Iron Man 2: Make a Sequel, Not a Prequel
If you've perused my site or listened to my podcast, you might be aware that I like superheroes and superhero movies. And for almost 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated the superhero genre in film. Since these movies are easily the most successful comic book adaptations to come out of Hollywood, every other week I am going to examine one of the films in the series (in order, naturally) and figure out what we as writers can learn from each movie.
This week, we're talking about another movie that gets a bad reputation (which I think is only partially earned), and probably the film that most obviously shows the growing pains of the MCU experiment: Iron Man 2.
This movie is wildly uneven. On the one hand, the cast is on fire, and the action sequences are all extremely well-done (something that cannot be claimed by the first Iron Man movie). On the other hand, the film takes several detours in the second half to set up The Avengers (and to a lesser extent, Thor and Captain America). The main villain achieves his stated goal at 40 min into a 2+ hour movie, and while I enjoy his interplay with Justin Hammer in the second half, it’s not nearly as impactful as his role in the Monaco sequence.
At the center is Tony, and his personal issues drive much of the plot - but there are a few too many subplots being balanced, and the movie strains to support them all. Tony is dying from metal poisoning thanks to the arc reactor in his chest; the government (and other forces) want to replicate Tony’s technology; Tony‘s father‘s partner’s son (Ivan Vanko) wants revenge on Tony; Nick Fury is trying to vet Tony for the Avengers.
Each plot point in the film spins off of (at least) one of these storylines. Tony makes Pepper the CEO because he’s dying. Tony gets drunk at his birthday party because he’s dying. Rhodey takes the Mark II suit because the government wants the armor (and because Tony is drunk at his birthday party; it’s actually a good example of the storylines playing off each other). Hammer recruits Ivan because he wants the armor and Vanko wants revenge (this is actually good, solid storytelling but it comes after Ivan accomplishes his first plan, which waters him down a bit).
But some of the plot points are seemingly assigned to the wrong subplot. Natasha joins Stark Industries to vet Tony for the Avengers, not because the government wants his technology. Nick Fury gives Tony documents from his father because Tony is dying, not because he’s vetting Tony for the Avengers.
It almost seems like diverting the story in the middle of your movie to set up other films is... maybe not the best thing for your story?
The MCU is one of the most buck-wild success stories in Hollywood, and it only gets more impressive when you see how every other studio tries to set up their cinematic universes. So many of them try to cram a bunch of unnecessary set-up into an early movie, in the hopes that they’ll get credit for having set up other movies and make the audience interested.
The Mummy drops the heroes into an extended sequence at a monster-themed S.H.I.E.L.D. analogue that drags the story to a halt. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn’t stop at clumsily adding Wonder Woman to the film, but also has a 3-minute long scene where Batman emails Wonder Woman some files on the other future Justice League members (it’s extremely dumb).
And the hard truth is this: Iron Man 2 makes those same mistakes. It gets too cocky and tries too hard to sell the audience on the concept of the cinematic universe, and it drags the movie down. The only reason the MCU didn’t divide audiences like the DCEU, or crash and burn like the Dark Universe, is because Marvel is really good at making their characters likable.
A lot of my friends walked out of Iron Man 2 shaking their heads, calling it a huge step down from the first film. But the film didn’t make the audience dislike Tony Stark or his friends. So when he popped up in The Avengers with other well-developed characters like Thor and Captain America, people still went to see it.
I’m planning to self-publish a book series about superheroes, and one of my goals is not to overload each story with set-up for the next one. Whenever I wonder if a story leans too much setting up the next installment, I look at Iron Man 2 as a movie that went way too far into setting up the next film.
That being said... Iron Man 2 isn't actually that bad. Especially with the benefit of hindsight, it rewards you for being a loyal Marvel moviegoer. If you're looking for something fun to put on, you could do worse. But if you're writing a sequel... you could do better.