Iron Man 2: An Analysis
Dir. Jon Favreau
Writ. Justin Theroux (yes, that Justin Theroux; stick to acting, Justin)
I’m just going to put this up front: Iron Man 2 may not necessarily be the worst movie in the MCU, but it is one of the most incompetent—at least in terms of structure and screenwriting. It violates the basic tenants of storytelling, and I want to be clear that this is not inherently a problem or a bad thing. There are many great films, many of my favorite films, that violate the basic tenants of storytelling left and right. The difference is that they do it intentionally, and they do it in order to subvert or deconstruct certain tropes. Iron Man 2 does not do any of that. It doesn’t even attempt to do any of that. It’s just, well...it’s a mess. But why? Let’s dive in.
Iron Man 2 begins by echoing the audio from the press conference that ended the first film, emphasizing again the magnitude of a superhero existing in the public sphere—this is the quality that will define the MCU, and it’s important that we remember it. The audio is juxtaposed with images of snow-covered Moscow, indicating that the effects of Tony’s reveal have rippled across the world. We start out with a wide shot encompassing roads, buildings, and a river, then cut to a shot of a railyard, then again to a grey and grimy street; the ever-narrowing scope of this sequence shifts us gradually into the setting before depositing us in a district that clearly belongs to a low socio-economic status (note the outdated vehicles, the dilapidated façades). Favreau makes an interesting choice in pulling the camera back into the Vanko residence, which gives the sense of a retreat, a falling away into an unknown void where anger and hatred are allowed to fester.
This is followed by the camera pulling back from a television on which Stark’s press conference is airing, which gives the sense of Tony diminishing into a larger world. An interesting note: many of Stark’s most arrogant moments in Iron Man 2 are seen by proxy through some form of screen, contributing to the feeling that we as the audience are part of a watchful but disconnected public. Just as in the cut to the boombox in the opening moments of the original Iron Man, Favreau again makes a switch from non-diegetic to diegetic audio as the sound of the press conference becomes part of the scene at hand. It’s a neat trick that actively brings the tone of the film into focus without an awkward transition. An elderly man is revealed to be watching the television, and the camera cuts in close to Tony when he utters those words: “I am Iron Man.” Clearly, this statement—or Stark himself—means something to the man watching him from Moscow.
“Ivan,” the man calls, and the camera creeps slowly down a hallway towards a figure standing with his face against a closed doorway, a bottle in his hand. The audio/visual pairing tells us that this is Ivan, and the long shot increases his mysteriousness while we move ever-closer, curious, trying to get a glimpse of his face. The aesthetic in the Vanko residence is clearly meant to evoke the cave in which Tony was held hostage in the original Iron Man—note the orange/steel-grey palette and sickly light against drab walls. The movie means for us to draw a connection between Stark and Vanko, not only because the latter’s father says (of Tony) “That should be you,” but because we see the same curiosity, work ethic, and technological brilliance in Vanko that we formerly saw in Stark. We may not sympathize with him, but we at least respect him.
The cave aesthetic encourages us to consider this connection, to see Vanko as rising up from the ashes and forging a fresh legacy much in the way that Tony did in Afghanistan. This is further emphasized by the high-angle shot of Vanko as he screams skyward, his dead father lying by his side (an elegantly-composed image, too, with Ivan and his father perpendicular to one another within the frame). A montage moves us through the sequence in which Vanko builds his own arc reactor based on blueprints designed by his father, Anton, and Howard Stark, whose names we see on the designs. Favreau cuts between images of Vanko forging, welding, and science-ing, and images of Stark (attached to Ivan’s wall) appearing in magazines and newspapers with headlines such as “IRON MAN STABLIZES EAST-WEST RELATIONS.” These images 1. focus us in on Tony as the object of Vanko’s grudge, and 2. communicate the degree to which Stark has stabilized a world in conflict. Over the following few scenes, this newfound world peace will be subtly undermined through shades of subtext.
