If you are a regular Screen Rant reader, you no doubt know that I am not yet on this Avengers bandwagon. Don’t get me wrong – I WANT this to be the epic, game-changing comic book movie event that most of you are hoping for… I’m just not yet certain that it’s going to be.

And if Iron Man 2 was anything to judge by, I have logical reason to worry.

Iron Man 2 is officially a box office success, taking the number one spot two weeks in a row and raking in another pile of profit for Marvel Studios. Things are proceeding toward the epic Avengers movie event as planned, I would think. Critically, Iron Man 2 seems to be 75% fan-approved, with our own Vic Holtreman giving it a ‘flawed but fun’ review.

But I’m not drinking this glass of Kool-Aid. Not this time. To me,  Iron Man 2 is a super hero movie where nothing super heroic happens – a movie that totally mishandles its main character in favor of secondary goals like setting up the Avengers movie.

Let me be clear upfront: I “get” the story of Iron Man 2: Tony Stark has revealed to the world that he is a superhero and is addicted to the power and fame that revelation brings him, even though the demands of being Iron Man are literally killing him. With villains circling and death on the horizon, Tony must once again find the will and way to salvation.

Now, there is a time-honored rule of good writing: “Show, don’t tell.” Think for a second about what we are told in Iron Man 2 versus what we’re actually shown, and then tell me that this movie got things right.

Here’s what we’re told at the start of Iron Man 2:

  • The demands of constantly being Iron Man are draining Tony’s life-sustaining power cores faster and faster. It’s basically a death sentence every time he puts on the suit and plays hero.
  • Tony has tried and tried to find a new upgrade for his outdated power core – but darn it, he just can’t do it!
  • The stresses of being a public superhero are wearing Tony down emotionally as well as physically (as evidenced by Robert Downey Jr.’s long stares).

That’s a great premise for a superhero movie – a story about a hero with no secret identity (no refuge), trying to balance a celebrity ego with the great responsibilities that come with great power ;-) . Best of all, with an actor like Robert Downey Jr. (who certainly proved it in the first film), none of these heavy themes have to feel too heavy, or too serious (read: too Dark Knight). Should be awesome! Right?

But here’s what we were ultimately shown in Iron Man 2:

  • How Tony Stark spends his downtime.
  • What a bunch of the supporting players are up to.
  • Eventually how Tony stops playing around and solves his problem.

Before you tear into me, please just think about it. What did you see? Tony opening the Stark Expo; Tony screwing with Congress; Tony getting boxing lessons; Tony at the Monaco races; Tony bumming around the Stark Industries offices; Tony getting drunk at a party; Tony staring off at nothing (the “heavy” moments); Tony eating donuts, while in a giant donut; etc…

Now I already know what some of you are going to try to say: “Dude, that’s the point! It’s about how Tony Stark starts to unravel from the demands of being Iron Man, the pressures of fame, and how he has to mature as a hero!” And that’s a fine story to tell, I don’t disagree – but unless you show the audience what it is, exactly, that’s causing the hero to unravel – the actual trials and tribulations he’s going through –  the story kind of misses its own mark, no?

Continue what Iron Man 2 should’ve been…

Where were the scenes of Tony constantly having to suit up to squash another foreign skirmish, or save civilians in peril?  Tony having to drop his life-saving research time and time again to go play the hero?  Where were the scenes of Tony pushing himself to the limit trying to find the cure for his condition – you know, the same tireless drive and inventive ambition that made Iron Man 1‘s second act so interesting? (Instead of a rushed lab scene where Eureka! Tony just invents a new element!) Where was the film that actually made use of the great premise I described?

More to the point: What better way to organically and symbolically introduce the concept of The Avengers than by actually showing the audience just how much time, effort and sacrifice is required to keep the world safe (more than one man can give)? Isn’t that better than having S.H.I.E.L.D. show up at the eleventh hour touting the ridiculous answer to Tony’s problem (a new element? Of course!), while spouting thinly-disguised Avengers promos?

In the end, Iron Man 2 is a movie that tells us being a public hero is hard, but only shows us how a pompous dying hero spends his leisure time. In fact, if you’re keeping count, Tony only suits up four times in the movie: Once to make an entrance, once to make an ass out of himself and twice to save that very same ass (which is really the only thing at stake). Nothing heroic about any of that.

In fact, the hero in this superhero movie is SO unheroic that the epilogue to the story is the super team basically telling the hero that he’s not hero enough to join them – a development which now has the geek community wondering if Downey and Iron Man will even factor heavily into The Avengers (as opposed to making a cheap and gimmicky cameo appearance). Great accomplishment.

However, I know all about the power of geek denial; I’m not fool enough to think I can change your opinion on Iron Man 2. I know people will say “They didn’t have the budget!” or “Downey still made it fun!” and all those other… excuses. However, I’m looking ahead and wondering “If these lead-in movies don’t get the core stories of these heroes right, how will “The Avengers” be able to successfully demonstrate (read: show us)  what unites them?”

Please remember that in the end, Marvel Studios is trying to change the game: How movie franchises are built, marketed, watched and ultimately purchased on home video. But it’s still an experiment in progress, with Murphy’s Law dangling just above it. You start having weak links in the chain, and suddenly it’s harder to sell people on the idea of buying the entire Avengers saga on Blu-ray and such.

Iron Man 2 may not be a disaster, but on that rainy day years from now, when I decide to have an Avengers Saga movie marathon, Iron Man 2 is one entry I can surely skip – and that’s just not good enough. In my opinion, if you are going to take the lead-in approach, each individual chapter needs to be good; there can be no weak links in the chain.

How about you? You want to tear my head off now or do you agree that Iron Man 2 was a misfire – as both a superhero movie and an Avengers lead-in?

BONUS: For some specific examples of Iron Man 2’s story mistakes, check out a great post by our friends over at UGO.

Iron Man 2 is in theaters now.

The Avengers will be in theaters on May 4, 2012