Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.
What’s the best Marvel movie? There’s a strong case to be made for Black Panther or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Thor: Ragnarok has its diehard supporters, and the first Iron Man still rocks. Personally, I’m partial to The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy. But for every memorable entry in the MCU, there’s an equally forgettable counterpart. Your Thors: The Dark World, your Ants-Man. What was the big conflict in Spider-Man: Far From Home? That movie came out eight months ago, but for the life of me, I probably couldn’t tell you if you put a gun to my head.
At some point, when Marvel’s unprecedented streak of success comes to an end, we’ll pick apart why this franchise has kept audiences engaged for more than a decade. But I’d argue that a key component has been their ability to craft supremely passable entertainment. In other words, movies that aren’t quite good, but don’t particularly offend, either. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been defined by its highs, and shall we say, middles. Iron Man 2 marked that first middle.
Enter Justin Theroux. If you’re not familiar, he played the guy who looks like JJ Abrams in Mulholland Drive. He gave a phenomenal performance on HBO’s The Leftovers. Jennifer Aniston’s ex-husband. The evil DJ in Zoolander. Yeah, Theroux wrote Iron Man 2 – in fact, he’s the picture’s only credited writer.
After Iron Man’s production struggles, and in the scramble to capitalize on its unexpected success, Marvel Studios hired Theroux to pen the sequel on short notice (I suspect his writing credit on Tropic Thunder, which scored Robert Downey Jr. an Oscar nom, had something to do with it). Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Justin Theroux is a very good actor. But his talent may only be apparent when he’s in front of the camera – his only subsequent writing credits are Rock of Ages and Zoolander 2 (oof).
See structurally, Iron Man 2 is a mess: we open on Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of one of Tony’s father’s former colleagues. His desire for revenge never really gels with our hero’s path; turns out the arc reactor in Tony’s chest that’s keeping him alive is also poisoning him, and Stark can’t find a solution. Oh also, the script is interested in Tony’s relationship with his father and the consequences of a billionaire playboy privatizing world peace. Over seven different subplots, Iron Man 2 presents a scattered set of ideas, and then never ties them together.
Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes has been inexplicably recast, now played by Don Cheadle. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) just sort-of shows up at one point. The film has no idea how to utilize Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and returning-director Jon Favreau’s camera leers and ogles her at every opportunity. At the same time, Tony and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) are supposed to get together, so they do, despite only sharing a handful of scenes and without the film providing any reason their romantic tension should bubble over.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been defined by its highs, and shall we say, middles. Iron Man 2 marked that first middle.
Then occasionally, Iron Man 2 does live up to its predecessor. This is generally courtesy of Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, an underwritten bratty business rival Rockwell elevates every time he’s on-screen. The same cannot be said of Rourke’s “Whiplash,” an endlessly lame antagonist (just one of Marvel’s many). Downey, doing his same shtick as before, delivers – thanks to his reliable charm, Iron Man 2 is actually pretty breezy and entertaining for its first hour, before falling apart in its drone heavy, element inducing back half (which I’m forgetting as we speak).
Look, Iron Man 2 is nobody’s favorite Marvel movie. But for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to function as intended, the company had to figure out how to make entries that wouldn’t be anybody’s favorite. For better or worse, Iron Man 2 provided a valuable blueprint to do just that.