happen. And they did, because in all honesty, even with its shortcomings, Iron Man 2 functions as a mindless over-the-top superhero movie much like those of the early 2000s. It's a step down from its predecessor, yes, but it's still a fun time.

Iron Man 2 is no longer the worst MCU movie. It (and its fellow bottom 3 besties) is still down there on the lower end of the films, but it's a considerably more fun time than some of the franchise's more recent, murkier misfires. The primary reason for that is that it simply exists to entertain; and that's exactly what it does.

Iron Man 2 sacrifices story for spectacle, and depth for indulgence, but it has fun doing so; proving that, if anything, it's still a damn good time.. . Iron Man 2. Iron Man 2 grade. B-

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