Length: 9 minutes.
Contains: Major spoilers for Iron Man 2 and mild spoilers for The Force Awakens.
I was about 10 years old when I watched Iron Man 2 in theaters; watching it 11 years later, I never realized how snappy the dialogue is. There’s so many hilarious innuendos that I’m sure flew over kids’ heads. I had a great time then, and I had a great time now. It befuddles me seeing the way people talk about this film. Do people really think this film is just … okay? Is it really on the same level as the first two Thor films, The First Avenger, Ant-Man & The Wasp, or The Incredible Hulk (which, by the way, is decent in its own right)? Iron Man 2 has its issues, but I wouldn’t consider it mediocre by any stretch of the imagination. Still, what bothered me about the film then bothers me today.
The Flaw, Part I
That is to say, my only major issue with this film is the contrived solution to the palladium poisoning subplot. I didn’t understand this part of the film at all as a kid; I see why now. To start, Tony is slowly dying from palladium that is leaking into his body from the arc reactor in his chest; in the film’s own words: “Unfortunately, the device that’s keeping you alive is also killing you.” He claims that he’s tried replacing palladium with every single element, but no cigar. The cure to his condition lies in creating a new element, basically. Interesting sci-fi idea, huh? Too bad it’s executed in the stupidest way possible.
Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D (of which Tony’s father, Howard, was a founding member), tells Tony that the arc reactor is an unfinished design. He leaves Tony with a trunk full of Howard’s stuff and tells him to get to work. Tony watches old ’70s film reels of Howard talking about the “City of the Future”. Howard is standing behind a model city that is supposed to represent the Stark Expo. Tony says at the beginning of the film that the Expo is where the brightest minds in the world will work together to advance science. We never really see these bright minds; all we really get of the Expo is Justin Hammer making a weapons presentation near the end of the movie. When the Hammer drones go rogue, thanks to Ivan Vanko’s hacking, there are a lot of civilians in danger. Based on their clothing, they seem more like attendees than scientists. As the drones wreak havoc in trying to kill Iron Man, we should be concerned about the collateral damage, right? Especially when their husks self-destruct, blowing up half the Expo. It would be terrible to lose so many valuable human beings in what is essentially a cyber-terrorist attack. Of course, because these stakes aren’t properly set up, and the whole thing is glossed over anyway, the audience isn’t going to think about it. What we got instead was one of those PG-13 “movie logic” moments where the civilians are all running away, so they’ll all be fine. Right?
Speaking of movie logic, it’s awfully convenient that Ivan Vanko programs the drones to only target Iron Man. He had no problem trying to kill random drivers in the Monaco attack from earlier in the film. Why spare civilians now? He had plenty of drones, including War Machine, to keep Tony busy. And why did the Hammer drones have timers on their self-destruct sequences? The obvious red beeps gave Tony enough time to rescue Pepper and escape.
Because movie. Because movie, dude. It should go without saying, but just because we’re talking about a movie, that doesn’t mean we should throw all logic and continuity out the window. Things should still make sense within the fictional universe.
The Flaw, Part II
Anyway, back to the subplot. Howard says something like “This [city] is the key to the future” and that he is limited by the technology of his time. Howard tells Tony: “What is and will always be my greatest creation … is you.” We’re supposed to take away from this scene that Howard really did care for his son. This scene is recontextualized later when Tony visits his old office to see Pepper and finds the model city that Howard built; on it reads: “THE KEY TO THE FUTURE”, which Tony recognizes. A light bulb goes off in his head.
This is where the film started losing me. It’s not completely unbelievable that the model city would still be there after 30-something years, but what are the chances that Tony doesn’t notice it before he leaves his office? What if the dust cover on the model city was draped over the entire thing, covering it? It’s such a deus ex machina.
It gets even worse. When he takes the model city home, he creates a holographic scan of it and arrives at the conclusion that it looks like the model of an atom (???). Then he expands the “nucleus” of this atom, and using a bunch of technical mumbo-jumbo, discards most of the model city, assembling a model of a new element. This new element is somehow also a perfect replacement for palladium, an improvement to the arc reactor, and will cure Tony.
Why even bother writing a subplot about Tony dying if THIS is how you’re going to resolve it? It’s complete nonsense. We’re led to believe Howard Stark discovered a new element and hid it in his model city, hoping that Tony would discover it when he was older. Was he counting on Tony watching the footage and making the connection in saying, “The key to the future”? Why did Howard hide the discovery of the element in the first place? What harm could anyone have done with it? Tony was able to use the old arc reactor to create repulsor weapons, so what difference would it make if palladium was replaced? I don’t recall this new element playing an important part in the later MCU films. For a script with such snappy, witty dialogue, this subplot resolution is a huge shortfall. Does it ruin the film? I wouldn’t say so. But it’s best not to think about it too much, and I doubt many did.