There’s a bit of shagginess in the storytelling on the thematic front of Vanko’s motivation, because Tony’s role as global figure hasn’t actually changed that much: even before he was Iron Man, he was a pivotal person in weapons manufacturing and presumably had allies and enemies in virtually every country on Earth. Vanko’s (implicitly) sworn vengeance rings a bit hollow, because he is not specifically reacting to Stark as Iron Man (which, given the gamechanging moment at the end of the first film, is where the thrust of the conflict should lie in Iron Man 2). Ivan is reacting to Tony as a weapons manufacturer, not as a superhero, and that’s merely a functional retread of the Ten Rings from Iron Man.
I’m not sure that Iron Man 2 understands this distinction, hence its obsessive doubling-down on Vanko’s motivation despite establishing quite clearly during the upcoming hearing and the aftermath of the Monaco attack sequence that the issue of Stark’s legacy is not the core thematic conflict being dealt with in this movie. We already saw Tony deal with his bloody history as a weapons manufacturer when it came back to haunt him in the first film, so why are we seeing it so soon and so prominently for a second time? The result is a story that tastes stale. Stark should always be dealing with this conflict to some degree, of course—it’s the crux of his overarching character arc and his motivation for becoming Iron Man, so it can never really go away—but our focus here and now should be on the effects of the Iron Man reveal, not Tony’s manufacturing legacy.
After the montage and title card, the following scene (“6 months later”) offers up some interesting thematic material that is never quite capitalized upon. The audio, which again comes in before we get any images, is clearly intended to evoke combat images with words like “cleared” and dropzone.” But then a rock riff cuts in, and the tone changes suddenly. The camera follows Stark as he falls through a fireworks show, echoing the explosions and gunfire from the first act of the original Iron Man. This time, though, Tony lands in celebration to cheering crowds, dancing women, and an image of the America flag displayed on a screen behind him. The camera pulls back from Stark, arms raised in the center of the frame, to emphasize the sheer scope of the Iron Man obsession that he has generated amongst the public. We find out that we are at the Stark Expo in Flushing, New York.
Iron Man 2 seems to be indicating here that it wants to undermine the bombast of America excess by equating it with military destruction, but the movie makes nearly no effort to follow up on this thematic throughline. Notice how the dancers conclude their routine by extending their arms in the same movement that Tony makes when he uses his flight stabilizers as weapons; pop culture in the MCU has apparently assimilated an attack stance as an indicator of power and confidence, which I find subtly revolting and, in keeping with the subtext of the first film, a light but pointed critique of America’s desensitized relationship with violence (especially considering the number of times in which the Iron Man technology is equated with nuclear/hydrogen weaponry). If that wasn’t enough, someone in the crowd shouts at Stark during a beat of silence: “Blow something up!” And Tony responds: “Blow something up? I already did that.” We are fully in the realm of satire now. Is this really how the American public sees Iron Man? As an omnipotent pro-American badass who flies around the world and blows things up? It’s not far off from the way in which many real Americans see their own military. I can only hope that this scene is encouraging us to read against the text, because its undercurrents are even more chilling if not.
“It’s good to be back,” Stark says upon arriving at the Expo, and this is the first of two lines which lean just a bit too heavily in the direction of the fourth wall (even if they don’t quite break it). Tony hasn’t had a notable absence within the fictional world since his reveal at the end of Iron Man—he’s clearly been a part of the public consciousness, given the way in which people react to his presence—so this line is referencing more the two years between the release of Iron Man and Iron Man 2 (he is likely also referring to being back specifically at the Stark Expo, but that’s not what the line seems to be emphasizing). One of the most irritating qualities in Iron Man 2 is its incessant winking at the audience, which breaks the cohesion of the fictional world. “I’m not saying that the world is enjoying its longest period of uninterrupted peace in years because of me,” Tony says. “I haven’t come across anyone who’s mad enough to go toe-to-toe with me on my best day.” Remember our metaphor motif: Iron Man = nuclear weapons. So is this really peace? Or is it fear? It almost feels like we’re getting a precursor here to The Winter Soldier; I can’t help but imagine Steve Rogers walking onto Stark’s stage and saying those same three words that he will say to Nick Fury: “This isn’t freedom.”
