Retcon This! – Iron Man 2

In the ever-evolving landscape of fandom, there are simply some things that should not have happened. In Retcon This!, we examine some of the more questionable aspects of our beloved geek properties.


This past summer’s Iron Man 2 was a movie I originally wanted badly to see in the theater, but the issues of time and money (or rather the lack of both) led me to seek it out on DVD. When I finally did see the film, I was glad I didn’t pay theater price for it. While it was a serviceable sequel with fantastic special effects and impressive action scenes, I had my share of problems with the script and with some of Jon Favreau’s directing choices. With a few shining exceptions, sequels are rarely as good as the original films that came before them, and Iron Man 2 is no different, but it could have been so much better with a few changes.

My main problem with Iron Man 2 lies with many of the performances, primarily by some of the newcomers to the Iron Man movie cast. The two most disappointing performances were by two actors whose work I almost always admire, Sam Rockwell and Don Cheadle. Rockwell’s performance of Stark’s rival Justin Hammer added a lot of levity to the film, but instead of playing an original character, he decided to play Hammer as the same “nerdy guy who thinks he’s cooler than he actually is” that he played in Charlie’s Angels and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Hammer could have been a legitimate foe for Tony, but the filmmakers seemed content with making him a bumbling laughingstock for the entire movie. Cheadle just didn’t seem committed to his performance of James “Rhodey” Rhodes and just seemed bored at times, and he was definitely boring to watch in the scenes where his character was not wearing the War Machine armor. Mickey Rourke did the best he could with the character of Ivan Vanko, but his quirky appearance and very convincing Russian accent didn’t cover up the fact that his character was criminally underdeveloped. The casting of Scarlett Johanssen was a huge mistake, as she had neither the acting chops nor the screen presence to bring the Black Widow to life. Throughout the film, she never breaks her patented blank stare and her voice never exceeds the same monotone drone that makes her one of the least compelling actresses working today.

"I'm totally a Russian spy."

"I'm totally a Russian spy."

The returning actors for Iron Man 2 all seemed to be going through the motions as well, especially Robert Downey Jr. After breathing in so much life to the character of Tony Stark in the original Iron Man, here he just seems to be doing the same thing over again, with diminished results. While the script tries to give him opportunities to do new things with the character, he is never quite convincing enough to pull it off. Even while Stark is at his lowest point, thinking that he is dying and has no hope, Downey still plays the character with a wink and a nod at the audience, assuring us that everything will be okay and to just sit back and relax. This took a lot of the drama out of the film for me and led to me not caring much about what was going on.

Besides the questionable casting and acting choices, there were some major problems with the script, which this time around was helmed by Justin (Tropic Thunder) Theroux. While the first Iron Man had an almost perfect blend of action, humor, and drama, the sequel seemed to play almost every scene for laughs. The humor wasn’t as broad as Joel Shumaker’s godawful Batman movies, but at times it was almost as distracting. It seemed like every scene involving Stark was undercut with sarcastic dialogue, even those scenes where it would have been more advantageous to play them straight. A great example of this is the scene in which Stark, who is drunk at his own party and being very reckless with his suit, is confronted by Rhodey, who shows up wearing the War Machine armor, and they have a brief fight in his mansion, while the guests look on in horror. This is a scene that should have been played straight, as it shows just how low Tony has sunk in his despair after finding out he is dying, but Theroux and Favreau decided to punch the scene up by having Stark’s DJ play a beat for them to fight to, as commanded by a giggling Stark right before the fight begins. This stylistic choice just drained the scene of any emotional gravity and led to me not caring at all about what was going on. If this was the filmmakers’ way of alluding to Tony’s alcoholism in the comics, it was done rather clumsily and was pretty much glossed over once SHIELD came to his rescue. Hopefully this angle will be explored further, and more seriously, in the third installment.

While Iron Man 2 had its share of problems, it is not necessarily a bad film. It worked on the level of a mindless, entertaining summer blockbuster, but the original Iron Man was so much more than that. If Favreau and Theroux had toned down on the jokes and instead focused more on creating a compelling storyline, and if some of the actors had found the right tone for their characters (or, in the case of Johanssen, found any tone at all), this may have been a much better movie. Perhaps they needed more time to craft a better screenplay and were pressured by the studio to crank out a sequel as soon as possible, as they both have done much better work in the past. Hopefully next year’s offerings from Marvel Studios will not share these flaws and will match or exceed the original Iron Man in terms of quality entertainment.


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Who ARE these people!?

Ben Gilbert is an avid comic and movie fan, father of two amazing kids, and husband to one awesome chick. He resides in the hills of East Tennessee and still doesn't quite know what he wants to be when he grows up.

Comments (10)

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  1. matt (shark) says:

    First let me say I liked the movie, so I was going to say you were wrong on every part… but I can’t. You are right the humor undercut the entire film. The only part ill disagree with was the going through the motions by downey. He can’t reinvent the character so it may seem dry…. but over all a spot on idea…

  2. Tomer Soiker says:

    I’ve never agreed with a review as much as I agreed with this one… I didn’t hate the movie, but it wasn’t what we’ve been waiting for for two years (maybe the stressed release date given by Marvel was part of the problem?)

    Hmm.. where is the part of you retconning the movie?

  3. dpool666 says:

    Agreed agreed agreed

  4. Brian Woods says:

    I liked Rockwell’s Justin Hammer. I like to think it was setting him up to be more evil later as you could tell from his interactions with his workers what his real personality was like.

    For the showdown at the party, I think part of it was that he was drunk. Instead of establishing Tony as an angry drunk who beats women, kills animals and pushes old people, the movie had already set him as a fun, happy, more marketable in mainstream entertainment drunk.

  5. Ben Gilbert says:

    @Tomer: My proposed retcon was a rewrite with a little more drama, less awkward humor, and better casting.

  6. Batman25JM says:

    Eh. I liked the movie, and I don’t care if it wasn’t perfect. I actually liked Rockwell as Hammer a LOT. And I think Tony asking the DJ to put on music while he fought Rhodey was fine. He was drunk and cocky, it wasn’t really out of character. It may have been a joke, but I don’t think it was out of character for Tony.

    I may be one of the only people in existence who was fine with Scarlett Johanssen as Black Widow. Was she phenomenal? No, but I don’t really care. She was fine for what her role was. Maybe she had a blank stare and a monotone voice, but honestly, she was a spy. I can kinda see that being okay for the role she played. She wasn’t exactly a developed character.

  7. Thundermatts says:

    I dug this movie, and disagree with you about almost everything. The poblems I did have lie directly with the screenwriter. Dude sucks. I hated Tropic Thunder, and this wasn’t as good as it could have been because of him. I hope he quits woking soon. The dialogue at times was just poopsville, and I have a feeling a lot of improvising happened, because there was no other choice.

  8. Ben Gilbert says:

    @ Thundermatts: I agree that the script was the main problem and that it may have led to some of the mediocre performances. Cheadle especially couldn’t have looked more bored with what was going on. As I stressed in the article, I didn’t dislike the film, but it’s definitely a letdown after the first one.

  9. Joshua says:

    Justin Hammer would have been a better threat if the movie didn’t spend 2.5 hours showing us how incompetent he is.

    I enjoyed Iron Man 2 in spite of its flaws, but it had a ton of problems. I can’t imagine I’ll ever go back and watch it again.

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