Over the next few weeks, I will be counting down my favorite and least favorite superhero films. I will try to be somewhat symmetrical in posting entries about each, but it won’t be perfectly so because I seem to have far more favorite superhero films than least favorite.
I already know what you’re thinking: “23? Isn’t that kind of a lot?” Well, not to spoil things, but keep in mind that the 21st century alone has featured Bryan Singer’s X-Men films, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and, oh yeah, The Avengers and the massive series of origin films leading up to it. And I’ve heard a rumor there were a few superhero films made in the 20th century, too.
Before I begin, let me say that this list was not easy to assemble. For one thing, I had to set the parameters of what exactly constitutes a superhero film. There is no formal, authoritative definition as far as I can tell, but there are plenty of people who have very strong opinions about this. The problem is, most of those end up producing silly results (Superman and Thor aren’t superheroes because they aren’t actually human, Batman and Iron Man aren’t superheroes because they don’t have powers, etc.)
After agonizing over the question with no reward but confusion and frustration, I decided to settle on a policy of inclusion: if it seems like a superhero story, it is.
Even after settling the question of definition (mostly by avoiding it), I found it extremely difficult to organize these films in any kind of order. When I actually sat down to write reviews, describing why I liked a film made me want to move it higher on the list, and the top few films felt like a hopeless jumble of awesome I could never sort out. I like to think I’ve done at least a reasonably good job of doing so.
Anyway, without further ado, #23: Iron Man 2 (2010)
Yes, count me among those who actually liked this film a whole bunch. The follow-up to 2008′s smash hit generally vies with The Incredible Hulk as the most pedestrian of the films leading up to The Avengers in most fans’ estimations, and it isn’t really difficult for me to understand why.
I’ll get my major complaints out of the way first. Mickey Rourke as Whiplash is a surprisingly forgettable villain, but Sam Rockwell is absolutely hilarious as Tony Stark’s industry rival Justin Hammer. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow isn’t even a shadow of who she’ll later be in The Avengers. Her performance, which could’ve added a lot to the film if it had been anything like what Wheedon got out of her, just felt absolutely phoned in. Finally, my biggest frustration is with the recasting of Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, played by Terrance Howard in the first film. I respect Don Cheadle quite a bit, but I have to say I greatly preferred Terrance Howard’s performance as this character. His chemistry with Downey Jr. was fantastic, and he seemed to fit the tone of the films much better.
The film doesn’t really do anything new except for a bunch of world-building in anticipation of The Avengers, but that actually leads to two of my favorite things about the film: Nick Fury and Agent Coulson. I love those two whenever they appear, and having them be such a big part of this film really helped tie the universe together when we eventually got to The Avengers.
I also loved the expanded role of Pepper Potts both in Tony’s personal life and in Stark Industries. And although I would’ve greatly preferred Terrance Howard to be playing him, I loved seeing James Rhodes become War Machine.
Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark/Iron Man continues to be the most compelling thing about these films, and once again is easily worth the price of admission. The subplot with Howard Stark was an excellent inclusion that gave the film a bit more emotional depth, and Tony’s palladium poisoning and development of a new element both tied in nicely with this subplot and added to that depth. I was glad the film hinted at the serious themes of Tony’s head getting a bit too big and his emerging alcoholism without “overdoing it.” I still don’t know how much I want the films to get into his alcoholism, because while it’s certainly a story that could be valuable to tell, it would really weigh things down, which hasn’t been the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s M.O.
This film isn’t higher on the list because it didn’t surpass the first film in any meaningful way, but it’s on the list at all because it was an entertaining continuation and gave me pretty much everything I wanted (except Terrance Howard.) While there are some justifiable complaints about this film, it was a fun ride and I can’t wait for more.