In Not Guilty, we look at movies and TV shows that the general consensus tells us we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should give a second look — "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. This time around, we turn our attention to the Marvel Cinematic Universe film Iron Man 2 which consistently falls in the bottom of "best MCU film" lists.
I first fell in love with the Iron Man franchise on the day of an Iron Man 2 screening way back in 2010. That moment gave me great affection for the sequel to Iron Man, aka the film that would launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Sequels are inevitably compared to their predecessors, and perhaps that's part of the reason critics weren't huge fans of Iron Man 2. The moment I say it's one of my favorite MCU films, I get looks of shock and stilted laughs — as if I'm joking. However, if you re-watched Iron Man 2, you might just realize it’s actually not bad. In fact, it’s pretty delightful and entertaining. Plus, without Iron Man 2, we couldn't have gotten to the Avengers and thus, to where we are now. Respect your sequels. Here's my defense of Iron Man 2.
There's nothing more humbling than confronting the reality of your ultimate death. Well, other than almost dying in a cave in Afghanistan at the hands of terrorists who want your weapons, maybe. But in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark is forced to confront the one problem he ultimately can't fix alone: his own death, and a slow death from palladium poisoning at that. While he's reckless and shirks responsibility in his crisis, he's also vulnerable. He spends hours on a plane trying to make Pepper an omelet, asks her to escape with him to enjoy what he thinks are his final weeks to live and struggles to tell her the truth about what's happening to him. Tony Stark is showing his weakness.
Underneath his "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist" persona, he cares. He cares about his legacy. He cares about the people around him. And ultimately, as we see in The Avengers, he's willing to sacrifice himself to save the world. Tony thinks he's going to die, which leads him to realizes just how much he really wants to live. For a man who spends so much time pretending to not care about what the people around him think, in Iron Man 2, we get a glimpse into just how vulnerable our hero can be.
The first sign of the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D.
Back before the first Avengers movie brought together a team of heroes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was fragmented. Captain America did his thing being super hot and un-aging. Thor was out in space. Tony Stark was proudly getting attention as Iron Man. The Hulk was... um, green. All of them were independent and far from where they needed to be to become the Avengers. But Iron Man 2 brought together the pieces needed to create the MCU we know and love today.
In Iron Man 2, Natasha / Natalie / Black Widow first enters the world, along with Coulson and Nick Fury — who brings up the whole idea of Tony even joining the Avengers Initiative. Fury saves Tony from his own destruction while Coulson babysits him. Natasha ignores Tony's stupid ideas and just gets sh*t done on her own. These are the foundations for how these characters operate together for the rest of their time in the MCU. Plus, we get the backstory on Howard Stark and how he was actually, sorta, maybe not the worst father in the world. (He did say "I love you" that one time, after all.) Without Iron Man 2, we don’t have the building blocks for the rest of the franchise.
The villains are absurd and wonderful
There are basically two villains in Iron Man 2. Obviously, there's Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) who is like that bad boy drummer dude from high school who never showered. And then there’s Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who is the obnoxious nerdy dude from high school who wishes he was cool enough to be willing to forgo a shower every once in a while but he just can't ignore his need for practical hygiene.
Within minutes of their meeting, Vanko breaks Hammer’s uber-expensive robot prototype, yet Justin is like “COOL BRO YEAH I’LL GET YOU A BIRD.” Both are absurd in completely different ways and together make the perfect villain pair: Ivan has no resources and Justin has no courage. They’re the Odd Couple of the MCU villains and honestly, it's refreshing. Every villain does not need to be a Thanos. Sometimes we just need a Russian man with an ax to grind and an obsession with birds. Vanko is unpredictable, leaving us with no idea WTF he is going to do next. Plus, who doesn’t love an old-fashioned revenge story?
Tony and Hammer’s rivalry also brings some of the best comedic moments in the film — which is actually laugh-out-loud funny in some moments. They bicker over women. They bicker over technology. They bicker in court. They bicker in Monaco. They're two guys who you'd think would get along, but couldn't be more different. Hammer Tech is the butt of joke after joke yet still can't clear the lowest bar of expectation. There's a reason why Stark is so successful and it's the same reason Hammer ends up swindled by Vanko.
You know you'd attend the Stark Expo
Is it just me or does the Stark Expo actually sound like the coolest event ever? Except for the robots taking over and starting to destroy the city, the Stark Expo looks like the perfect combination of an Apple conference keynote and Comic-Con. Iron Man dancers, speeches from dead tech giants, and a year-long summit with demonstrations of all the coolest gadgets which also sorta seemed to have the same energy as a rock show. Why doesn't this actually exist?
The Sidekicks (Rhodey, Happy, and Natasha)
James "Rhodey" Rhodes was re-cast with Don Cheadle for Iron Man 2 (plus all subsequent MCU films). Rhodey is not only Tony's voice of reason but one of the only people he respects. The BFFs don't let their often conflicting views on government disrupt the friendship. War Machine and Iron Man need each other, and their epic team-up in Iron Man 2 demonstrates that.
Natasha and Happy's dynamic in Iron Man 2 is the perfect introduction to the character of Black Widow. She's pretty. She's smart. She's capable. And the men in the film consistently underestimate her. Yet, she continues to prove them wrong. The scene in the hallway where Natasha kicks butt is still one of the most iconic MCU film moments to date.
Listen, if you don’t think Pepper Potts and Tony Stark are the most compelling couple in the MCU I just don’t know what to do with you. In the first Iron Man, we see Tony finally realize how important Pepper is in his life and not just because she's taking care of it all for him. In Iron Man 2, their relationship progresses as Tony prepares to leave his company in the oh-so-capable hands of Miss Potts — who, to be honest, was the one running everything anyway. Their banter, the way you can tell how much they love and respect each other in the midst of their fights, and the willingness of Pepper to flat out call Tony on his B.S. is part of what makes Iron Man 2 work.
Pepper and Tony's relationship throughout Iron Man 2 comes full circle. It starts with Tony giving Pepper the company and ends with Tony giving Pepper his heart (insert "awwwwws" here). They balance each other out and allow the audience to see the side of Tony that makes him more than just the asshole billionaire he could easily become. There's a reason Pepper keeps making appearances in various non-Iron Man MCU films (i.e. every single Avengers film plus Spider-Man: Homecoming) and it isn't because Gwyneth Paltrow has nothing else going on.
It's an undisputed fact that the MCU is comprised of great films. And while many might not see Iron Man 2 as deserving, it has its place.