Iron Man 2: Iron Harder

Posted by on June 15th, 2010 at 3:56 AM

This is Richard Cook. I’ve hacked my way into Noah’s TCJ account.

As some of you know, the Hooded Utilitarian blog has gone kaput. So for at least part of the week, my fellow Hooded Utilitarians will be posting under Noah’s name on the website. For those of you who miss the ole’ blog format, I’m also posting this movie review over at

Onto the review…

Iron Man 2 (2010)
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, Sam Rockwell

After watching the first Iron Man movie, I was curious as to how the franchise would deal with Iron Man’s lack of memorable villains. I suppose the Mandarin is relatively well-known, but Yellow Peril stereotypes don’t play well in Asian markets. And most of Iron Man’s remaining opponents are just guys in battle-suits, and at least half of them are Cold War commies. So they’re both interchangeable and out-dated.

The filmmakers behind Iron Man 2 addressed this problem by avoiding it as much as possible. Much of Iron Man 2 has nothing to do with Iron Man fighting Whiplash. Instead, the movie spends time on Tony Stark’s conflict with the U.S. government, or a subplot about Tony’s father issues, or a subplot about Tony’s impending death from palladium poisoning (due to the device in his chest), or a subplot about Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes becoming War Machine, or a subplot about Pepper Potts assuming control of Stark Industries, or a subplot about a rival weapons developer who wants to publicly upstage Tony, or a romantic subplot with Pepper Potts, or the introduction of Black Widow, or a couple of scenes that set-up the upcoming Thor movie, and a few scenes with Nick Fury that set-up the inevitable Avengers movie.

The avoidance strategy actually works well for most of the film. Easily the most enjoyable part of Iron Man is not the action but Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark. Downey-as-Stark can invent a new technology, outwit his business rival, and score a threesome with Swedish supermodels at the same time. In other words, he’s an unapologetic male empowerment fantasy, but without the trite moralizing of characters like Superman. And the best scenes in Iron Man 2 are when Robert Downey, Jr. hams it up as a self-aggrandizing (but lovable) jackass. Whether he’s mocking a congressional committee, or getting drunk while wearing the Iron Man suit, or flirting with Pepper Potts, Tony Stark is an entertaining character even without the superheroics. Unfortunately, Tony doesn’t get to have as much fun this time around. The Rules of Hollywood Trilogies demand that the second movie be darker than the first, so Tony has to spend a sizable portion of the film fretting over his mortality, which gets tiresome very quickly (spoiler: he doesn’t die).

And the film eventually has to get around to the external conflict. This is a summer blockbuster after all, so explosions are mandatory. And to be fair, there are a lot of explosions in the climax, and Mickey Rourke tries his hardest to make Whiplash seem like an intimidating character. But at the end of the day, Iron Man is still slumming it with a villain that shouldn’t keep him occupied for more than 15 minutes. As a comparison, imagine a Batman film where the only villain was KGBeast.

As for whether Iron Man 2 is worth your hard-earned money, it depends on your taste for big, dumb action movies. Iron Man 2 isn’t as good as its predecessor and it lacks a strong villain, but it does everything an action movie is expected to do, and in just over two hours.

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6 Responses to “Iron Man 2: Iron Harder”

  1. Caro says:

    My favorite part of this movie was the Stark Expo: I have gigantic black and white photos of the Tent of Tomorrow on my living room wall. :)

    So sad it wasn’t retro. Like my dream of Retro-futurist feminist Ant Man.

    I guess they were doing the same kind of update to the mid-century imagery with Whiplash? Was he a “Cold War Commie” back in the day?

  2. Noah Berlatsky says:

    I wonder if they shouldn’t have just gone for the Mandarin. China hatred is still certainly resonant…maybe moreso than ever. Play it like Alan Moore did with Fu Manchu in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and it might be a retro wink to racism’s past while giving Asian-Americans someone to root for.

    But I guess they figured Whiplash is safer. So it goes….

  3. Richard Cook says:

    Aha! Logged in.

    Now that I think about it, I’m a little surprised that the Stark Expo wasn’t more retro, since it definitely had a 1950s-ish “better living thru technology” vibe. And the whole thing tied into Stark’s father, who was a Cold War weapons designer.

    I didn’t want to get into the minutiae of the Iron Man comic, but since you asked, movie Whiplash is a mish-mash of various Iron Man villains. These include the comic book Whiplash (who’s just a crook with fancy whips) and the Crimson Dynamo (who was the Soviet counterpart to Iron Man). I think Crimson Dynamo is a fantastic name, but I guess the filmmakers thought it was too anachronistic.

  4. Richard Cook says:

    My first comment was meant as a reply to Caro.

    Noah-in the first “Iron Man” a secret organization called The Ten Rings was behind Tony Stark’s kidnapping. I figured this meant that the Mandarin would show up in a later movie. But I think you’re right: Marvel Studios is going to play it safe.

  5. Caro says:

    I was disappointed the Expo wasn’t more retro: it was all sparkly and digital. (Of course, Tomorrowland at Disney is the same way.) There just isn’t a critical mass of nostalgia for that particular retro aesthetic, I guess. You only ever see steampunk, and rarely, and it’s usually fairly lame and unsuccessful.

    I remember thinking at the time that there was way too much plot in the film — your subplot after subplot is just right — and it completely ate up any space they had to explore the atmosphere or imagery. The first one was better at that.

    They had inklings of a real retro thing — the guy from Mad Men riffing on Walt Disney’s presentation to the State of Florida to build Epcot (I wanted that to be my favorite bit but it just kind of rang false), the skeleton of the Tent of Tomorrow and the Unisphere, Russian accents, the military industrial complex — but they just spent their energy on plot rather than on knitting it together. It was like somebody had the germ of an idea about how to displace the Cold War into 2010 but never got past the idea.

  6. Richard Cook says:

    That’s a great way of putting it.

    I haven’t seen any behind-the-scenes stuff, but I suspect that the script went through a number of re-writes. Perhaps the first draft placed greater emphasis on updating Iron Man’s Cold War mileau, but later drafts trimmed that down to make more room for generic action movie scenes and all the set-up for upcoming Marvel movies.