IRON MAN 2 has two major problems; the first, that it's shallow, is something the first movie had. It's just shallow. It doesn't go anywhere. It just feels like a set up. The first movie felt like a set up for the IRON MAN franchise, and instead of IRON MAN 2 being an example of how awesome that franchise can be, it's a set up for THE AVENGERS. It doesn't go anywhere. It doesn't go to the end of the line. It doesn't push itself. It sits there, wallowing in the middle ground. I actually missed the post-credits sequence, which on one hand is annoying, but in another way, the idea of the scene is just frustrating. I don't need another nod and wink towards the Marvel universe of movies. One nod and a wink is fine, but if you do it repeatedly (Captain America's shield, Black Widow and the Avengers, Tony inventing Vibranium), you look like you're having an epileptic fit. So this movie sat there pointing at future set ups and then had a rather conventional action plot under pinning it that was remarkably lackluster. The final Whiplash fight was another robot-on-robot CGI-fest after fifteen minutes of nothing but. It didn't progress, the movie doesn't go anywhere.
I'll explain what I mean by comparing it to THE DARK KNIGHT.
Joker and Batman have precisely four face-to-face scenes.
The first is at Wayne's fundraiser for Harvey Dent. In this scene, Joker is planning to kill Harvey Dent to make a trifecta of murdering the high-ranking judiciary officials in Gotham. He walks in, holding the whole place, and especially Rachel Dawes, hostage asking for Dent. Batman bursts in, and Joker escapes by throwing Dawes out of the window.
The second scene has Joker chasing down a police van holding Harvey Dent, while Batman intervenes to save Harvey. This chase culminates into Joker trying to have Batman trying to kill him. Now, on the surface, this is a repeat of the first scene, in which Joker is trying to kill Harvey and Batman is trying to save him. Except, this has a fundamental difference; the quality of the engagement has changed. Instead of Joker having the edge and using Rachel as leverage to have Batman surrender, Joker has be outplayed by Batman and Dent this time round and so he has raised the stakes and dares Batman to kill him. This is a progression of the themes of sacrifice and corruption in the movie.
The third scene is the interrogation scene between Joker and Batman in which Joker manages to play Batman and the Gotham police department like a fiddle, kills Rachel, escapes with the key witness, and destroys Dent. This scene again, switches the relationship between the characters. Joker isn't trying to kill Dent or have Batman kill him, instead he's got Dent. Instead he wants to make Batman choose between the two people, and then, sadistically, removes that choice from him. And if that wasn't enough, he destroys GCPD. Again, upending and pushing the story forward.
The fourth and final confrontation, is the ferry scenes, where Joker is now trying to do what he did to Dent and Batman in his previous confrontation to all of Gotham City by making them choose and breaking their spirits. As Joker says, this scene is the "battle for Gotham's soul."
Do you see what I mean by how each scene progresses and builds, and the quality of the relationship between hero and villain changes with each confrontation?
Now compare this to IRON MAN 2. Whiplash faces Iron Man three times (which is fine, by the way, the number is irrelevant).
The first scene is Stark in the formula one, totally vulnerable, and he's ambushed by Whiplash. Stark is saved by Happy and Pepper who give him his Iron Man suit that allows him to defeat Whiplash. This is, by far, the best Iron Man scene in the movie.
The second scene is soon after, with Stark with Whiplash in the prison. Whiplash is captured and weak, and Stark walks in and begins to mock and insult Whiplash. The scene turns however, when Whiplash explains that he didn't need to kill him in order to destroy him. This is a terrific scene, and a terrific set-up that the movie, unfortunately, never pays off. Nonetheless, this is a terrific reversal and much like the interrogation scene in THE DARK KNIGHT. In fact, these two scenes are very reminiscent of THE DARK KNIGHT. Both involve the villain staring down the hero in a high-speed vehicle, followed by an interrogation scene that reveals the villain's master plan. IRON MAN 2 does it very well, but this sequence fills a different function; in THE DARK KNIGHT, these sequences were pay-offs to the movie, IRON MAN 2 used it as a set up, only occurring in the first act, and a wonderful set-up at that.
Unfortunately, it goes to pot soon after. The third scene is Whiplash in his suit vs Iron Man and War Machine. They fight, the good guys win, and then Whiplash tries to nuke everything, but they get out just in time. Compare this to the first confrontation. Not only is it the same dynamic, it is actually less than before. Before, Whiplash fought Stark, on his own, without any armour, totally by surprise. In the final confrontation, not only has Whiplash called ahead to tell Stark he's coming but he shows up against two Iron Men. Now, Whiplash already called out Stark in the prison. He already said to Stark, "****'s coming your way." Not only that, but even though Whiplash has a suit, he's up against TWO Iron Men and... well, he feels more powerful than the two of them, sure, but the difference in the scale of power between him and the heroes is less than before. So, it feels anti-climactic because not only did we already see this exact same scene, but we saw a tenser, more exciting version, an hour earlier.
