The following review assumes you’ve seen the film. If you have any interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you probably already have, so I’m not going to pretend I’m making a recommendation to anyone who hasn’t seen this installment. Groovy? Groovy.
Allow me to preface this with a disclaimer: Iron Man 2 is not a bad movie. However, it isn’t an especially good one, and is the worst of the post-Iron Man Marvel Cinematic Universe. For being a franchise that has had nine installments as of this writing, the Cinematic Universe has been consistently above average for the superhero film genre, and Iron Man 2 is no exception. But just barely. This film is an obvious holding pattern to try to keep the character of Iron Man relevant in the period between the first film and The Avengers, and while it succeeds at being that, it doesn’t succeed at being much more.
To this film’s credit, though, I must compliment it on not opting for making the villain’s goal to attempt conquest on a global scale, but rather works on presenting a revenge tale. Modern action films usually don’t settle for less than earth-shattering conflicts, so it’s nice to see Marvel willing to take a risk on a more personal story. That said, though, Ivan Vanko is a really uninspired villain. For the majority of the film he acts as a straight-man foil to Tony Stark’s annoying business rival, Anthony Hammer, and the few scenes where he does take direct action are brief, token, and inconsequential. He feels like he’s there as the film’s obligatory villain, but he’s not really developed enough beyond his most basic motivation to be at all compelling.
Speaking of not being compelling, Tony Stark himself turns the clock back on all his previous character development, playing up his egotism to even greater heights in hopes of recreating his charm from this film's superior predecessor. Robert Downey Jr. does a great job in his role, and I particularly like the developing chemistry between Tony and Pepper Potts (though I still don’t understand how the two kissing can look like “two seals fighting over a grape” as Rhodey so eloquently puts it.) However, the way that Stark is scripted makes him feel juvenile in light of all the self-awareness he attained over the course of the first film, which is particularly striking in a franchise that has prided itself on its dedication to continuity. I realize that the in-plot excuse for his behavior is that he’s dying and trying to cover it up through his antics, but all I saw was an attempt to give audiences more of the same antics from the first film when Stark’s character has grown past the point where it’s believable. Yes, Stark is a narcissist, but he's supposed to be beyond the point where he's hurting others through his narcissism. That was the entire point of the first film, and this greatly undermines it.
I also found S.H.I.E.L.D.’s presence to be incredibly forced. They seem to exist here for three reasons: first, to further solidify their presence in the Cinematic Universe; second, to provide some plot-tidying exposition to further explain Vanko’s motivation; and third, to provide Stark with the means to discover his magic MacGuffin element to tie up that particular subplot. I get the feeling that the original idea was to incorporate S.H.I.E.L.D. more heavily into the then-upcoming Thor, but the screenplay writer decided this would be easier to whip up short notice as his deadline fast approached. It was a sloppy introduction to the agency that would play such a prominent role in the films to come.
Am I harsh on Iron Man 2? Yes. Does that mean I think it’s a bad movie? Again, no I do not. But I think it’s a fairly average one, and from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that’s disappointing, which is why I am so harsh on it. To be fair, this review is largely in retrospect, as it was the third installment in the Universe, and at that point, Iron Man was the only truly exceptional piece to the puzzle. But even as a direct sequel, Iron Man 2 just isn’t up to snuff against its predecessor, and almost every subsequent Marvel film blew it right out of the water.
Think any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s installments are worse than Iron Man 2? Let me know in the comments below and, if you’d like, I’m more than willing to take a second look at any of them for another Request Review.