Iron Man 2, the second film in the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe (if we’re not counting The Incredible Hulk), doesn’t get much praise. It’s not the sleekest or most well-plotted MCU film, and it’s slightly messy, to the point that is often seen as a detriment rather than charming. But it does have some great character moments, like the Stark Expo and that epic Black Widow hallway fight, and a forever underrated performance by Sam Rockwell’s performance as Justin Hammer. But most importantly, without Iron Man 2, Tony Stark does not become the fully realized character whose arc we have followed, fallen in love with, and connected with for a over a decade.
Although the movie is often overlooked because of its plot, Iron Man 2 informs Tony as we know him, making way for the Tony that we watch fly into space in The Avengers, suffer PTSD in Iron Man 3, battle his friends in Captain America: Civil War, mentor Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming, fight Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, and sacrifice his life to save the universe in Avengers: Endgame.
While Iron Man set up Tony and Pepper’s relationship, without Iron Man 2, we don’t see the most important part of it: the necessary speed bumps. There’s no omelette apology after Monaco, no Tony handing over his company (thereby establishing how much he trusts her competence). Without Iron Man 2, we don’t witness the first kiss that leads to their established relationship in future films, and we don’t get to see Tony and Pepper work out their differences so they can understand each other as a couple.
And without a focus on Pepper, watching the “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” go from self-absorbed weapons monger to someone with a renewed sense of self doesn’t carry nearly the emotional weight it does when we see him living life as a healthy, happy, established dad and husband in Endgame‘s five-year time jump.
Similarly, Iron Man 2 is important in the way it establishes Tony’s complex relationship with his father, Howard. Sure, we have a little insight into the Stark patriarch from the short-lived Agent Carter television series and we learn more about Tony’s parents in Civil War. But Iron Man 2 focuses specifically on Tony’s “daddy issues,” helping us understand why someone who was brought up hearing that Captain America was their father’s greatest creation might spend their life feeling like they’re not worth much to others.
Not only does it make the first meeting between Steve and Tony so much more meaningful, it underscores their tension in Civil War, lends genuine weight to their reconciliation in Endgame, and makes the closure Tony gets with Howard after his time traveling conversation that much more poignant.
Iron Man 2 is at its core a film about legacy; it’s the bridge that helps humanize a character we started to understand in Iron Man and who we are still figuring out in The Avengers. It also helps us understand why Tony brings Peter Parker into the superhero game. When he tells the young webslinger, “My dad never gave me a lot of support; I’m just trying to break the cycle of shame,” we understand why it’s so important for Tony to cultivate his own legacy in someone he knows he can influence positively.
When we talk about foundations, emotional moments, and importance, Iron Man 2 doesn’t usually come to mind. But it should, because Tony’s character development is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of why this movie should be appreciated. Without this film, we don’t get the introduction of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, a founding Avenger who follows up on Nick Fury’s “I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative”—and sets it into motion at the film’s end. We don’t get Rhodey suiting up as War Machine for the first time. The seeds of Hydra aren’t planted by showing Senator Stern (Gary Shandling) in a position of power.
As the MCU changed and grew over the years, characters and movies evolved along with it. Stories found their footing (Captain America: Winter Soldier), characters found their strengths ( Thor: Ragnarok), and themes hit their stride ( Guardians of the Galaxy). Reflecting on 20 films and ten years, it’s easy to look at Iron Man 2 and acknowledge where it went wrong. It’s also easy to see why other films are considered objectively better.
So is Iron Man 2 the best movie? Probably not. But is it important in informing Tony Stark as a character, while also providing a concrete foundation for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Absolutely.
Featured Image: Marvel