Privatizing World Peace: The Politics of Iron Man 2
Is discussing the political themes of a mostly disposable superhero film from 11 years ago a stupid exercise? Probably. But I think they’re fun to talk about. At the beginning of the film, we’re expected to believe that the presence of Iron Man has created world peace. We see this in the fake magazine and newspaper headlines during the opening credits, and when he mentions it during the Stark Expo and Senate hearing. The implication is that the Iron Man suit is so powerful that other countries have been scared into not messing with the United States or any of its allies. Ironically, this is Teddy Roosevelt’s “bigger stick” philosophy that the film is using—the same one he uses to justify manufacturing weapons for the government in the first film, before his arc (no pun intended). It makes less and less sense the more you think about it, which I’ll get more into.
One of the questions the movie asks is whether the Iron Man suit is a weapon. Tony says no. Everyone else says yes. Who’s right? Well, let’s see: it’s got an anti-tank missile, wrist lasers, arm and shoulder-mounted guns, and hand-mounted laser blasters called “repulsors”.
It’s obvious that Iron Man is a weapon, but one that Tony feels only he should have the power to wield. The first film supports Tony in that building weapons for the US military results in terrorists (specifically, the Ten Rings) getting their hands on them. We know from the first film that Obadiah Stane sold weapons to the Rings, but I doubt that was already happening before the start of the film. Reporter Christine Everhart only confronts Tony about the Rings’ possessing the weapons after he decided to stop contracting for the government, so it’s more likely that the Rings looted the weapons from the convoy they ambushed at the beginning. Also, Stane wouldn’t have the motive to sell to the enemy unless the government contracts ended, which is what Tony accomplished. Tony is portrayed as responsible in his use of the suit, improving the situation in the Middle East by intervening.
In Iron Man 2, however, he’s portrayed as being much more reckless; during his birthday party, he almost shoots one of the attendees while drunkenly stumbling around in the suit. Rhodey puts on the Mark II suit, ends the party, and flies away with it. He gives it to the military, which backfires when they contract Hammer to modify it, allowing Ivan to hack the suit.
So what is the film saying here? Should we put all our trust in an unstable, egotistical private citizen to protect us? Tony’s just one man, and no one man should have all that power. Sharing power with the military results in our enemies getting their hands on it, something both films show. Unsurprisingly, the film ends up saying nothing; everything works out because Iron Man manages to save the day! The power was shared, but it created a mess Iron Man had to clean up. But the power was shared involuntarily because Iron Man didn’t want to give it up in the first place; Rhodey had to take it from him. What if Iron Man didn’t save the day? What if the civilian casualties were massive? What if he died?
I don’t have any strong opinions on this topic. The closest comparison to Tony Stark in the real world would be Elon Musk (who makes an amusing cameo in this film). I like Musk’s work, but I wouldn’t trust him with national defense.
I could go on, analyzing throwaway lines like “I don’t care about the liberal agenda” or considering whether Ivan Vanko’s father, Anton, was actually a bad guy, but this post is getting pretty long already.
It may be hard to believe I still think this film is good after reading all that. I once watched a video essay where someone ragged on Rogue One for like, half an hour, but then said it was one of their favorite Star Wars movies because … “It was different.” The truth is, I just wanted to get my issues with Iron Man 2 off my chest. There’s still a lot more good than bad in this film. Also, I’m pretty sure that out of all the MCU films, Iron Man 2 gives Rhodey the most screen time. He’s a main character with his own agency and motivations, torn between his loyalty to the military and his friendship with and personal admiration for Tony. I loved seeing him in action with Tony at the end. When they’re ripping through Hammer drones, Tony says, “You see that?” and Rhodey says, “Yeah. Nice. Nice.” It’s a great buddy moment that we don’t get enough of in the later films. It reminded me a lot of Finn and Poe’s escape from a Star Destroyer in The Force Awakens, when Finn and Poe bond over their success in shooting the TIE fighters down.
As a final note, there’s an exchange between Pepper and Tony that’s aged comically well. During the scene where he appoints her as CEO, she has a slight cough. Tony tells her to put on a surgical mask until she feels better, to which she says that he is being rude. Eh?