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Iron Man 2's Justin Hammer is Marvel's most underrated villain

Contributed by
May 9, 2018

It took 18 films and 10 years, but Marvel Studios has pulled off the impossible with their 19th film, Avengers: Infinity War. Now that the film is out, the reviews are in, and the box office records are smashed, let's take some time to talk about Iron Man 2.

You read that right. This article with have nothing to do with Avengers: Infinity War. There will be nothing that even resembles a spoiler here.

During all of the excitement surrounding the new film, people once again began the tedious process of ranking the films of the MCU, and sure as anything, Iron Man 2 was often right at the bottom. If not at the bottom, it's usually second to last, almost always battling for the lowest spot with The Incredible Hulk. These were the second two films in the MCU, so yeah, we weren't at Black Panther levels yet in terms of quality and assurance.

I'm not saying that Iron Man 2 is great. Even in terms of the MCU, it probably does belong somewhere towards the bottom, but I'm also someone who enjoys all 18 (now 19) MCU films. I'm an easy audience, it's true, and I'm not saying that the movie is of the same quality as Thor: Ragnarok, any of the Captain America movies, or the aforementioned Mr. Panther. It's not — not even close. Does this mean that it's utter garbage that deserves to be ignored? No way, sir. No way.

Iron Man 2 will love you if you let it. It has love to give. It may not be perfect, great, or even really good — but I have a really weird affection for it, and I wish to spread this affection. An affection infection, if you'll pardon me.

Iron Man 2 was expected to follow up on all of the promises made by its predecessor, and it did not. When I first saw it, I liked it, but I didn't love it. I wanted to love it. My perverse obsession with it is something that has come with time. There are some things that bugged me then, and still do. Let's get those out of the way first.

The "Tony is secretly dying, don't tell anybody" storyline is frustrating. It's the driving force behind a lot of his crazy behavior in the film, and the construct of "we know why, but the film's characters don't" gets really tiring really fast. The film has interesting themes, but still feels partially slapped together — much of this due to the writer's strike that was happening during production. It also spends more than a little time setting up future films, and this comes at the expense of this film's story.

I see those issues, and I don't really care. Iron Man is a sharp little package, and Iron Man 2 is a sloppy, already opened box that was damaged in the mail after the Hulk tried to gift-wrap it. It may be a bit of a sloppy mess, but it's MY bit of a sloppy mess.

The film's big theme is legacy — what came before Tony, what he's doing now, and what he will bring to the future. In the larger sense this takes the form of the film's biggest location, The Stark Expo — a giant celebration of family and ego. In the more intimate sense, the theme is expressed in a hidden message from Tony's father, Howard Stark. Tony might not discover what his own legacy is (that would come in future films), but he does realize here what his father's legacy was — it was, and is, Tony himself. It is this knowledge that finally gives Tony the kick in the pants to stop himself from dying and save the day. John Slattery is wonderful as Howard Stark, and Robert Downey Jr. illustrates Tony's pain perfectly, even when the script doesn't give him much to do it with.

Other treasures hidden in plain sight:

- Tony gets drunk and pees in the Iron Man suit at his own party. You don't see Batman doing that in his movies.

- Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) continues to steal the show, referencing Supernanny and going to the land of enchantment.

- Tony and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) have their first kiss, so that's nice.

- Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) makes her debut, and her moment of ass-kicking is one of the best scenes in the film.

- Tony eats donuts inside of a giant donut.

- Tony's frustration with the overly intricate, rotating "art" that sits on Pepper's desk is wonderful and justified.

- Don Cheadle takes over as James Rhodes, and becomes War Machine. Though future movies give him way more interesting (and fun) things to do, his scene with Tony in the little garden (and the ensuing all-too-brief action scene with the drones) is a highlight.

The real treasure of this film, though? The real gem? The Eiffel Tower, the Monte Cristos, the sparkling diamond that keeps me coming back time and time again? This guy:

Iron Man 2- Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

There's a lot of talk about how the MCU doesn't always get villains right, and when looking at this film, sure, Mickey Rourke's Ivan Vanko isn't a great villain. His story of getting revenge for what Tony's father did to his father ties into the themes of legacy, and his electro-whips are kind of cool, but the action scenes with him are very short. Vanko is not a great villain, and that's perfectly fine. This film has JUSTIN HAMMER.

To paraphrase the man himself, Justin Hammer Steals. The. Show.

Sam Rockwell is so good in this film that part of me wishes they'd just made it a Justin Hammer movie that had some Tony Stark in it. Hammer has so very much the ambition but none of the talent that Mr. Stark has. At the time the film came out, people compared Tony and Hammer to Apple and Dell. Hammer tries, he tries very hard, but he just can't get out from under Tony's shadow, or Tony's snark. Instead of living with it, he hires a villain with a daddy agenda. Things devolve.

His scenes with Tony are hilarious, as Rockwell plays Hammer with an incredible mixture of neediness and overcompensation. His scenes with Rourke sparkle because he stupidly thinks that he has the upper hand, and he revels in it. Forced to dance along to Vanko's almost silent tune, Hammer's escalating frustration with him is a thing of beauty. Whether he is trying to understand Vanko, giving Vanko a bird, or taking that bird away (as well as Vanko's shoes and pillows), Rockwell's work here is manic, bewitching, and beautiful. It's not so much that Rockwell (a gifted actor who now has an Oscar) is let off of the leash here, it's that there never was a leash in the first place.

There's also this:

Iron Man 2- Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) dancing gif

Courtesy of Marvel

I'll just come out and say it, in case it isn't apparent: Justin Hammer is the real reason that I love this film. Tony Stark is almost (almost) always his own worst enemy, so Hammer is more of an annoyance. Nobody in the film is impressed with him, ever, but he keeps trying. It's a blast to watch the other characters try to avoid strangling him whenever he's around — Tony, Vanko, Pepper, and Rhodey all seem like it takes everything in them to not pop him directly in the face.

The perfect summation of Justin Hammer happens when he's not even on screen. When Rhodey gets his stolen Iron Man suit "weaponized" (great idea) the government calls in Hammer. Hammer goes through an increasingly offensive roster of weapons that he could add to the suit, ending with something he calls "the ex-wife." Here he is going on, and on, and on about it:

Much of what he says here can also be said of Rockwell's performance, but that's not the point. The point, is that when Rhodey deploys one of Hammer's Monte Cristos in the climax of the film, it bounces off of the intended target, falls in a puddle, and farts.

All talk, no substance. That's the Justin Hammer promise.

A sniveling, wormy little twerp, Rockwell's work here deserves a place of honor in the "William Atherton/James Rebhorn Memorial Museum of Film A-holes." It is my opinion that Hammer's bust be placed right next to the bust of Ellis from Die Hard. That's how strongly I feel.

Is it just a coincidence that a movie that is supposedly about Tony Stark has an after-credits scene that features the following image?

Iron Man 2- Mjolnir tag post-credits

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

No, I don't think it is a coincidence — it's hammer time, is what it is. The MCU drops two hammers in this film — one was created in the heart of a dying star. The other was created by Sam Rockwell.

The best news of all — Justin Hammer survives the film. He pops up in the Marvel short Long Live the King, so we know he's still out there. His company is still out there too, as it sells weapons the villains of Luke Cage over on Netflix. Do the right thing, Marvel — bring the Hammer back.

If you're feeling depressed, lonely, or tired after Avengers: Infinity War, take a walk on the wild side and give Iron Man 2 another shot. By Grabthar's Justin Hammer, by the suns of Rockwell, you might very well have a good time.