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