While Tony lets a video of his father play for the crowd, he steps off to the side and checks his blood toxicity. The reactor technology is slowly killing him. This is one of the movie’s laziest and least-compelling plotlines—namely for its deus ex machina resolution, but also because it retreads ground covered in the first film (the shrapnel) and adds nothing thematically. Putting Stark on borrowed time enriches his character, but we’ve already introduced and largely concluded that part of his story; there’s no need to bring in another wrinkle when all the pieces are already in place. It also seems strange to me that Tony has access to some of his father’s videos, while others are being kept in the possession of S.H.I.E.L.D. until such time that they decide to hand them over (i.e., when it is convenient for the plot). But that’s neither here nor there.
A lengthy series of POV shots from Stark’s perspective transitions us out of the Expo, emphasizing again the intensity of his celebrity. Kate Mara (the future Sue Storm!) is waiting by Tony’s car when he finally gets outside—this is clearly intended to echo Christine Everheart’s appearance near the beginning of the original Iron Man, but rather than interviewing and sleeping with him, Mara’s character hands a paper to Happy (I like how the Marvel films maintain Stark’s dislike of being handed things, which we will see again later in Iron Man 2 and early in The Avengers) and tells Tony that he must appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee the following day. Iron Man 2 hasn’t yet made any grievous errors in regard to its core structure, but things are about to go off the rails as soon as we get to the hearing. This should be the movie’s inciting incident, the point at which the government seizes control of Stark’s technology and locks him inescapably into a conflict which must be resolved by the end of the film. But…
The hearing returns us to this question of whether the Iron Man suit is weapon or armor; Tony isn’t lying when he denies that it is the former, because the suit was built to defend himself from physical and (symbolically) psychological trauma. The government wants possession of the suit, but Stark makes it clear that he and Iron Man are one and the same. The weapons capabilities of his technology are inextricable from his purpose and motivation as a person. (The camera communicates how serious Tony is when he says this by shooting him in profile, without the crowd behind him, whereas whenever he is making jokes the camera shoots him from the front so the crowd and its laughter are captured in the frame.) This brings us back to a core theme from the first movie, namely the necessity of the “pilot’s judgment” and the ability to contextualize a situation and discern an appropriate reaction. Iron Man 2 will only revisit this theme once more, when one of Hammer’s/Vanko’s drones targets a child wearing an Iron Man mask.
Stark frequently looks back at Pepper after making a joke (he seems to be craving both her attention and approval), but she is the only one who isn’t laughing. Senator Stern brings in Justin Hammer, weapons contractor for the United States military and Tony’s competitor, whose dislike of Stark is beautifully brought into focus by his form of address: “Anthony.” This feels at once both personal and dismissive. Note also that Hammer and Stern not only never appear in the frame with Stark (emphasizing their opposition), but they always appear on opposite sides of the frame to maintain visual consistency (Tony on the left, Hammer and Stern on the right). The inclusion of Hammer and Stern in Iron Man 2 is exceedingly strange, because neither of them serve any narrative or thematic purpose as antagonists. They do not provide a physical, intellectual, or emotional threat to Stark, and the narrative isn’t impacted by their presence in any way.
James Rhodes is brought in by Senator Stern as well. “It’s me, I’m here,” Rhodey says. “Deal with it.” This is the second line that strays just a bit too far in the direction of metafiction; it’s an obvious double-reference both to Rhodey’s appearance at the hearing and to Don Cheadle’s replacement of Terrence Howard in the role, which was something of a minor firestorm at the time. Favreau keeps Rhodey firmly on Tony’s side by shooting him in the left side of the frame. We find out that other people may possess operational Iron Man technology, but Stark reveals both their lack of sophistication and Hammer’s involvement in some of the projects. I find it particularly interesting that Tony refers to himself as a “nuclear deterrent” for America, which echoes the mindset of his father and his work on the Manhattan Project. Stark may be a nuclear deterrent, but that makes him a nuclear weapon—and it’s only a matter of time before other countries catch up. It’s the Cold War all over again. But “I have successfully privatized world peace,” Tony says, and that’s the end of that.
