A month after The Incredible Hulk debuted in theaters, Jon Favreau and Robert Downey, Jr. had already developed an initial story for the Iron Man sequel and Downey recommended actor/screenwriter Justin Theroux be hired to write the script. Downey had worked with Theroux on Tropic Thunder and in July 2008 he signed on. Writer Shane Black, who had worked with Downey on Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang in 2005, provided some suggestions for the direction in which Tony Stark should develop, and Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Samurai Jack, did the storyboards for the film, providing a smooth and stylish approach to the action sequences, particularly the final battle.
Iron Man 2 would be the first independent Marvel production to film at the Manhattan Beach, California facilities of Raleigh Studios, which now hosted their headquarters and the production offices for their next four films (Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers), and while there were rumors that the film would be adapting the classic "Demon in a Bottle" storyline where Tony Stark deals with his alcoholism, it was not to be. There are hints that the storyline may make an appearance further down the line, but this installment of the franchise was focused on Stark's legacy and that of his father.
Tying into that theme, the main villain this time out is Russian physicist and ex-convict Ivan Vanko, played by Mickey Rourke, fresh from his award-winning performance in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. Rourke brings an unpredictable energy to the role as Tony Stark's dark opposite, whose father worked on the original arc reactor with Stark's father before being deported and essentially wiped from the record. Once Stark revealed himself as Iron Man, Vanko vowed revenge for his father's mistreatment and began constructing his own arc reactor and electric whip weapons. In an extremely effective sequence, Vanko's cramped and cluttered apartment workshop is filmed in a way which echoes Stark's own captivity sequence in the first film.
This iteration of Vanko is an amalgamation of two villains from the comics: Whiplash and the Crimson Dynamo. In the film, Vanko's father is named Anton Vanko after the original Crimson Dynamo from the comics, but Rourke's character is essentially an original character designed to reflect the abilities of Stark and expand on the idea of legacy and what it means to these two sons.
If Vanko is a reflection of Stark without the fortune and social acceptance, the second villain of the piece, Justin Hammer, is Stark without the talent and personality. Sam Rockwell was originally up for the part of Stark before the first film, and when offered this role, accepted without even reading the script or knowing anything about the character. While he mostly plays the role as comic relief, without Hammer's involvement and financial support, Vanko wouldn't be as serious a threat as he becomes.
Essentially it takes the two of them to equal Tony Stark/Iron Man.
The central plot focuses on Stark dealing with his own impending death due to blood poisoning caused by the power source for the arc reactor implanted in his chest. The film begins with his re-launching of the year-long Stark Expo, the last of which his father had hosted in 1974. So not only is he following in his father's footsteps, he's also concerned with what legacy he will leave behind. This is explored on two tracks; the first is with his relationships to Rhodey and Pepper, and the second is with the expansion of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s involvement in his life (and potential death).
This film fulfills the first's promise of getting Rhodey into the suit. However, Terrence Howard didn't make the cut. There were a number of stories from both sides of the casting dispute, with Howard claiming that he enjoyed the Iron Man production and believing that his multi-film contract was a lock, while Entertainment Weekly claimed that Favreau didn't enjoy working with him and had to extensively edit his performance or re-shoot his scenes to make it all work.
Interestingly, Howard had been the first performer signed for Iron Man and was paid the highest salary – more than Downey, Paltrow, or Bridges – and Marvel was unable to go back to renegotiate. Therefore, when pre-production began on Iron Man 2, Howard was approached with a new contract at a much lower salary.
When negotiations finally broke down, Don Cheadle was approached and accepted the part with only a few hours to consider and no knowledge of how Rhodey's story would develop. Cheadle plays the character with much more authority, and fewer histrionics, and the confrontation between Rhodey and Stark at Stark's birthday party plays more seriously than anything Howard was tasked with in the first film. Cheadle's performance lacks the intimacy that Howard brought to the role, but a large part of that is due to the narrative arc Rhodey is following this time out.
