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The following is a part of the Avengers YNInitiative, a series of at least four articles that will be written over the course of at least the next three years. These articles will focus on the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it explodes from the comics page to the silver screen. These articles will serve to review the films released in the context of the larger picture that they strive to create. Keep in mind as you read this that as these articles are written, they will contain spoilers for all product released at the time and may also contain non-spoiler information regarding future films.
In beginning a series on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I thought it best to begin with Iron Man 2. Soon to be on DVD, the film, while a sequel to the earlier Iron Man (obviously), is truly our first vision of the shared universe we'll be seeing in theaters world wide supposedly in 2012 (barring, of course, the destruction of civilization by John Cusack or whatever that movie was about). Iron Man 2, while a more than serviceable film in its own right, is an excellent stepping stone to what may be a much larger and more diverse picture. It is the first herald of a this world that is being built, and is perhaps a vision of what the future a might hold.
If you've been living under a rock for the past few years (and I pray for your living conditions to improve, if so), then you might not even know what I'm talking about here. See, when Iron Man was released in 2008, it was the first film to be made by Marvel Comics' newly formed film enterprise. Little did we know (or maybe we knew everything? I don't remember), that this was the first of a series of films that would come together over the course of the next half decade. Iron Man came first, and lo, it was good. And then came Edward Norton's "The Incredible Hulk," and, sorry haters, it, too, was good. While those were merely the first ripples in the water, I believe "Iron Man 2" is the event that cracks open the door, right before next year's "Thor" and "The First Avenger: Captain America" kick that door right open and then shatter it with mystical Norse lightning.
The Whole Movie: Because Sections Are For Losers 4/5
The film tells the continuing story of Tony Stark, alias Iron Man, who is dealing with the fact that his own tech is killing him, both in the form of the arc reactor in his chest and a Russian jerkwad by the name of Ivan Vanko. Like the first Iron Man film, it's two hours of Robert Downey Jr. chewing up scenery, except this time he's backed by some other fantastic actors. Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer was one of the high points for me, and Mickey Rourke's turn as Vanko was fantastic as well. Don Cheadle steps in for the greedy Terrence Howard as James "Rhodey" Rhodes (what a redundant nickname), but I felt that Cheadle, while perhaps one of my favorite actors in Hollywood, was a bit out of place in such a piece.
Going in, I'd read a review that painted Iron Man 2 as nothing more than a two-hour trailer for the Avengers movie. In a way, that's not too far off the mark. At the end of Iron Man, Stark is approached by Sam Jackson's Nick Fury, who offers him a place in "The Avengers Initiative." In this film, we're given even more tidbits. Fury actually plays a part in the plot of the film, supplying Stark with an epiphany and a new character: Natasha Romanov, known in the comics as the Black Widow. Played by the stunning Scarlett Johansson, Romanov exists to show that SHIELD is alive and well in the film's continuity and is only going to get more involved as time goes on.
More bones are thrown to us fanboys. Most obvious are the heralding of the remaining two of the Avengers' big three: the blatant cameo by both Captain America's shield and Thor's hammer (post-credits). The world-building continues, and as a fan I'm eating it up. In Fury's war-room near the end of the film, a map shows points of interest around the world that point to Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, and possibly even Namor and the Black Panther! Also in this scene, the keen eye can pick up a news report that is actually just a film clip from the Norton Hulk film. Will we see them all come together in 2012? Will my pants stay dry?
So what does all this mean? Well, as the A Team trailer that played before Iron Man should've said, "I love it when a plan comes together." The future looks bright for the idea of a cohesive cinematic universe. Iron Man 2's place in this world cannot be ignored. When Thor comes out next year, the fantastic Agent Coulson (who is an original movie creation, but really needs to be brought into the comics) will have a fairly important role. I wouldn't doubt we'll see Sam Jackson in the Captain America film. Every piece of tech you see in both films is going to have a big STARK logo slapped on it right next to the SHIELD logo. Iron Man 2's introduction of the Black Widow might even be the first non-major team member we might see in the actual Avengers film!
Now, certainly, the film on its own is quite good. The pacing has been harshly judged, and I admit there's a lull in the center where it seems Vanko, Stark, and Rhodey are all working on building new hardware and the plot is going nowhere. Still, I think it's more than what can be expected of such a film, which might have to do with Jon Favreau's direction (the guy's fantastic). The story is fine for what it is: Tony screws up, then he gets better. He's still in the middle of his journey that he began in the first film, where he's realizing that it's not all about him. Perhaps that will be his arc in the Avengers film, where the egotistical Stark realizes that he must come together with others to fight a threat that not one of them could take on alone.
For comic book connections, the movie seems to me to harken to the classic "Demon in a Bottle" storyline. In the comics, Stark struggles with alcoholism, and, while aside from one scene he isn't shown to be a total drunk, Tony still struggles with something perhaps more relatable: a mid-life crisis. He's turning over a new leaf, but his past, including his damaged heart, the sins of his father, and the way he's treated his friends, keeps coming back to haunt him. It's like he can't overcome the hurdle. There's even a nod to the "Armor Wars" storyline, wherein Stark attempts to stop those who have taken his technology and used it for less than noble means. Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts are both given larger roles, as is James Rhodes, all of whom are pretty much the entire Iron Man supporting cast.
Again, I have to talk about Justin Hammer for a bit. I've always disliked the comic book Justin Hammer. He was just an old man who was evil and boring. He was like a really mean Hugh Heffner with silicon robots instead of silicon ladies. Eventually, he got frozen in a block of ice and tossed into space and literally no one cared (seriously, his own company went on operating because no one gave a crap). The movie Justin Hammer is such a sniveling jerk, but you can also see that he has a dark side. He doesn't want Vanko to kill the people at Stark Expo, but only because his reputation is at stake, not human lives. Remember, Hammer himself engineers Vanko's prison escape, which leaves a number of people dead in the process. Hammer is portrayed as a businessman who wants to one-up Tony Stark, but if you're paying attention, the man's cold as ice. A murderer, a thief, and then even beyond that a swindler, as a his products don't even work! I hope we get more of Hammer in the Avengers or Iron Man 3 - he's too good a character to leave lying.
Final Thoughts 4/5
In all, Iron Man 2 is a great film. I'm still thinking about whether or not I like the first or second film better (check back with me in the next article), but it is what it is, and I like that. It's two hours of Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau playing with toys, and if you're into adolescent power fantasies, then you should totally be down. I know I was! Even if you find more flaws in Iron Man 2's armor than I did, you still need to take it for its part in the big picture: this is the Tales of Suspense to next Summer's Journey Into Mystery. Was that reference too comic booky? I dunno, hit up Wikipedia, will ya?
We have the armor. Soon, we'll have the shield and the hammer. Earth's Mightiest Heroes will take to the big screen, and it's because of this film that it's all able to happen. I definitely recommend giving Iron Man 2 a watch, or maybe even two, and keep in mind that this isn't just Tony Stark's story: this is the story of the Marvel Universe.
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