Of all the mistakes made by Iron Man 2, this hearing is the most egregious (at least in the sense that almost all of the core problems in the film would have been rectified by a different outcome to this scene). Here’s the thing: there are two primary conflicts engaged with by Iron Man 2 (although neither is provided with sufficient payoff)—1. Ownership of the Iron Man technology, and 2. Tony Stark’s image in the public eye. I’m not pulling these out of thin air; the movie itself indicates that these are the core conflicts during the hearing and Tony’s conversation with Vanko after the Monaco sequence. The latter scene at least feigns at setting up a subsequent conflict (Vanko seems convinced that he has “[made] God bleed”), although the theme of Stark’s image is never really followed up on. The hearing, on the other hand, doesn’t even manage to make the crucial blow: Tony humiliates the senator, and the armor isn’t taken away from him. But basic storytelling structure tells us that it should be taken away. This should be our inciting incident, the moment in which the conflict is inescapably set into motion. The dominos are all set up, but the government needs to take the Iron Man armor from Stark. One simple change, and suddenly we have a conflict and the rest of the film falls into place. (The inciting incident in Iron Man, for comparison, happens after less than two minutes of screentime.)
We cut again to Vanko, who has been watching the hearing on C-SPAN (recall how many shots during the preceding scene were explicitly labeled with the C-SPAN logo; we’ve been in Vanko’s POV this entire time, and it recontextualizes everything we’ve been seeing). We suddenly realize how Stark’s words and actions may be coming across to someone who isn’t a part of his capitalist American mindset and sympathetic to his struggles. Vanko has his tech up and running seventeen minutes into the movie, a desperate reminder for the audience to remain tense while we wait for the inevitable inciting incident. Meanwhile, Tony makes Pepper CEO of Stark Industries and Vanko acquires what appear to be legal documents that will get him to the Monaco Grand Prix.
Twenty-three minutes into the film, Natasha Romanov arrives under the guise of a notary (“Natalie Rushman”) to aid in signing over the company from Tony to Pepper. Stark invites Natasha to step into the boxing ring where he is facing off against Happy, and I particularly appreciate how Favreau uses the camera and the environment to bring an erotic quality to her entrance without an unnecessary shot of her chest or butt (this isn’t to say that Iron Man 2 is without its misogynistic qualities, because they’re there, or that Marvel handles its female characters with grace and respect, because it frequently doesn’t): she ducks under the ropes of the ring, and the camera stays focused on her face as she straightens up again. “What?” Tony says, and he asks Happy to give Natasha a lesson while he steps out of the ring to join Pepper (a fun subversion, given the way in which we usually see Stark react to attractive women).
Favreau keeps Happy and Natasha positioned within the frame (reflected in the glass doorway) while Stark and Pepper talk. When Happy and Natasha converse, the camera shoots Happy from a slight low angle and Natasha at a slight high angle, making the former appear strong and the latter appear weak, thus setting up the reversal of power that is about to come. After taking Happy down, Natasha steps out of the ring and asks for Tony’s fingerprint. Pepper positions herself in the frame between Stark and Natasha, emphasizing the romantic threat that she feels Natasha represents and symbolically placing herself as an obstacle that will prevent them from getting to one another. “I want one,” Tony says to Pepper after Natasha leaves, and we finally make our transition to Monaco.
Favreau makes use of an elegant tracking shot to follow Stark as he moves into a hotel and interacts with Pepper and Natasha (it’s much less garish than Joss Whedon’s tracking shots, but no less beautifully blocked) before meeting Justin Hammer and Christine Everheart once again. Hammer tells Tony that he intends to make a presentation at the Stark Expo, and Tony makes a retreat to check his blood toxicity. The percentage is higher than ever, and the camera zooms in on Stark’s face in the mirror as he looks up and says, to both himself and the audience, “Got any other bad ideas?” This is his motivation for entering the race, then; he has resigned himself to his death sentence, and if he’s going to go out, he wants to go out with a bang. I wish the movie had lingered a bit on the darkness of this subtext—Tony intentionally putting himself on a collision course with death—because that’s an extremely interesting character quality to explore.
