‘Iron Man 2’ Is the Real and Messy Beginning of the MCU

Tony's 'Endgame' story didn't start in 2008. It started in 2010.

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Paramount Pictures

There’s an Elon Musk-cameo 27 minutes into Iron Man 2 and it made me feel old. I’m not saying either Musk and Robert Downey Jr. look shockingly younger than they do now. Nor am I saying that they are both somehow ageless. But they are both famous, powerful men who are very clearly not immortal. Telling a man (or anyone) they have “aged well” is usually a backhanded compliment which feels like a punch, which is probably why the cliché “aged well” is almost always preceded by “hasn’t.” Some might argue that 2010’s Iron Man 2 hasn’t aged well, but if you’ve aged with Iron Man 2 and I think you might find it’s the most important movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And probably the one that’s the most relevant to setting-up Tony Stark’s journey in Avengers: Endgame.

To be clear. I said important. Not best. Saying Iron Man 2 is the greatest superhero movie of all time, or somehow pretending like aspects of it aren’t deeply offensive or outright silly, would be beyond dishonest. On most fans’ lists, Iron Man 2 would probably end up in the bottom five Marvel movies, somewhere around Thor: The Dark World or hey, remember when The Incredible Hulk was played by Edward Norton? There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think the biggest one is that Tony Stark isn’t as likable in Iron Man 2 as he is in most of the other Marvel Movies, and that’s because, in this film, he’s the most realistic.

Other than a Mickey Rourke wielding lightsaber whips and Sam Rockwell trying to screw up Tony Stark’s company, the real threat faced by our hero in Iron Man 2 is toxicity. These days, we’d take that to mean “toxic masculinity,” which certainly applies to the way Tony acts in Iron Man 2. He hires Scarlett Johansson as his personal assistant because he’s attracted to her sexually and openly jokes about other women he’s slept with in front of the woman who is supposed to be his one true love, Pepper Potts. But unlike a Bond film, Iron Man 2 doesn’t make these things reasons for dudes to root for Tony, instead, the toxicity is in Tony’s blood — literally and figuratively — and the movie is really about what happens when your own toxicity consumes you.

Just in case anyone is confused, in the opening moments of the film, after Tony gives a rousing speech at this tech expo in New York City, we see him pull out a little blood scanner, which informs us that he’s got 19 percent blood toxicity. At first, this scans as alcoholism, even though it’s really not. Yes, we see Tony get super drunk in this movie, and struggle with alcoholism — some of which is borrowed from the 1979 Iron Man comic “Demon in a Bottle” — but the toxicity metaphor is more about the fact that the power of the Iron Man suit is what is killing Iron Man. The representation of Tony’s power and ego is why he’ll almost certainly die if he doesn’t change his ways. This is kind of like guys who don’t drink enough water but stuffed into a radioactive suit of armor. Tony Stark isn’t just a jerk in Iron Man 2, he’s a depressed jerk, which is the most dangerous kind.

The train wreck of bad choices culminates in Tony’s birthday party, a scene in which he gets into the Iron Man suit shitfaced drunk and alienates literally everyone he cares about. It’s deeply powerful stuff, and made all the sadder that Rhodey is forced to turn on Tony. If you thought the falling out between Captain America and Iron Man was rough in 2016, the Rhodey stuff is better. Keep in mind, at the time, this was only the third movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and everyone had already forgotten about that one Hulk movie. So, before the Avengers could rise, before tons of awesome heroes could team-up, the cipher for 21st-century masculinity, Tony Stark, had to hit rock bottom.

The Marvel movies aren’t technically studies in masculinity or parables about how different types of masculinity can cause different types of problems, but, late at night, many of the films feel that way. In Iron Man 2, Tony’s unwillingness to accept help from his friends, specifically Pepper and Rhodey, is partly why he nearly loses.“ You want to do this whole lone gunslinger act, but it’s unnecessary,” Rhodey tells him. “You don’t have to do it alone.”

In 2010, the idea that Iron Man just needed a group of friends to stage an intervention still seemed unlikely. The way blockbusters movies are written about and talked about changed during — and because of — the existence of the Marvel Studios movies. Meaning, it’s easy to forget that back in Iron Man 2, we didn’t necessarily see the world-building importance of Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow or Don Cheadle donning the armor as War Machine. But, because these films did start with Iron Man in 2008, on some level, Endgame is about Tony Stark’s story coming to a close. The original Iron Man in 2008 is a celebration of his ego, and pretty much everything from Civil War onward is about Tony Stark coming to terms with his ego and his massively arrogant mistakes. Those mistakes are best explored in Iron Man 2.

Iron Man 2 is a movie about Tony Stark making huge mistakes, acting like an asshole, and paying for it big time. When he tells Elon Musk he’ll help Musk make an “electric jet,” you want to laugh. But now, knowing how far Tony falls in this movie — and how much the world has changed since — the moment feels a little sad. These days, when people leave Marvel movies, we’re invariably talking about how much we cried, specifically, in Infinity War. With Iron Man 2 we were laughing, and then shaking our heads, and then, gritting our teeth.

Most good superhero movies aren’t frustrating like Iron Man 2. But, out of all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it does the best job at suggesting that the superhero inside that suit is a real dude. What would a real dude do with that much power? What would you do? Iron Man 2 asks these questions poignantly, and the subsequent sequel films have proven that Iron Man himself has aged very well indeed.

Iron Man 2 is streaming now on Amazon Prime. Avengers: Endgame is out in theaters this weekend, starting on April 26, 2019.

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