When Stark watches Rhodey fly off with the Mark II armor, allowing for the introduction of War Machine later, it is, to his mind, a passing of the torch. As is naming Pepper the CEO of Stark Industries. Of course, from their perspectives, it's all just Tony being irresponsible, since he hasn't told anyone that he's dying.
And that's where S.H.I.E.L.D. comes in. British actress Emily Blunt was Favreau's first choice to play Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff, The Black Widow, however filming conflicted with her work on Gulliver's Travels and she was forced to drop out. Scarlett Johansson stepped in and made an extraordinary commitment to getting into shape and doing as many of the stunts as possible. Her dual role finds her hired as Stark's new personal assistant once Pepper is promoted, but she is actually keeping an eye on Stark for S.H.I.E.L.D.
Samuel L. Jackson returns as S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury for more than a cameo this time, as he and Black Widow provide Stark with a temporary solution to his blood toxicity problem. Iron Man 2 takes this opportunity to really start building the Marvel Universe that these films share. Not only is this film set six months after the first film, through later interactions with Fury, we discover that it is occurring at the same time as The Incredible Hulk and that Stark's father was a founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) also returns to babysit Stark while he reconnects with his fa
ther's legacy and discovers the secret to developing a new element that can power the arc reactor without poisoning him. While helping him in his makeshift lab, Coulson finds a prototype Captain America shield (the same one that can briefly be spotted in the background of one scene in the first film). Not long after, he is off on a secret mission to New Mexico and a post-credit scene that ties directly into the next film on the road to Avengers.
The final battle this time out is staged better than either of the previous final conflicts, mostly due to the fact that we get both an amazing Black Widow action sequence that cements Johansson in the role and quieted most doubters, accompanied by Iron Man and War Machine blowing the living hell out of a small army of drone soldiers designed by Vanko, rather than a simple one-on-one fistfight. Genndy Tartakovsky was made for this sort of action sequence and the fluidity with which the scene is shot makes it both easy to follow and viscerally satisfying. And our heroes' fairly quick takedown of Whiplash (in full-fledged battle armor this time) makes sense without getting too melodramatic.
With a production budget of $200 million, Iron Man 2 was easily the most ambitious project by Marvel Studios so far, and it paid off at the box office. While the critical reception wasn't as glowing as the first film, Iron Man 2 opened at number one with an opening weekend take of $128 million and made back its budget by the second weekend. It went on to gross over $300 million domestic and doubled that with its foreign box office totals.
Once the dust settled and Iron Man 2 had finally finished its run in theaters, Jon Favreau revealed that he would not be returning for Iron Man 3, despite having hoped to make it a trilogy. The pressures of the back-breaking shooting schedule that Marvel forced on him for the first two films was just too much. Besides, he was now the director of back-to-back blockbusters and Marvel has a reputation for being stingy when it comes to paying the talent on these films.
For example, both Mickey Rourke and Sam Jackson very nearly refused to sign on before Marvel upped Rourke's salary and signed Jackson to a lucrative nine-picture deal, helping to make him the highest-grossing actor of all time and essentially become his own film genre. But by this point, there was no way to successfully re-cast Nick Fury. He, and by extension Jackson, had become the glue holding these films together.
This is driven home as the conclusion of the film establishes that while Fury wants Iron Man for the Avenger Initiative, Tony Stark himself isn't really deemed team material. Stark does, however, agree to serve as a consultant and Marvel Universe chronology is cemented, placing the end of Iron Man 2 shortly before he appears in the closing scene of The Incredible Hulk, tying together these first three films in a tightly structured narrative whole.
After the credits, we see what has drawn Agent Coulson to New Mexico. In a crater in the desert sits Thor's hammer, as though it has fallen from space. Or somewhere… Principal photography had begun for Thor on January 11, 2010 and had finished filming the day before Iron Man 2 premiered in the U.S. on May 7, 2010. Then, by the end of June, Captain America was also underway.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.