Vanko approaches the track during the race in the guise of a member of the intervention crew. (Note the name on his uniform: B. Turgenov. This is clearly a reference to Boris Turgenov, aka “Crimson Dynamo,” one of the Marvel characters who served as inspiration for Vanko in Iron Man 2.) Then he steps onto the track itself and begins attacking the passing drivers as they race past him, incapacitating Stark and killing others. The fact that the film never stops to confront Tony for his responsibility for the deaths at Monaco is an unacceptable oversight; it would have crystallized the ongoing issue of Stark’s destructive hubris, the collateral damage it causes, and the waning of his image in the public eye. Tony feigns immobility after being knocked aside by Vanko, and the camera traces his gaze: he sees gas leaking out of the car and Vanko approaching in the rearview mirror. Without words, we know exactly what Stark is planning. He springs aside when Vanko lashes out with an electric coil, and the car explodes in Ivan’s face, giving Happy and Pepper just enough time to arrive on the scene and ram Vanko into the side of the track. Pepper gets a portable version of the Iron Man suit to Tony, who defeats Vanko and removes his arc reactor. Thirty-seven minutes into the movie and we finally have our inciting incident, which also serves as the end of the first act.
Stark goes to see the incarcerated Vanko after the Monaco attack sequence. He comments on Vanko’s tech and asks why he didn’t bring it to the black market, at which point Vanko launches into a speech that clears all opacity from the film and clarifies the intersection between theme and conflict in Iron Man 2: “You come from a family of thieves and butchers. And now, like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your own history. And you forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed. […] If you could make God bleed, then people will cease to believe in him. And there will be blood in the water, and the sharks will come.” Mickey Rourke owns these lines, but they also crystallize Vanko’s motivations (something that should have happened much earlier, so we knew exactly what the stakes were)—his goal is/was not to kill Tony, but to expose his hubris and humanity to the world (again, this would be the perfect time to bring in the deaths at Monaco as a conflictual crux). “You had a shot, you took it, and you missed,” Stark says. “Did I?” Vanko responds.
It doesn’t take long for Vanko to escape. A guard provides him with explosives shortly before shoving another prisoner into his cell, and both inmates quickly realize that they have the same number on their uniform; this is a remarkably efficient non-verbal way to establish what is happening and what is about to happen (for both the audience and the prisoners). Ivan knocks out his cellmate and escapes using a key given to him by the guard, but he is captured again, thrown in a van, and taken to a pristine white airplane hangar where Justin Hammer is waiting. Wide shots emphasize his wealth and the scope of his resources, as do the waiters, security, and elaborate dining experience that he has set up. “I like my dessert first,” Hammer says, a cheap beat that characterizes his childishness. He offers to be a benefactor for Vanko, supporting him in his mission to destroy Tony’s legacy.
The following scene, back at Stark’s home in Malibu, offers up a gorgeous bit of characterization for both Natasha and Pepper. When Rhodey arrives and asks where Tony is, Natasha says that “he doesn’t want to be disturbed,” while Pepper says that “he’s downstairs.” Two lines, and we know exactly where each of these women stand in their relationship to Stark: Natasha is loyal to the letter, but Pepper knows when and how to call Tony out on his bullshit and refuses to let him run rampant. It’s a razor-sharp bit of writing. Unfortunately, after brief scenes with Vanko and Hammer and Stark and Romanov (the latter of which is simply but elegantly written and performed, soaked through with sexual tension and mournful melancholy as Tony considers the possibility that this will be his last birthday ever), we get to Iron Man 2’s bloated and suffocatingly-stupid midpoint—Stark’s birthday party.
Rhodey and Pepper desperately scramble to put an end to Tony’s drunken antics, which include shooting bottles out of the air over the heads of a cheering crowd; Rhodey takes possession of an Iron Man suit and faces off against Stark. The problem with this scene is the sheer magnitude of the disparity between the tone of the film (light) and what is actually happening on the screen (extremely dark). Such a disconnect can be wielded by skilled artists to emphasize or undermine the power of a moment, but in this case everything is diluted to the point of disinterest. We need to see collateral damage, we need to see someone we care about get hurt in order for this pivotal showdown to land its emotional and thematic weight. But nothing of the sort happens. I do like how we see Tony’s competence with the technology versus Rhodey’s inexpertise, but the ultimate purpose of this sequence is to 1. Establish Rhodey as the War Machine, 2. Provide the United States government and military access to the Iron Man technology, and 3. Set up the joint-beam attack (a convenient Chekhov’s gun) that Stark and Rhodey will use to defeat Vanko in the climactic scene. These important shifts define the midpoint of the movie, which concludes at the sixty-minute mark—just a shade over halfway through the film’s running time.
