Iron Man 2 and the MCU’s first real stumble with villains

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

We're watching the Marvel movies in order for a series of regular features. Check out our previous pieces on Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk

Every great superhero movie has to have a strong villain. The opposition puts the greatest hero through a series of challenges that forces them to think about themselves and what they are fighting for. 

Throughout the years, the MCU has had trouble finding its footing with bad guys. The first real example of that is in Iron Man 2, a movie that tries to accomplish many things with limited success. 

Tony Stark’s worst villain: himself 

Iron Man 2 takes place relatively soon after the first film, following up Tony Stark’s iconic declaration: “I am Iron Man.” 

Now that the Iron Man armor is officially revealed to the world and Tony is the world’s premier superhero, he has to deal with the impact of essentially kickstarting another arms race. The United States government particularly has a bone to pick with Tony, as they believe a weapon as powerful as the Iron Man armor belongs in their hands. This is a point that Tony refutes, saying the rest of the world is 20 years behind approaching his technology.

Soon after, events unfold that not only prove Tony wrong but lead him down a self-destructive spiral. He is forced to confront the sins of his father, and the arc reactor in his chest slowly killing him as he pushes away his closest friends and allies. As Tony searches for a cure, we get a much deeper look at SHIELD and his father’s connection to them. 

Meanwhile, enemies like Ivan Vanko aka Whiplash and Justin Hammer plot against him. While Tony overcomes many of the obstacles in his path, the film ultimately proves that Tony Stark is his own worst enemy.

Iron Man 2 has a lot to prove 

There is no movie more impactful to the MCU than the first Iron Man. It’s the catalyst that sets into motion the idea of a connected world. With Iron Man 2, the MCU had to prove that a shared universe was possible.

That meant teasing what’s next at the expense of the plot – and a lot of teasing it does. That point only becomes more apparent after repeat viewings. Things you’re meant to notice, like Black Widow’s introduction, the reveal of Tony’s father as a founding member of Shield, and teases of events happening at the same time (Thor’s hammer, Cap’s shield, the Hulk rampage) take time away from the character’s own journey.

Beneath this layer of Iron Man 2 is an interesting story. The flawed hero trope rears its head again. Tony’s mission still remains the same. He acts as a hero to the world, going where he’s needed. His company has moved beyond weapons making and towards more altruistic means of profit. He even names Pepper Potts CEO of Stark Enterprises. 

Tony’s ego and hubris stand in the way of him completely fulfilling that goal of building a better world, however. The simple fact is that the Iron Man armor is the greatest weapon created in the last century, and others will either want it or try to recreate it, both of which happen later on in the film. Tony’s illness from the flawed arc reactor further reverts him to his irresponsible self. 

Not enough time is devoted to character development before the film moves on to SHIELD and beating the bad guys. 

With the villains, there are shades of great things. Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash has great motivation for a bad guy, and his connection to Stark makes him an interesting foil. Unfortunately, his character isn’t given much room to breathe and neither is Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer. 

In fact, their existence isn’t even on Tony’s radar until the final moments of the film, which is not something you notice the first time watching Iron Man 2. Whiplash is regulated to another bad guy in a really big suit by the end of the film, and he has nothing important to say. 

In many ways, this is the start of Marvel's villain problem. It’s not until the MCU third phase of movies (from Captain America: Civil War to Spider-Man: Far from Home) that we get consistently good antagonists in these movies.

Iron Man’s second flight 

The benefit of the MCU is that even in an overcrowded movie such as Iron Man 2, there are still a lot of things to love. Its arrival in 2010 brought much excitement at seeing the charismatic hero return. 

Marvel flaunts just how well it knows the character of Tony Stark. The courtroom scene in the film’s first act is quintessential Tony Stark, and even to this day, you can’t help but crack a smile at how much Robert Downey Jr. owns the room as the character. It’s infectious despite how hypocritical and narcissistic Tony Stark is.

Even more exciting is seeing the evolution of the Iron Man armor itself. I’ve mentioned before how much easier it must have been for Marvel Studios to develop special effects for the Iron Man armor in the early days of the series, compared to creating more organic characters like the Hulk. Iron Man 2 holds up in this regard. 

The importance of how good the effects work still looks shouldn’t be ignored. Iron Man is an interesting character to watch evolve throughout the MCU. With most superheroes, a change in costume doesn’t serve much of a purpose other than aesthetics – Iron Man is an exception. 

The evolution of the Iron Man armor is important to the character's development. Those scenes where Tony pulls out the advanced version of the arc reactor out of his chest, or is seen developing the new element mean so much more because they're tied in to how Tony is changing from movie to movie. 

A really good one, and arguably the best single scene in the movie, is the debut of the suitcase armor. The suit-up sequence here still rocks, now just because the effects work is great, but because Tony knew that a futureproofed version of the armor had to be mobile – that he had to be Iron Man all the time and at any time. This was a problem he was trying to solve across the entire MCU story. If you pay close attention in his future appearances as the character, he gets closer and closer to figuring it out.

MCU promising fans the world

Iron Man 2 is the best example of the MCU trying to give fans everything they want, but necessarily everything the movie needs. Of course we want to see more Easter Eggs and teases about the Avengers, but elements like Whiplash’s development, Tony’s self destructive issues and War Machine’s debut feel like they don’t get enough time to be fleshed out. 

The flawed hero theme is there again, but the resolutions to the stories in this movie do not feel completely earned. It’s the great balancing act that the MCU struggles with and takes a while to perfect: Iron Man 2 works in service to the greater landscape of its cinematic universe, but not to itself. 

Iron Man 2 is streaming now on Disney Plus.