Believe it or not there was actually a year where no Marvel Cinematic Universe movies were released. It was 2009, a year after the franchise started with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. That would be unheard of today but at the time when it became clear that Iron Man was a big hit for Marvel Studios, a sequel was more than bound to happen and that's where 2010's Iron Man 2 comes into play.
The movie was so anticipated that I remember having to watch it at 2:50am EDT in IMAX because the midnight showing sold out too fast and I still wanted to see it opening day. At the time, my theater would still do showings that late at night or rather early in the morning if the movie was hyped enough or sold enough tickets. I remember enjoying it but it didn't blow me away like the first Iron Man movie did.
Revisiting it now, I see a big reason why. It's slower than the first one is and tells a more personal story about Tony, which isn't a bad thing at all. In fact, it's really interesting to see where he's at after his breakout in the first movie and understand that he's in a pretty self-righteous position in this one. He's sitting in front of a senate committee, telling the late Garry Shandling's Senator Stern that the United States Government can't have his suits because he doesn't trust them with them. They're convinced that others are readily copying the technology and they need their own version in the interest of national security and he's basically telling them that the safest hands are his own when it comes to the Iron Man tech.
That's such a crazy position to see Stark in after having seen his position just six years later in Captain America: Civil War. In Iron Man 2 he is LITERALLY in the same position as Steve Rogers, actively fighting government oversight because he doesn't trust their agendas. Even more than that, Colonel James Rhodes is on his side here for the most part, though when push comes to shove after Mickey Rourke's Whiplash proves the arc reactor tech can be duplicated with an attack on the Monaco Grand Prix, Rhodes actively confiscates a version of the Iron Man suit for U.S. military use.
Ok, so this movie introduces a lot of things into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For starters, Don Cheadle as the new Rhodey. I'm on the side of "this is an upgrade," with all due respect to Terrence Howard. I've been a fan of Cheadle for a long time and he just has a gravitas and presence that I'm glad he brings to this role. He's the military counterbalance to RDJ's Tony Stark and I think it works well. I also like how Marvel Studios handled the recast, without any flimsy pretense or in-movie explanation as to why he looks and sounds very different from the first movie. If you're going to replace actors like that in between movies, this is the way you should do it in my opinion. Don't call a ton of attention to it. Just get it done.
Iron Man 2 also introduces another future Avenger, Scarlett Johannson's Natasha Romanov AKA Black Widow, though you don't know that for the first half of the movie as she is one of Nick Fury's SHIELD spies masquerading as Stark's new secretary. What we don't know at the start of the movie is that SHIELD knows about the existential crisis that Tony is facing, which is the fact that the Palladium he's been using to power his arc reactor and keep the shrapnel from digging into his heart is also poisoning him. His erratic "death wish" behavior (giving his items away, signing the company off to Pepper Potts, his Iron Man birthday party, etc) are all cause for concern by Fury and he placed Natasha there to keep an eye on him, until he got really close to death and Rhodey stole one of his suits so they give him an intervention to get himself back on track.
That's really the best part of this movie to me, the struggle that Tony deals with thinking that he's going to die and also handling the responsibility of being a superhero. He can't handle it. His self-absorption and his snarky coping methods are hardly enough to get him through this and SHIELD literally has to ground him with Agent Coulson as a babysitter for him to get things done. It continues this pattern of Stark needing extrinsic motivation to get him going and keep him on track and it pays off here as he discovers a "new element" that his father Howard had discovered that will effectively power his arc reactor without poisoning him. Crisis averted there.
Then comes the less interesting part of the movie, which is Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer working with Rourke's Whiplash to build a suit that will surpass the Iron Man armor and propel Hammer Tech past Stark Industries in the great arms race. It really seems like Rockwell, who is a good actor in my opinion, was told to basically be another version of RDJ's Tony Stark but less successful and confident about it. As though someone was impersonating Tony Stark but didn't have the technical genius or resources to back his impersonation up. It comes off as annoying. Really, really annoying. Less so than it was the first time because I was expecting it now, but still a weak spot of this movie.
Furthermore, Rourke's Ivan Vanko is really just a plot device and nothing more. He wants revenge on Stark for Howard getting his father deported after they both worked on the arc reactor, but when you find out from Fury that Anton Vanko wanted to sell the arc reactor to the highest bidder and that's why Howard had him deported, any sympathy you might have had for his son Ivan is all but gone because basically they're just greedy criminals. Genius physicists, but crooked as the day is long. Bad guys that are strictly one-dimensional aren't very good bad guys. It would have been nice to see them give some extra depth to Vanko in that regard, but again this movie is really about Tony and the next step for the Iron Man suits.
I don't have any CGI or VFX complaints for this movie at all. The final battle is pretty anti-climactic and it only works because Hammer is an idiot and Vanko takes full advantage of his stupidity, but it's still a fun scene nonetheless. If that kid that Tony saved from one of Vanko's drones really was Peter Parker then that's kind of cool foreshadowing, but really it's just a cool scene where Tony lets this kid in an Iron Man mask believe for a few seconds that he's Iron Man. It's cute.
Iron Man 2 isn't nearly on the level of its predecessor, but just like Iron Man and Incredible Hulk, it's another MCU movie that has humor sprinkled throughout a more serious story. The balance is a little off especially compared to the first Iron Man movie, but it's still not a festival of jokes and humor and fun is still not the primary goal of the franchise at this point, which seems to really be a major tenet of Phase One of the MCU.
Iron Man 2 in the end is very much like Tony Stark: Flawed, egotistical and self-absorbed, but ultimately entertaining. Not nearly as solid as the first movie, but still a decent sequel that does add more to the MCU than it takes away from it, especially with its end credit scene that points directly to the next movie and the next Avenger we are going to meet at the time: Thor.