When we return to Tony, he is eating a Randy’s donut while sitting in Randy’s donut on top of Randy’s Donuts. Nick Fury approaches. What follows is an insufferably lazy scene; Natasha’s real name and occupation are casually revealed, and she injects Stark with a substance that mitigates the effects of the poison in his body. Why is this all so cavalier? Why is S.H.I.E.L.D. intervening now and not forty minutes ago? Why wasn’t Natasha played up as a potential villain (especially given her connection with Russia) before being unveiled as one of the good guys during a moment of crisis? This anticlimactic reveal is exceedingly strange, and it reeks of obligation—as if no one working on the movie could figure out a more organic way to integrate Fury, Romanov, and S.H.I.E.L.D. into the ongoing narrative thread. Meanwhile, Justin Hammer discovers than Vanko has been turning his Iron Man suits into drones, and Rhodey is ordered to bring in Hammer to weaponize his own stolen suit so he can present it on behalf of the military at the Stark Expo.
Hammer’s presentation to Rhodey actually works quite well. There’s a real sense of rhythm and pacing as he introduces each weapon, sees unimpressed faces, and plays it off like he also isn’t impressed before pulling out an even bigger gun. This culminates in an unassuming missile, and the music cuts out to emphasize just how badass this thing is: “It’s capable of busting a bunker under the bunker you just busted. If it was any smarter, it’d write a book. A book that’d make Ulysses look like it was written in crayon. And it would read it to you. […] It’s completely elegant, it’s bafflingly-beautiful, and it’s capable of reducing the population of any standing structure to zero. I call it the Ex-Wife.” All this hype, of course, is serving to set up the subversion that will come when Rhodey attempts to use the Ex-Wife on Vanko during the climactic battle and it completely fails to deliver. (Again, though: whatever talent Hammer has is undermined to the point of incompetence time and time again throughout the film, which hardly establishes him as a credible threat to Tony. So, structurally, why is he here? What does he contribute in terms of narrative? Answer: nothing.)
Stark attempts to apologize to Pepper and fumbles the moment miserably in what is a surprisingly touching scene, but its structural purpose is merely to move us into Tony’s discovery of the model that his father hid in the Stark Expo designs. It’s the layout of an atom, an element that will keep him alive. Everything about this reveal is simply unacceptable from a screenwriting standpoint: it doesn’t come about due to any effort on Stark’s part, but rather because of pure happenstance. The video of his father drives him to go see Pepper, where he just happens to stumble upon the Expo designs, and—pop! He’s figured out this pointlessly-hidden revelation and it just happens to solve the problem that needs to be solved. No, no, no, no, no, no. You do not get to get away with this kind of coincidence and convenience in storytelling. It’s pure deus ex machina, “the god out of the machine,” a solution that just shows up for no legitimate reason and fixes everything. However, do take note of the sharp tonal shift when Tony says “We’re back in hardware mode” and springs into action so he can synthesize the element. For the first time in the movie, Stark is suddenly active and motivated—as he should have been all along—and we feel that injection of vitality. (The film might have gotten around the problem of this plotline by having Tony discover his father’s work near the beginning; he then could have spent the next ninety minutes struggling to create the element and finding out that he needs the aid of others to do so, thus ensuring his motivation as a character and facilitating the theme of cooperation).
Iron Man 2’s second act concludes when Stark’s arc reactor “[accepts] the modified core” eighty-seven minutes into the movie, which is roughly appropriate given the running time of the film (although the length of the second act as a whole is just a shade short, given that the first act ended a bit late, but that’s an insignificant problem when set against everything else that has been going so, so wrong in this movie). We have thus concluded the first act on a moment of failure and the second on a moment of triumph, with the third act resolving in an eventual moment of triumph as well. The emotional rhythm is off—Iron Man followed the ever-popular success/failure/success pattern, and The Incredible Hulk followed failure/success/success…but the latter film maintained interest by subverting the context of success and failure for both the characters and audience (see my full analysis for additional details regarding this quality). Iron Man 2 is simply struggling to find natural tides in its tone and pacing, and that struggle weighs down the movie like an anchor.
