Iron Man 2 is the Marvel movie that gets no love. It has less comic-book fantasy than most Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, but that’s another way of saying it’s more tethered in reality. Which in turn makes it more interesting than the average. It’s the most libertarian movie of the lot.
“I don’t care about the liberal agenda anymore. It’s boring,” Tony Stark complains near the outset of the 2010 movie (which is streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video). Written by Justin Theroux and directed by Jon Favreau, Iron Man 2 makes a rousing case for a great-man theory of history. Tony may be a shameless rascal and unapologetic materialist who surrounds himself with dancing girls in bikinis at event launches, but he does far more for America than all of the regulators and rent-seekers ever will. The film has a witty script, a hilarious villain turn by Sam Rockwell as a D.C. swamp creature, and a wicked parody of Arlen Specter courtesy of Garry Shandling. It brings us some of Nick Fury’s funniest lines (“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to exit the doughnut”), as well as Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and the first kiss between Tony and Pepper Potts. Its plot is driven by ideas, notably a defense of property rights and warnings about crony capitalism and nationalizing industry. (Spoilers follow.)
As “Senator Stern,” from Pennsylvania, who is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Shandling does a spot-on impression of Specter’s oily sanctimoniousness. “My priority is to get the Iron Man weapon turned over to the people of the United States of America,” Stern says, but that isn’t his priority at all. He simply wants to do what politicians love doing, which is picking winners and losers in industry, with the chosen winner in this case being his golfing partner, Justin Hammer (Rockwell), the CEO of the Senate’s favorite defense contractor. Hammer, as Tony Stark reminds us, is so incompetent a weapons manufacturer he nearly got himself killed trying to make an imitation Iron Man suit.
After the events of Iron Man, the world has been rendered tranquil by Stark’s relentless vigilance about crushing evil. For all of his party-boy antics, he is as serious as Superman about protecting America. In effect, he’s the new nuclear deterrent: He no longer needs to be deployed because all potential enemies understand it would be folly to take him on. The only earthly institution that appears powerful enough to represent a threat to Tony, and therefore a threat to order, is the United States government. Yet Iron Man 2 isn’t a paranoid conspiracy thriller. It doesn’t have to be. The threat isn’t a sci-fi concoction like Hydra, it’s Washington behaving as usual.
Like any other leader proclaiming he merely has the people’s best interests at heart, Senator Stern oozes with worry about Stark having too much power and orders him to turn over his tech to the government, which in turn will share it with Hammer’s firm. Tony refuses. “We’re safe. America is secure. You want my property? You can’t have it,” he says, pounding the table. “I did you a big favor. I have successfully privatized world peace.” The rival defense contractor, Hammer (who calls Tony “Anthony” to troll him), says, “Anthony Stark has created a sword with untold possibilities and yet he insists it’s a shield. He asks us to trust him as we cower behind it.”
But Hammer’s real motive is to line his pockets and win his rivalry with Tony, not to make Americans more secure. He’s so determined that he contrives to break out of prison the homicidal physics genius Ivan Venko (Mickey Rourke), the vengeful Russian son of a former business partner of Tony’s father, and put him to work making a rival to the Iron Man suit. Not knowing this, Tony’s friend Rhodes (Don Cheadle) turns over a version of the outfit to the government, agreeing with the senator’s view that the technology is too powerful to be entrusted to one unaccountable man. This yields a rollicking scene that understands exactly what would happen if you or I got hold of some Iron Man suits: We’d want to have a fight with a buddy, preferably while drunk, definitely to the beat of “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Like the best villains, Rockwell’s Hammer is seductively appealing, especially in the scene in which he proudly rolls out his favorite firearms. One number has six barrels: “The torso taker, powder maker, our boys in uniform call it Uncle Gazpacho or Puff the Magic Dragon,” he boasts. He’s one of the most entertaining arms dealers the movies have ever imagined, and the film avoids the usual claptrap about how weapons makers are the reason we have wars. Meanwhile, Venko’s unusual weapons — the electrified whips that earned his comic-book forebear the name “Whiplash” — prove to be visually engaging as well as challenging for Tony to deal with. To add to his demoralization, Tony finds himself publicly hounded (as any true libertarian would be) by the likes of both Christiane Amanpour and Bill O’Reilly, who appear in cameos. “Tony Stark is done!” O’Reilly proclaims.
Not hardly. Iron Man 2 would be surpassed by some other offerings in the MCU, notably the first two Captain America movies, but it remains one of the smartest and least silly chapters in the 22-film extravaganza.