Successful superhero film franchises have tended to follow the same pattern since Superman 2: The first movie is a tightly-focused origin story with a thematically cohesive script, strong arcs of character development, and a satisfying totality. Then the second movie, bred out of the success and excitement of the first film, throws it all away by trying to cram everything cool about the hero into a single film — you end up with a smorgasboard of villains, a half dozen half-finished character arcs, and a completely unfocused grab-bag of special effects.
The Dark Knight made itself the major exception to this trend by relentlessly paring itself down into a thematically, dramatically, and cinematically cohesive and focused whole. The result is the best superhero movie ever made, and I’m hoping the example it set will improve future superhero franchises (in a genre where copy-cat approaches seem ridiculously popular). (Ironically, Batman Begins is the film that suffered from the “we need to cram everything cool from the comic book into one movie!” problem as it groped its way towards rebooting the franchise.)
At first glance it seems as if Iron Man 2 doesn’t learn the lesson The Dark Knight has to teach. It seems plagued with all the symptoms of superhero sequel-itis: Lots of villains. Lots of different plot threads. Lots of sound and fury.
But upon reflection, I think this is because Iron Man 2 is pursuing a separate solution to the same problem.
Most superhero movies pursue a conflict structure of Man vs. Man (a natural consequence of the superhero vs. supervillain archetype). This is why the “let’s have eight different super-villains!” sequels generally don’t work: They’re eight different movies all competing for the same screen time.
And if you attempt to analyze Iron Man 2 through that lens, it seems to fall prey to the same problem: In looking for a Man vs. Man conflict, the eye is inexorably drawn towards Whiplash. And the “Whiplash as antagonist” story is deeply flawed: Stark think he’s dead less than halfway through the film and isn’t disllusioned until the final act. Which means that for most of the film, there isn’t a Whiplash vs. Iron Man conflict.
But the movie works because it isn’t Iron Man vs. Whiplash; or Iron Man vs. Justin Hammer; or Iron Man vs. Senator Stern; or Iron Man vs. War Machine; or Iron Man vs. Poisonous Palladium.
Instead, the film’s structure is Tony Stark (Man) vs. World.
The difference in structure is subtle, but it makes all the difference in the world.
Which isn’t to say that the film’s narrative structure is flawless. The movie has particular problems when it’s being saddled with handling exposition for the upcoming Marvel films. And although the novelty of seeing this kind of tight cross-continuity being brought to film is kind of exciting, I suspect the value of this novelty will quickly wear thin (much like it’s worn thin in the comic books themselves).
At the moment, I would say that Iron Man 2 isn’t quite as good as Iron Man. But it’s a pretty close match. And given the high quality of Iron Man, that’s entirely to Iron Man 2‘s credit.