The parts of my brain responsible for archiving film memories and maintaining the files held little positive regard for Iron Man 2 before I settled in to rewatch the film on a rainy Dallas day. Excerpts from the dusty files jump off the page: “Anton Vanko; Worst Marvel villain”, “Weakest Link in MCU Phase 1. Okay 2nd Weakest“, “Disbelief can not be suspended so drastically to accept that Tony Stark could have ‘created a new element’ in his garage.” With these cantankerous thoughts rapidly being called up from the archives, I nearly spent the day in the rain. Anything to avoid hearing Mickey Rourke chant “I vant burd” to a befuddled Sam Rockwell.
But settle in I did and as expected, things don’t start well. In the opening we rewatch the final sequences of Iron Man, not from the familiar press room where Tony Stark announces “I am Iron Man,” but from the bedside of a dying Anton Vanko. Vanko reminds his son Ivan that it should be Ivan, not Tony Stark, who the world celebrates as its hero. Once Angry, Alcoholic Scientist Sr. dies, Angry, Alcoholic Scientist Jr. picks up the blow torch and busts out the garage black-smithing gear (which I suggest readers store far from their garage alchemy kit. Safety first people). Soon he creates a version of the Arc reactor which Tony (aka Cheery, Alcoholic Scientist Jr.) created in the first film. Flashforward six months and Ivan (Angry Scientist Jr. that is) buys a passport and ticket to Monaco from a shady character who we all know is a black market dealer given the high degree of his shadiness.
These first few scenes suffer mainly because they so heavily feature Ivan Vanko, one of the weaker villains in the MCU. For the remainder of the film, Vanko splits antagonist-time with Sam Rockwell. Two very different sides to the villain coin, Rockwell’s Justin Hammer flamboyantly dances on stage and seeks the attention of reporters while Vanko is content with watching from his jail cell while Stark burns, a dynamic later inverted by Bruce Wayne and Bane in The Dark Knight Returns. Maybe this reveals a personality flaw in myself, but I much prefer Rockwell’s ineffective parading to Rourke’s more effective mumbling.
Any disappointment with Vanko’s presence is nearly compensated for by Rockwell and Don Cheadle’s performance as Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes. As the movie plows on, these two pull screentime away from Vanko and the complaints of my inner archive seemed quieter and my initial stance slowly softened. Personal biases aside, the second half is stronger than the first. Early on in the film, Vanko emerges from the shadows in sunny Monaco where he interrupts the Grand Prix where Tony is racing. If any of the Avengers belongs in Monaco it’s Tony but it’s not an exciting reveal of a villain’s abilities. Later we watch a drunk, fully suited Tony fight his “best friend” Rhodey who is likewise sporting an Iron Man suit. This shorter sequence pays off better than the Monaco event and leads well into the finale between Iron Man and War Machine (aka Rhodey in an Iron Man suit) against an upgraded Vanko and his drone squad. That final Vanko appearance is another dud for the villain in action and lasts only a brief few minutes.
Even with all of its imperfections, Iron Man 2 does effectively show Tony flying at his highest only to get a well needed ego check heading into Avengers. Iron Man 2 may not be as good as Iron Man or Iron Man 3 but it is not nearly as weak as I had remembered. These faulty memories aren’t so much an Iron Man 2 problem but an issue shared by all (or at least most) comic book films. The in-theater experience will always trump memories that fade and yellow over the years. It’s hard to hold on to the exciting images of War Machine and (drunk) Iron Man throwing sinks at each other, but easy to remember “I vant burd.” Maybe that’s why films like Avengers have such staying power, since they pair compelling storylines with equally engaging Hulk smashes.