'Iron Man 2' at 10: What went wrong with the MCU's most troubled production?

Detail from the poster for Iron Man 2. (Marvel Studios)

It’s hard to remember a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t Hulk-level invincible, turning out strings of mega blockbuster hits to universal critical and audience acclaim. But there was such a time. And it was precisely ten years ago. 

Iron Man 2 came out ten years ago this week. The Jon Favreau-directed sequel saw Robert Downey Jr. return in the title role, Gwyneth Paltrow back as Pepper Potts, Don Cheadle join as a recast Rhodey. It introduced Mickey Rourke as villain Whiplash, Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, and it saw the first appearance of Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.

But the third movie off the Marvel Studios production line was a troubled production, resulting in what became one of the lowest-regarded MCU movies despite being a box office hit.

Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow arrive at the "Iron Man 2" World Premiere at El Capitan Theatre on April 26, 2010 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jeff Vespa/WireImage)

Was it really all that bad though? Thanks to Disney+ you can watch it back with all-knowing Avengers: Endgame eyes and judge for yourself. It even ties in closer with the most recent Avengers movies than you might think: in Iron Man 2’s big battle scene at the Stark Expo, Tony swoops in to save a kid wearing an Iron Man mask from being killed by one of Whiplash’s robots, and says, “Nice job kid.” In expert MCU retcon, Tom Holland has confirmed that canonically, this boy was him – Peter Parker. 

The film itself is enjoyable enough – who doesn’t want to see Mickey Rourke chatting in Russian to a cockatoo? Besides its criticisms, it does a lot of legwork in setting up the entire MCU. It’s impressive, in fact, that it achieved all that on the backdrop of a troubled production.

Here’s what went wrong behind-the-scenes of the 2010 Iron Man sequel… 

A rushed schedule

(Marvel Studios/Paramount)

Just a few days after the first movie premiered to huge box office success in May 2008, a sequel was announced – which is not particularly unusual, as studios are often quick to cement a follow-up to hit movies. But while the first movie took three years to make, its sequel was on the big screen just two years after the first and perhaps because of this, apparently it was filmed without a script at all.

According to MTV, Don Cheadle explained, "No, there wasn't [a locked-in script]... To be honest, we did improv a lot. We were very often sort of on a journey of discovery in the scenes, trying to find out where we were, who we were, what it was going to be.”

However, the first Iron Man was filmed without a script, too, and that was well-received. Jeff Bridges, who appears as Iron Monger in the 2008 film, confirmed that film was winging it too: “They had no script, man!” Bridges told In Contention, “we would show up for big scenes every day and we wouldn’t know what we were going to say.” 

Terrence Howard dropped out

Terrence Howard played Rhodey in the first Iron Man movie but claimed he was offered less money than was agreed for the second one. (Marvel Studios)

Complete recastings are about as bad as production complications get. For the sequel to 2008’s Iron Man, Empire star Terrence Howard, who was introduced as Tony Stark’s best pal, Col. James Rhodes / War Machine in the first film, was totally replaced by Don Cheadle for all of the following Marvel movies.

At the time, details of this were left vague, but in the years since, Howard has publicly blamed his “friend” Robert Downey Jr. for forcing him out of the series over salaries. In a candid interview on the chat show Watch What Happens Live, when asked about his reasons for leaving the movie, Howard said: “It turns out that the person I helped become Iron Man ... when it was time to re-up for the second one, (he) took the money that was supposed to go to me and pushed me out."  

U.S. actor Terrence Howard, director Jon Favreau and actor Robert Downey Jr. pose for photographers as they arrive for the screening of the movie "Iron Man", in Rome, Wednesday, April 23, 2008.(AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

It’s probably safe to assume that he was talking about Robert Downey Jr. there. He added: “We did a three-picture deal, so that means that you did the deal ahead of time. It was going to be a certain amount for the first one, a certain amount for the second one, a certain amount for the third. They came to me with the second and said, 'Look, we will pay you one-eighth of what we contractually had for you, because we think the second one will be successful with or without you.' And I called my friend - that I helped get the first job - and he didn't call me back for three months."

Though specific salary details are not usually discussed in Hollywood, word is that Don Cheadle accepted the $1million paycheck that Terrence Howard turned down, and the rest is history.

