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It’s been a decade since director Jon Favreau gave the world Iron Man 2, a movie that continually, and unfairly, gets dumped on by fans, critics and spectators who examine the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe lineup. As such, it feels like it’s time to start breaking that stigma and highlight why Iron Man 2 actually works really well within the MCU, in honor of the film’s recent anniversary of a decade in existence.
Far too long has Robert Downey Jr’s second time out as Tony Stark taken far too much stick than it deserves. Is it a perfect movie, even in terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? No, but very few are. Does it deserve to be put towards the bottom of most MCU rankings? That’s a negative as well, and here are some compelling reasons why.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s World Building Starts In Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 technically isn’t the second MCU entry, but functionally, it may as well be. With barely any connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both at the time of its release and in the current context, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk wasn’t enough to keep the party going.
Even on a monetary standpoint, you can barely claim Edward Norton’s one and only turn in the MCU was profitable. Meanwhile, Iron Man 2 improved on the blockbuster grosses that Iron Man started to put into the tank for Marvel Studios overall, and it also began another important trend in the storytelling.
Iron Man 2 Begins Tony’s Proper MCU Story Arc
Yes, The Incredible Hulk kinda/sorta does have its connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the film has a post-credits sequence that involves both Tony Stark and William Hurt’s General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross. But if you’re really looking for meat and potatoes MCU storytelling, it all starts with Tony’s arc proper in Iron Man 2.
We not only start to see a world where heroes are starting to come into the public eye, we also see the legacy of the Stark family building the bridge to the future. Through the Infinity Saga, Tony and Howard Stark’s adventures fuel a lot of the main developments that form the culminating picture we see in Avengers: Endgame. Most importantly, Robert Downey Jr’s performance as a Tony facing mortality and responsibility for the first time sets up his character’s overall function in the MCU.
Marvel Cinematic Universe Action Set-Pieces Owe A Debt To Iron Man 2
The battle between Tony Stark and Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko (Mickey Rourke) at Monaco is a firm example of how the Iron Man saga went from scrappy, character driven origins into firm, blockbuster spectacle. By the time you get to the gigantic showdown at the Stark Expo fairgrounds at the end of Iron Man 2, the recipe for Marvel Cinematic Universe action sequences has been written.
Huge, bombastic action set-pieces have become a way of life in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Iron Man 2 was the first film to really nail them into the structure of the series. Again, some work is owed to The Incredible Hulk for doing a little bit of the lifting, but just as the story structure of the MCU started to really come together for the long term in Iron Man 2, so did its action packed style.
Black Widow’s Introduction In Iron Man 2 Foreshadows S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Dark Future
When it was revealed that Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow was actually a covert S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Iron Man 2 started a subplot that would become pretty important by the time Captain America: The Winter Soldier came into the fold. With “Natalie Rushman” being exposed for who she really was, S.H.I.E.L.D. proved that it could be anywhere, or anything, at any time.
Call it fate or even a potential moment of early planning for the future, but Black Widow’s introduction feels like an oddly fitting preface to the eventual corruption that we’d see exposed in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s infrastructure thanks to consistent undermining and infiltration by HYDRA. That subsequently begs the question of what the “surprising backstory” producer Kevin Feige has promised in Black Widow will do for the future of the MCU.
Iron Man 2’s Breakout Success Helped Pave The Way For The Mg
If you look through the on paper results of Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the picture isn’t as rosy as what it would eventually become in its later years. But the consistent success has, and always will be, the Iron Man films; even if you were to judge this sort of thing from a purely financial standpoint.
With both of Tony Stark’s chapters in the canon being the highest grossing solo outings, Iron Man 2 basically paved the way for The Avengers to become the first Marvel Studios film to cross $1 billion. Not to mention, Iron Man 3 would be the first film in the MCU focused on a singular hero to cross that same threshold. It just proves that, without question, Iron Man 2 was important to the MCU because it provided it the first reliable superhero brand it could claim for its own.
The Movie Proved That Humor And Drama Could Be Properly Balanced In A Comic Book Movie
There used to be a long running narrative that stated the DC Comics band of properties were sticking to a “no jokes” formula. This was, presumably, because of the fact that their last major movie that really tried to mix laughter and superheroics into a cocktail of success was 1997’s Batman and Robin. But with Iron Man 2, the humor of Tony Stark’s dryly witty personality really meshed well with the fact that he was a man that felt like he was running out of time.
When Tony Stark confronted his mortality, it led to outrageous behavior, which alternated between concerning, heartbreaking and downright hysterical. It also helped that the rest of the cast, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Sam Rockwell, were also dab hands at jumping between gravitas and punchlines.
Iron Man 2 Is The Cornerstone Of Phase 1’s Success
Put everything we’ve mentioned together into one metal-clad package, and the truth of the matter is that without Iron Man 2, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it would have possibly died on the vine. While Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger are regarded well enough and performed decently at the box office, they weren’t the massive forces of nature that were needed to cement the way forward.
Without Iron Man 2, Tony Stark’s story isn’t built properly enough to help bind Phase 1’s rough around the edges nature into a viable state for The Avengers to really take off. Without that lynchpin in the mix, you lose out on Phase 2’s further experimentation and success, and we’d probably be living in that alternate universe where DC Comics is currently working on Justice League: Mortal 2.
As cool as it may seem to knock on Iron Man 2, the movie still stands as a vital experiment in those fledgling days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You can’t take it out of the lineup without fundamentally altering the MCU's makeup, and frankly, the franchise would be much poorer without it.
The next time you watch Iron Man 2 (and you’ll probably want to revisit it after reading this argument), keep all of the above in mind and try to see it a bit differently. That is, if you’re not already one of those folks that defend the film ardently. In which case, feel free to use what we’ve just provided as another tool to spread the gospel according to Tony.
Iron Man 2 is available, along with the majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, on Disney+. So if you’re curious as to how you can get access to this, and other MCU movies, check out the 7-day free trial that will put you back on the road to the ultimate endgame.