With Marvel’s first outing (the origin story of Tony Stark) having been met a with loving critical and box office reception, the opportunity to make good on the promise made with the entrance of Nick Fury seemed too good to pass up. The audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and even just from a business standpoint the expansion of the Marvel Universe was a great idea. It’s interesting to see how over the course of its next two installments, The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2, how Marvel would work through exactly how they would chart that path.
Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk isn’t a horrible movie by any stretch of the word, but you’d be hard pressed to make a case that it isn’t one of the lesser Marvel outings. Taken on its own, the movie is a solid thriller with an engaging central performance, competently directed action sequences, an engaging villain and a well-played obligatory Stan Lee cameo. It’s when The Incredible Hulk is looked at in the context of the other entries in the MCU that the movie gets a bit problematic.
Released just over a month after Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Marvel didn’t really have much time to make sure The Incredible Hulk tied into a future Avengers outing, and as a result The Incredible Hulk feels as if it’s setting up its own franchise rather than charting a path to The Avengers. Multiple potential plot lines and their villains are teased, wrapping everything up with a Tony Stark cameo that feels so tacked on it had to have been filmed after the success of Iron Man.
It’s hard to watch certain stretches of the film without a certain sense of detachment from promises that would never be fulfilled, especially since we know now that Marvel has no plans for another solo Hulk film. It’s interesting to imagine what might have been, but doubly interesting to see how much dedicated Marvel is to recognizing the film as canon and including it in their MCU marathons. In a deleted scene from Leterrier’s film where Banner tries to put a bullet in his head is referenced in the Joss Whedon’s Avengers film and the difficulty that his condition brings to the bedroom is also brought up in Age of Ultron and The Incredible Hulk. It’d be easy to deny these as simple coincidences if it weren’t for the fact that specific footage from the film is used in the roster Coulson gives Tony Stark in the first act of The Avengers. The studio has apparently doubled down on this by having William Hurt return to reprise his character in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War. Marvel might not have known precisely at the time how they were going to get where they were going, but they have done the best they could retroactively justifying what they’ve already shown us.
The main complaint from the detractors of the MCU criticizes the studio’s tendency to set up future installments. Nowhere is this more clear than Iron Man 2, a film where Marvel ensured they wouldn’t have to retroactively justify past outings. Rushed through its production to fuel and capitalize on the momentum the studio had created, Iron Man 2 feels like a giant 2.5 hour trailer for what would ultimately be The Avengers. It’s a factor that would be present in every MCU film going forward, but in no other place does it make the film suffer as much as it does here.
What makes 2008’s Iron Man so great is how it charts a complete, cathartic and engaging journey for Tony Stark. We understand why he wants to make things right, and we enjoy the narcissistic jerk that he can be as well. But never once do we doubt that he’s a good person who wants to do the right thing. Iron Man 2’s biggest mistake isn’t that it spends a lot of time setting up The Avengers. It’s quite fun to see Nick Fury and Black Widow. Their characters are utilized in just the right way so that the film doesn’t feel like a feature-length credit scene. Where Iron Man 2 goes wrong is that it focuses too much on the arrogant side of Stark, so much so that it all but makes him an unlikable character. The riveting character development from the first film is abandoned here in favor of spectacle and action, scenes that feel empty and hollow because the characters inhabiting them aren’t as interesting as they were the last time we saw them. It’s a true testament to Robert Downey Jr.’s acting abilities that he can take something that is so unlikable on the page and make it fun to watch.
The problem with Iron Man 2 isn’t that it has a brief moment teasing us with things like Captain America’s shield (a moment that becomes funnier now that we know how much of a Cap fan Coulson was). It’s that the characters don’t feel like the characters we met in the last film. Yes, it’s still fun to see them interact, and there are plenty of great comedic moments in the film. But they work because we’re watching actors who are having fun sparring and exploring the playground that Favreau had set up for them. It’s not Tony trying to find a way to properly apologize to Pepper; it’s Robert Downey Jr. having fun playing a bumbling idiot.
Iron Man 2 is enjoyable enough in parts, but it doesn’t add much depth to the characters at all. It’s a well-oiled, shiny and sheen machine, but on the inside it is quite hollow. None of this had any effect on the film’s box office though, and Iron Man 2 would go on to one of the year’s highest grossing movies. Where most studios would play it safe and put out more of the same in hopes of repeat box office success, Marvel would continue to improve its storytelling model. They’d continue to tease future movies, but not in a way that would sacrifice characters and story. Their next two movies would put them back on track.