The third act begins with Hammer threatening Vanko and Vanko threatening Tony, at which point we move into the Stark Expo. Hammer begins his presentation by promising that the press is about “run out of ink,” a joke that is lame even within the context of the film. Why are we still undermining Hammer as a competent villain? Minor character beats such as this one deflate our sense of stakes and tension as the third act kicks into motion, because we believe less than ever Hammer poses even the remotest threat to Stark. The movie quickly attempts to regain its footing by cutting to the POV of the drones and Vanko working on a computer, clearly taking control. The battle against the drones is largely forgettable, but stuck in the middle is arguably the most thematically-interesting moment in the entire film: a drone targeting a child who is wearing a fake Iron Man helmet.
(Addendum: Tom Holland says in this interview that the child who appears here is actually Peter Parker, but I won't address this since it is not canonical within the text of the films.)
Stick with me for a moment, and imagine an incident like this opening Iron Man 2—but with the drone actually killing the kid. Too tonally dark to fly in the MCU? Probably. But consider how this would have been the perfect flashpoint for everything that the Iron Man franchise is trying to say. It would have captured the issue of manned versus unmanned weapons while sparking the debate over suit ownership; the necessity of a manned weapon in lieu of a drone’s indiscrimination (Tony’s overarching thesis) would have been proven, but Stark also would have been responsible for the death of a child. This would be the exact motivation the government needed to legally pursue possession of the Iron Man technology, and it likely would have facilitated Tony’s spiral into depression. Add in Vanko’s humiliation of Stark on the world stage, plus an earlier discovery of Howard’s designs, and suddenly the whole movie just fits together. There’s conflict, there’s motivation, there’s emotional engagement, and there are some really knotty themes being brought into focus. If only. All that aside, though, I do find it interesting that Tony merely says “Nice work, kid,” and flies off after saving the child. He doesn’t take the kid’s helmet off or even suggest it. Heartless as Stark is, I don’t buy this—not only because the child’s life is still in danger from the other drones, but because it would have been a perfect moment for Tony to acknowledge everything that his life as Iron Man has wrought. I can imagine him saying something along the lines of “You don’t want this” (albeit wittier), but simply leaving the kid feels just a step out-of-character for me.
Stark and Rhodey defeat the drones and Vanko himself; Pepper resigns from her position as CEO of Stark Industries. Nick Fury then gives Natasha’s “assessment” of Tony to him, at which point we get a minor but lovely little three-beat: “’Personality overview: Mr. Stark displays compulsive behavior.’ In my own defense, that was last week. ‘Prone to self-destructive tendencies.’ I was dying! I mean, please, and, aren’t we all? ‘Textbook narcissism.’ Agreed.” This final beat is funny because Tony’s protests against the first two points set us up to expect a third protest, but he subverts our expectations by agreeing. A classic three-beat—introduction, reinforcement, subversion. Stark then notices that Natasha has approved Iron Man for the so-called Avengers Initiative, but Tony Stark has been denied. This brings us back (in a surprisingly elegant fashion) to the point that Tony was making during the hearing at the beginning of the film, that he and Iron Man are one and the same. But is that the truth?
Iron Man 2, unlike its predecessor, does not have a strong foundation shaken by deep flaws; this is a movie that is broken at its core, hence my difficulty in offering concrete suggestions as to fixing it. It needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Here are the primary problems: 1. Our protagonist. Stark doesn’t want anything. He’s arrogant, he’s careless, but he’s not motivated. There is arguably no tenant of storytelling more important than a motivated protagonist. Without a character who wants something, there’s no story, and there’s no story in Iron Man 2. Our antagonists and themes. Tony doesn’t have to fight to maintain his image. He doesn’t have to fight to maintain ownership of the Iron Man technology. He has to fight Vanko, yes, but this antagonist is more of a minor inconvenience than a core conflict that drives Stark to change. Hammer doesn’t pose a physical, psychological, or emotional threat to Tony, and he is ultimately irrelevant and a distraction from the narrative. 3. Structure. The inciting incident comes far, far, far too late, and the Howard Stark discovery is, to put it kindly, convenient. Iron Man 2 is a hot mess, but there is a compelling undercurrent of melancholy that runs just beneath the surface and a few flashes of…I won’t say brilliance, but interesting material. Next up is Thor, which has even less to offer cinematically but far more from a structural standpoint.