Mickey Rourke wasn’t a fan 

(Marvel Studios/Paramount)

Off the back of his Oscar-nominated lead role in The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke played Ivan Vanko/ Whiplash, a mixture of the comic baddies Crimson Dynamo and Whiplash: a Russian scientist who constructs a pair of arc reactor-based electric whips to reap his revenge on the Stark family for what they did to his.

Rourke reportedly put a lot of prep work into the film, visiting Butryka prison in Moscow to research the role, being the one who not only suggested the character have gold teeth and a cockatoo, but actually paying for them out of his own money, for some reason. But Rourke was not happy that, in his opinion, all the research he put in was wasted, slamming Marvel’s head honchos for leaving out a lot of his character work.

(L-R) Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, director/actor Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Don Cheadle pose during an "Iron Man 2" photo call, 2010. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

“Unfortunately, the [people] at Marvel just wanted a one-dimensional bad guy, so most of the performance ended up the floor,” he said, in an interview with Crave Online in 2012, “Well, you know, it is f**king too bad, but it's their loss. If they want to make mindless comic book movies, then I don't want to be a part of that.”

“I didn't work for three months on the accent and all the adjustments and go to Russia just so I could end up on the floor. Because that can make somebody say at the end of the day, oh f**k 'em, I'm just going to mail it in. But I'm not that kind of guy. I'm never going to mail it in,” he added. 

Emily Blunt dropped out of a major role

Jack Black, Jason Segel and Emily Blunt arrive at the premiere of 20th Century Fox's "Gulliver's Travels", 2010. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Looking back the choice between making the Jack Black-starring 3D Gulliver’s Travels movie and starring as Black Widow in the MCU seems like an obvious one. For Emily Blunt, maybe it was too – but not in the direction you’d probably expect. Originally, the Mary Poppins Returns star was reported to be playing Natasha Romanoff in the character’s first MCU appearance in Iron Man 2, but dropped out due to a scheduling conflict with Gulliver’s Travels, which was released that same year.

She said in an interview with MTV News, “It was one of things that was conflicting... So it's a shame the two of them couldn't work together. It just got complicated, so I think I had to pull out for my own sanity more than anything." Of course, Scarlett Johansson went on to land the role and become the Black Widow that we know today. Blunt went on to become a household name too thanks to a string of other high-profile roles, including Edge of Tomorrow, Sicario and A Quiet Place

Olivia Munn was cut from the film 

Before she became an actress (and Psylocke in X-Men: Apocalypse) Munn was a web presenter and she appeared as red carpet reporter Chess Roberts in Iron Man 2.

Comic book fan Olivia Munn doesn’t seem to have the best luck with appearing in superhero movies. In 2016, she was underserved as mutant baddie Psylocke in X-Men: Apocalypse, where she had barely any lines - and recently said that she was disappointed in the fact that director Bryan Singer didn’t appear to know much about her character at all. 

But way before then, she was set to appear in Iron Man 2, in an unnamed role. Munn revealed in an interview with Complex magazine that her role had been cut from the film due to a change in tone, although she appeared in another part in the movie later, as Chess Roberts, a reporter who has appeared in the Iron Man comics.

There were rumours at the time that her original casting had been as one of Marvel’s lead Avengers, such as Scarlet Witch or Wasp, though this has been denied by director Jon Favreau. Instead, he explained, in an interview with MTV News, "She did a very funny comedic take on a girl that [Tony] was with at his birthday party… She pops up again later in his bedroom. But the way the scene went down, that part of the movie didn't want to have comedy because it was starting to get a little bit serious and started to bump tonally."

Let’s not forget the film’s terrible video game 

'Iron Man 2' was released by Sega in 2010

Movie tie-in video games do not have a good rep. This was a particularly bad one, which is an achievement in itself. Sega’s action-adventure game Iron Man 2 was released for PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360, PSP, Nintendo DS, and the long-since forgotten BlackBerry PlayBook, and was set after the events of the movie, with the player controlling either Iron Man or War Machine, and Don Cheadle and Samuel L. Jackson being the only movie actors to reprise their roles for it.

The game was universally panned for its poor graphics, a super short five-hour playing time, and repetitive gameplay.  “It should be thrilling and fun to take to the sky in a superpowered battle suit,” said Gamespot, in its ‘Poor’ scored review, “but Iron Man 2 crashes to the Earth with a dull thud.”

It’s not all bad though: the game features an exclusive song recorded by heavy metallers Lamb of God, "Hit the Wall". Iron Man has never been so metal. 

Iron Man 2 is streaming on Disney+ now.