Make: Marvel Studios
Marvel trilogies have a simple formula. In the first part, there’s an origin story. The second part is double the first story. The third part flips everything upside down. For example, in Iron Man, Tony Stark builds a suit, beats a bad guy created by his dad, and saves Pepper. In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark and Rhodey get suits, beat two bad guys created by his dad (Hammer and Whiplash), and save Pepper again. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark blows up all his suits, and Pepper saves him from a bad guy he created. Generally, the movies are good, but the weakest entry is always the second one (except Captain America: Winter Soldier).
Iron Man 2 is also the weakest amongst the three for two reasons. First, the villains, Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko, are two people trying to do the job that Obadiah Stane did in the first movie, but without the juicy reveal in the third act. Hammer and Vanko are obvious antagonists from the outset, and they are never close enough to Tony to be a threat to him morally in the same way Obadiah was. Obadiah was a threat to Tony, not just because he wanted to kill him, but because he was going to destroy his legacy. Hammer, on the other hand, is not good at making weapons, so not a threat corporately, nor does he have any moral authority, nor is he a physical threat. Vanko, while he does pose a threat physically, he has no moral authority, so he cannot destroy the idea of Iron Man. In other words, even if Vanko and Hammer killed Stark, Iron Man still wins the day because everyone will still love Stark. Can you imagine how hollow that victory would be? Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko watching the touching memorial for Tony Stark from their prison cells as the world mourns his heroic sacrifice. Contrast that image with the Obadiah Stane victory. Stark dies, Stane disgraces him publicly because no one knows he is Iron Man yet. He dies an alcoholic playboy who couldn’t cope with his cave captivity. No one mourns him, no one knows the things he’s done. There’s no “I am Iron Man.” There’s a clear difference in the level of villain.
Second, Tony’s journey in Iron Man is so much more compelling than in Iron Man 2. In Iron Man, he goes from careless merchant of death to captive to novice superhero. In Iron Man 2, he goes from sophomore superhero to sick/drunk superhero to junior year superhero with a sidekick and a girlfriend. His legacy is secure already, so there’s no existential crisis. And that’s understandable in the real world, right? How many existential crises do we face in a lifetime? One, maybe two. But in the life of a character there has to be a physical and moral crisis to push the story along.
Now, Captain America: Winter Soldier doesn’t have these problems because the villain is both a physical threat and a moral one. Can you imagine being killed by your best friend who has been turned into a mindless assassin only because you failed to save him? You are Captain America, savior of the Allied Forces, but you couldn’t save your best friend? And now he has come to kill you. It’s the same kind of threat that Obadiah Stane was in the first Iron Man.
So, there are two things we have to do to repair Iron Man 2. Give Tony a villain that threatens him physically and morally, and give him a compelling character arc.
Immediately following the Senate hearings, Justin Hammer returns to his warehouse to reveal his own prototype Iron Man suits. They not only don’t work, but they constantly malfunction and target each other. “20 years away,” Hammer mutters echoing Stark’s words at the hearing. His assistant reminds him they have to catch the plane to Monaco.
In Monaco, Vanko makes his appearance, gets arrested, and Hammer breaks him out of jail. Hammer shows Vanko the suits. Vanko makes Hammer a proposition. Before Hammer can be number one, they have to bring Stark down, attack his good name.
Meanwhile Stark is struggling with his own mortality. The magnet in his chest is poisoning him. He started the Stark Expo in order to elevate his image and improve his legacy in case he dies. But the truth of it is, if he died at this point, he’d be satisfied because he’s a beloved hero.
As he’s throwing his birthday party, Pepper tries to shut down the party because she just got terrible news from Miss Romanov. Stark drones have attacked the Stark Expo and other Stark targets around the city, apparently malfunctioning. Rhodes and Coulson also show up at the party. Tony is too drunk to take action, so Rhodes suits up and flies out to address the Stark drones. He easily destroys half a dozen, leaving behind Stark-labeled shrapnel all over town. Tony shows up just as the rest of the drones self destruct causing mayhem all over town. Rhodes and Stark do battle as Stark drunkenly tries to eject Rhodes from the suit, and Rhodes drags Stark back to his mansion.
Rhodes beats Stark and demands answers. “How could you be so irresponsible?” he shouts. “Those Stark drones are out there destroying the whole city!” “What the hell is a Stark drone?!” Tony responds. “Those aren’t mine!” “If those aren’t yours, then whose are they?” Rhodes asks.
Coulson appears and hands a cell phone to Stark. It’s Fury. “Why are your drones out there destroying the city?” Fury demands. “They aren’t mine!” Tony protests. “I’m going to find out whose they are.” “That’s funny because I recall you telling Congress you were the only person with this technology. Well, you’d better hurry because the cops are coming to arrest you.”
Stark asks Rhodes for help. Rhodes says he’d love to but he’s got an appointment with Justin Hammer in the morning. He tells Tony to get to the bottom of it. Rhodes takes off. Tony looks at Pepper, “You want to handle damage control?” Pepper rolls her eyes and storms off to call the press. Tony walks out to the driveway to wait for the cops to show up. He lays down on the ground and gets cuffed. The next morning, he is bailed out and expects to see Pepper there to pick him up. Instead, it’s Nick Fury. They go for donuts, talk about dear old dad and reveal Romanov’s status as secret agent.
Stark is on house arrest. He tries watching TV, but all the news is about how Stark went from hero to zero. He shoots his repulsor at the screen and blows up the TV. With no TV, he reviews dad’s old films and realizes dad was trying to hint how to redesign the ARC reactor.
Meanwhile, Rhodes is meeting with Justin Hammer to arm his new suit. Hammer says a few lines about how it’s a shame about Stark. It’s an awkward moment. Hammer keeps after it making Rhodes really suspicious.
Back at the mansion, Stark realizes he can redesign the ARC reactor in his chest to eliminate the poisoning problem (no new elements though, just a triangle). He gets the reactor put together, fires it up and installs it. Suddenly, he feels better and is able to detox the poisoning. “Thanks, Pop.” Rhodes calls. Hammer is behind the attack on the Expo. Stark suits up and violates his house arrest. Fury calls to tell him he’ll cover for him.
They get to Hammer Industries and locate the Hammer drones all labeled with Stark’s trademark. Hammer launches the drones against Stark and Rhodes. The battle brings down Hammer’s plant, then spills out onto the city. While Stark and Rhodes try to focus on minimizing casualties and collateral damage. They manage to lure the drones to a vacant garden at the Expo, and team up to destroy the drones. That’s when Vanko appears. The fight gets intense. The whips wrap around their necks and they have to work together and blow up Vanko.
Rhodes and Stark present evidence to the authorities that Hammer framed Stark, clear Stark’s name and send Hammer to jail.
Iron Man 2 could have been a really great movie. It’s important for screenwriters to keep the peril on two levels, moral and physical. Without the moral peril, the physical threat is no threat at all.