The second major problem is that Iron Man is an over-dog. This is a major problem with superheroes in general, and it's very important to combat this. This is the big gripe everyone has with Superman. It's no different here with Iron Man. As soon as he puts on the suit, he becomes an over-dog. Not only that, but the palladium poisoning he had got cured before the final fight, removing that and giving him even MORE bad-ass super powers and weapons. There's no point, except the beginning of the grand prix scene, where it feels like Iron Man is actually in any danger. His technology is far superior to Whiplash's at every stage, and Justin Hammer is nothing more than a bumbling fool.
The two problems link with the principle of antagonism; the hero can only be as interesting and exciting as the forces of antagonism arrayed against him allow him to be. Batman choosing to not kill and be incorruptible doesn't matter unless he's pushed to a breaking point. If the Joker isn't amazing, Batman won't be. The same is true for John McClane; in each DIE HARD, McClane is up against a highly-trained team of international terrorists who are not only smart, but they are committing a perfect crime that they have actually already got away with. And in each movie, John McClane has to rise to the occassion; he has to rise from being this down-trodden beat cop into a smart, cool, superhero. In SEVEN, Detectives Somerset and Mills are on the trail of a terrifyingly tenacious and creative serial killer. And they all get pushed to the end of the line. The key scene is "the hero at the mercy of the villain". We need that scene to show the hero turn the tables on the villain. KICK-ASS had five of these, and each time, they copped out with the cheapest idea; someone rescues the hero. Kick-Ass rescues Hit-Girl, Big Daddy rescues Hit-Girl, Hit-Girl rescues Kick-Ass, and on and on, and we never got to see what they were really capable of. Batman has a good one in THE DARK KNIGHT, pinned by the Joker who wants to show Batman the destruction of Gotham's soul, but Joker is stymied by the people of Gotham, and Batman manages to use his gauntlets to free himself and defeat the Joker conclusively. John McClane has two terrific ones; in DIE HARD the "duct taped gun" scene and the fantastic "shooting through his shoulder" scene in the fourth movie, both climaxing their movies.
IRON MAN 2 never has this. The closest is during the grand prix in which the villain self-destructs by posing and missing Stark, and then Stark is rescued by Pepper and Happy. Iron Man is never tested, never pushed, and so the whole experience is rather shallow.
I mean... would this not have worked better? After Whiplash's attack on Iron Man, there is indeed blood in the water, and the sharks do come. Justin Hammer hires Spymaster to break into Stark's lab and take the schematics to the Iron Monger suit from the first movie, which he can sell to places like North Korea and Iran who would, indeed, make the more primitive Iron Monger level of the suit. These makeshift Iron Men start popping up faster than Tony can repair the damage to his suit, and he's running out of Palladium much quicker. This inspires Rhodey to break Tony's trust and steal a suit so that the US can compete. So now this new arms race is gearing up, and Tony isn't in the state to fix it. With his time running out, SHIELD offer him a potential key to salvation by finding a new type of element his father was working on. He discovers the element; Promethium, which would cure him, but unfortunately, it's highly unstable and very, very explosive. He quickly realises that SHIELD wants it for a weapon, that his father always intended for it to be a weapon, and tries to hide it, but SHIELD come after him. He trusts it to his new assistant, Natalie, but she turns it over to SHIELD because she is, of course, Black Widow. Betrayed, SHIELD helps to refine the promethium... but it doesn't work. Thinking Stark's pulled a fast one, they soon realise that Black Widow is a double-agent, and she takes the Promethium to... Whiplash. Who is now working to build an ultimate weapon. With the Promethium out there, SHIELD kidnap and force Tony to build them a better bomb. This culminates in a fight between the Iron Mongers, the War Machines, Whiplash, and caught in the middle, is Iron Man. Not only does he have to contend with these three factions, but he has had his palladium poisoning replaced with a promethium core which is probably even more dangerous. So he has to fight not only all the bad guys, but his own suit to. The battle builds, and Iron Man is triumphant! Yay! But, it's come at a price; his promethium core is about to go ka-blooey. So Rhodey does the buddy thing, pulls the core out of Tony, and flies him to safety. It ends with the Promethium bomb being detonated and destroying... I dunno... Siberia. So there's a new nuclear deterrent on the planet. And Tony Stark has to reopen the munitions division of Stark Industries, in order to build more and more Iron Men and Promethium for America, and it ends with the world on the cusp of a new arms race instead of a new era of limitless, free energy. The weapons technology is out there and the cold war has begun.
Okay, so it's more pessimistic, and it's all over the place with a thousand and one guest stars, but the idea is that it builds and pushes Tony into making tough choices so that it arcs from Tony being the greatest guy on the planet to being the architect of World War III (just an aside: while it may not sound like it here, my intent is that Tony being a munitions dealer would not require a third movie and be conclusive, much like Batman being a fugitive). Being Iron Man has become the worst thing it could possibly be. Also, it makes the whole "Natalie is a SHIELD agent" mean something as she betrays Tony twice. I was waiting for the fact that Black Widow was Russian and Whiplash was Russian to actually pay off.
The movie, however, is entertaining. I particularly loved Happy Hogan and Black Widow's relationship. They were terrific fun. The grand prix scene and subsequent prison scene was also great. Sam Jackson was fun as well, and Rourke was wonderful. Despite Hammer being a bad idea, what they did with Hammer, Sam Rockwell in particular, was a lot of fun.