"If there's one thing that I've proven, it's that you can count on me to pleasure myself."
Flexing on corporate rivals and Congress alike, Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark drops this line at the start of Iron Man 2. It's the first of many mic drop moments in a movie that feels bloated despite being short by Marvel movie standards (124 minutes never felt so long), but it's also the true beginning of a journey that would give superhero movie fans some of their best moments of the decade.
The 2010 sequel is the Marvel movie that's arguably aged the worst since its release, a decade ago on May 7. Iron Man 2 lumbers under its own weight, trying to do too much with not enough time, and the critics agree. As recently as May 2020, Collider ranked Iron Man 2 last among all 23 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Polygon also ranked Iron Man 2 last in 2019, calling it a "glue-and-popsicle-sticks creation." Vox called it "kind of a mess." And statistically, only two movies in the MCU have lower scores on Rotten Tomatoes: Thor: The Dark World, and The Incredible Hulk.
Fans and critics don't like Iron Man 2, but after all this time, are those jabs justified? In revisiting the movie for its tenth anniversary, the answer is a pretty unequivocal yes. But while it has a host of problems — the uneven action scenes and heavyhanded construction of a cinematic universe among them — Iron Man 2 also claims a few stand-out qualities, even if they wouldn't come into focus until nearly ten years after its dismal debut.
Iron Man 2 brings humanity and sobriety to Tony Stark, the singular, gravitational individual an entire cinematic universe revolved around. Iron Man 2 made the "invincible Iron Man" vulnerable as he started a journey that culminated with a heroic sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame.
A king and a jester in shining red armor
Iron Man introduced the superhero, but Iron Man 2 gave us the man.
Building on the smarmy genius introduced in 2008, Iron Man 2 makes Stark more than just a billionaire nerd with bravado. He's a king and jester in shining red armor, with a painfully human heart beating at the center.
In 2010, the MCU entered its third year with its third film in Iron Man 2, in which Stark wrestles with his celebrity as a superhero while confronting his own mortality. Meanwhile, a Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke) seeks vengeance against Stark for old family sins. The film had Jon Favreau return as director (and as Happy Hogan) with Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Paul Bettany's soothing voice reprising their roles from '08.
Along for the ride was Don Cheadle (replacing Terrance Howard) and Mickey Rourke, a year after his own Oscar-nominated comeback in The Wrestler. That Iron Man 2 pit Downey Jr. against Rourke was a kind of poetry; both actors had just overcome their own rocky paths back to the limelight. Here, two formerly disgraced actors are reinvigorated, fighting each other in an expensive summer with bombastic explosions.
In usual Hollywood fashion, Iron Man 2 wanted to be what all sequels should: Bigger, louder, and better. It was maybe two of those things. Even when it was released, Iron Man 2 was reviewed unfavorably to its 2008 predecessor. On Rotten Tomatoes, Iron Man has an impressive 94% critic's score; Iron Man 2 sits at a weaker (but still fresh) 73%.
At this time in the MCU, Thanos and the Infinity Stones were gobbledygook. Thor had yet to drop in (his hammer appears in this movie's post-credits scene) and Captain America was still frozen in the arctic. The MCU was still grounded to Earth in Iron Man 2, with even the film's plot point of a new element still in the confines of Earth and human physics. For that reason, it's fitting how human of a movie Iron Man 2 remains. The movie is the only one to flirt with David Michelinie and Bob Layton's 1979 Invincible Iron Man tale "Demon in a Bottle," the iconic comic book storyline in which Iron Man fully confronted his alcoholism. It is recognized today as "the quintessential Iron Man story," and gave context to the hoopla surrounding Downey Jr.'s initial casting in 2007.
Iron Man 2 never quite lets Stark struggle with capital-A Alcoholism, but it does put him in some stages of a depression. Stark splits with best friend Rhodey (who takes off in one of his suits) and suffers from a killer hangover in the morning. His birthday the night before is tinged with the unseemly sight of a grown man partying like a fraternity bro. There's a pain in Tony Stark's heart, and that's not just his poisonous palladium core.
"He was cold, he was calculating"
In the movie, Stark reminisces on his father Howard Stark, portrayed in Iron Man 2 as a ghostly cocktail of Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. "He was cold, he was calculating," Stark says, perhaps also talking about himself. "He never told me he loved me. He never even told me he liked me."
Though their unseen, off-screen lives were likely full of tension and pathos — behold their fateful Christmas afternoon in Captain America: Civil War — we know in Avengers: Endgame just how much the senior Stark loved the (unborn) Tony. But Tony's time in 1970s New Jersey means nothing without the story of Tony and Howard, and how wrong Tony was about his own father.
Iron Man 2 also allows us to glimpse Stark at a starting point where he can grow. In Capitol Hill, Stark is gleefully snarky, brandishing his big brain over bureaucrats who don't know a nano-chip from a potato chip. He's the personification of Ayn Rand's wildest dreams. "I've successfully privatized world peace," Stark says. Mic drop.
But that's not the great summation of Tony Stark. That's only his beginning. The arrival of aliens and his near-death experience in 2012's The Avengers traumatized Tony, allowing him to wrestle with it privately in 2013's Iron Man 3. Come 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron, Stark's paranoia over Earth's lack of protection leads to his creating of Ultron, who, in turn, makes Stark hesitant towards the free market of superheroes and explains why Stark is first to sign the Sokovia Accords. Later, he became a figurative father in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and by Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, he was a real father, willing to sacrifice himself when the world needed him to.
You don't get to that moment, you don't go on that journey, without Iron Man 2. You don't get to Stark's "snap" without Stark making a show in Washington D.C. in Iron Man 2, dropping one-liners on bureaucrats and scoring his ego to AC/DC. You don't understand Stark's grasp of fatherhood without seeing the man who raised him. You simply don't know Tony Stark without Iron Man 2.
It's in Iron Man and again in Avengers: Endgame where Stark says, "I am Iron Man," but Iron Man 2 shows you why.