There is a moment early on in Iron Man 2 which serves as a crystallization of exactly why the film, despite all of the things it has going for it, doesn’t work. It is just after Mickey Rourke’s character of Ivan Vanko has busted onto the track of the Monaco Historic Grand Prix and attacked several cars with his electronic whips, including Tony Stark’s own. Stark crashes and emerges from the wreckage, just in time to see it. The cars coming up behind Vanko on the track swerve, desperately trying not to hit him, and crash into one another. The result is a giant, fiery explosion right behind Vanko as he walks towards Stark.
This moment is entirely superfluous in every way, in a manner that is not dissimilar to the work of Michael Bay. The explosion exists simply because someone thought it would be cool to have a shot of Vanko walking away from an explosion in this scene, possibly even mirroring Stark’s own walk-away from an explosion in the first film. But the explosion is an act of entirely passive storytelling. Vanko does not whip one of the oncoming cars, causing the explosion. The cars themselves should not be exploding in the first place, even if they crash, the cars Vanko whipped with untold amounts of energy didn’t explode. If they do explode, with how close they are to Vanko, they should do some damage to him. But perhaps most importantly, the death of these drivers are never addressed again. They did not matter to the story, the explosion did not matter to the story, and no one who is involved with the story was affected by this moment in any way, shape, or form.
Iron Man 2 was released in 2010, just as Marvel Studios was really starting to gear up on the road to The Avengers. The film is often pointed to as a weak spot in Marvel’s ever-expanding catalog and this is essentially the reason why. Many people, Favreau included, said the film did not work because it was simply too busy doing the heavy-lifting of laying the groundwork for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But that’s really not true.
Sure, it features the Stark Expo which would later be seen in Captain America: The First Avenger, and it introduces us to Romanoff as Black Widow, who would go on to be featured in countless other Marvel films. Aside from that, we get some S.H.I.E.L.D. references and appearances here and there, a weirdly-placed Captain America’s shield cameo, a namedrop of the Avengers Initiative, and a nod to Phil Coulson’s involvement in New Mexico with Thor’s hammer. But none of these things are what makes Iron Man 2 a weak film. These are integral to the film at their best and simply superfluous at their worst, but none of them take up enough time in the film to ruin it.
So then, what does derail Iron Man 2? It’s a sequel to a smash success, starring an incredibly likable and talented cast, directed by a visionary and extremely capable director, and featuring some sleek action sequences and imagery, so what went wrong? Well, at its most basic level, the writing. But more so than that, it is the fact that all of Iron Man 2’s storytelling is done passively.
The difference between active and passive storytelling is as simple as the difference between someone saying to you ‘I damaged your car’, instead of, ‘Your car was damaged’. The second sentence is a restating of what happened, without any implication of responsibility. In the world of passive storytelling, things just happen without cause, without reason, and without motivation. And this is exactly the problem that Iron Man 2 runs into again and again.
Even looking at the larger picture, the structure of Iron Man 2 itself is entirely passive. Essentially the film spends its run time hopping from one subplot to the next, until its reached feature-length and can just cue up the big third act battle. It starts as a film about Tony and Vanko’s history, before becoming a film about the government trying to ascertain the Iron Man tech from Tony, before becoming a film about Tony’s failings at Stark industries leading to him appointing Pepper as the new CEO, before becoming a film about Tony’s arc reactor slowly killing him and the depressed binge it sends him on, before becoming a film about S.H.I.E.L.D. putting Stark on lock down, before becoming about Justin Hammer, Ivan Vanko, and a bird.
If there is a central storyline here, it is that of Tony having to atone for the sins of his father and come to terms with his own history. Vanko is the son of a man who worked alongside Howard Stark in the creation of the original arc reactor and has now come to claim what he feels is rightfully his. Tony is putting on the Stark Expo, deliberately following in his father’s footsteps. But even this is fumbled, the thread lost over the course of the film. By the time Tony is watching some of Howard’s old reels of footage and Howard turns to Tony and tells him “What is, and always will be, my greatest creation... is you", it feels completely unearned. The film has done little to nothing to actually explore the relationship between these two men other than to have Tony say that Howard never openly showed him love. Instead of showing us their relationship, at all, the film opts to tell us about it briefly and figures that will be enough.
The script itself cannot commit to actively telling or choosing a story, so instead it tries to tell multiple and loses what should have been its own beating heart in the process.
Even the film’s most essential and supposedly plot-progressing moments are completely undermined by their passive nature. Hammer breaks Vanko out of prison without either one of them ever even forming a semblance of a plan or even having a conversation, it just happens. Rhodey takes an Iron Man suit from Tony to give to the military, and Tony neither stops him nor cares, despite firmly stating up front that he doesn’t want his tech to be weaponized ever again. The cure for Tony’s sickness is literally given to him by his father in a film reel hand-selected for him by S.H.I.E.L.D. Vanko’s goal throughout the entire film is to kill Stark but then he seems perfectly content to just sit around Hammer’s workshop talking about nothing of any importance for the majority of the final two acts simply because the film needs to stall him until its third act finale time.
The end of the film even sees Pepper and Tony finally getting together as a romantic couple, but there has been literally zero development between the two of them over the course of the film. Tony makes her CEO to pass off all of his paperwork to her and then buys her strawberries as a gift, which she is allergic to. There is no reason for the two of them to feel romantically close or involved, it just happens. Throughout the film, Tony doesn’t learn any lessons or even really do anything for himself. From the revelation about how to cure his illness, to the victory over Vanko, to his relationship with Pepper, everything is just given to him.
Iron Man 2 is made up of a lot of interesting parts, all of which could and should have added up to something more. But with a script that remains firmly locked into passive storytelling mode for the entirety of its run time, the film comes off as completely limp and ultimately inconsequential.