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Iron Man 2 partially redeemed by Marvel’s What If...? Die Hard spoof

What if… Iron Man 2 was a Christmas movie instead?

Iron Man armor drones fly around the Avengers Tower adjusting a Santa hat on the big A symbol in Marvel’s What If...? Image: Marvel Studios
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Forget the debate over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie because it obviously is and there are more pressing matters: Like, is What If…?’s Die Hard-spoofing Christmas episode actually a better Iron Man 2 than Iron Man 2?

I admit to recency bias. What If…? season 2 kicked off earlier this month, and the episode in question — which finds Darcy from the Thor movies and Happy Hogan organizing a holiday party at Avengers Tower — only just dropped on Christmas Eve. But with 13 years of distance from Iron Man 2, I’m ready to make bold MCU claims beyond “it bad.” Director Jon Favreau got some things right in his sloppy 2010 sequel, and in a 30-minute ode to Die Hard, What If…? reminds us of one win: Sam Rockwell was a perfect Justin Hammer. We just didn’t get much of him at the time.

Iron Man 2 (which based on many reports was written on the fly by Favreau, star Robert Downey Jr., and Tropic Thunder’s Justin Theroux) is a mess. The film flits with Tony’s Demon in a Bottle arc, tries and fails to make a character out of Mickey Rourke’s grunting, cockatoo-cuddling Whiplash, hastily promotes Rhodey to War Machine and Nick Fury to a true Avengers wrangler, introduces Natasha Romanoff in the most grating way imaginable, and gives Elon Musk a cameo that looks worse and worse as the days go by. Pretty bad movie!

But Favreau also cast Sam Rockwell as weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer. In an alternate universe, he was the centerpiece villain, the slimeball alternative to Tony Stark who could keep up with the one-liners. In Iron Man 2 he’s a plot device to get Iron Man fighting armored drones. But speaking of alternate universes, What If…? has come to his rescue.

Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer giving a talk in front of some armored drones with missle launchers on their back in Iron Man 2 Photo: Paramount/Everett Collection

What If…? season 2’s third episode imagines what could have happened after the events of Iron Man 2. In this world, Hammer still hijacked the Stark Expo, wielded Tony’s technology against the hero, and wound up in prison for his wrongdoings. But Hammer didn’t grow in the slammer — he festered. And when he got out, he proceeded to Stark Tower, to pull a Hans Gruber on Stark during the Avengers holiday gala.

Not every big-name Marvel actor has returned to voice their characters in What If…?; since season 1, Mark Wingert and Lake Bell have been doing a shockingly quality job recreating the vocal tics of Iron Man and Black Widow as previously played by Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. But the win here is getting Rockwell back as Justin Hammer, who is firing off cackling Christmas-themed puns like they’re Mark 46 armor rounds. He is living for a kind of mayhem that Iron Man 2 just did not provide for someone who can be this wicked.

While Tony and his fellow Avengers do eventually show up to save the day — get ready to see Captain America in an elf costume — What If…? gives another Iron Man 2 player his due: Happy Hogan. Maybe Favreau was too modest to give himself a decent set-piece in either of two Iron Man movies, but here, he is the John McClane crawling through vents, outrunning gunmen, and, thanks to a few drops of Hulk blood, swinging through glass windows in order to bust skulls. Favreau also returns to voice the character, which not only makes it pop on a performance level, but elevages the “what if” of it all — what if this had been Iron Man 2 all along?

Writers A.C. Bradley and Matthew Chauncey along with director Bryan Andrews avoid loading the Christmas diversion with too much connectivity or lore — it’s really just Happy vs. Hammer to the end, with explosive set-pieces courtesy of the Iron Legion. In a way it’s a card out of the Shane Black playbook, who would wisely make a grounded, Christmastime Marvel movie of his own with Iron Man 3.

We can’t undo what’s done, so nothing will replace Iron Man 2 in the ranked history of Marvel movies, but What If…? at least vindicates its existence in a way no Marvel story has really done. But if it’s true that Hammer is sitting in a jail cell somewhere rotting, maybe the MCU animated alternate universe anthology series can wake someone up to the fact that the franchise is sitting on gold. Get Sam Rockwell back in the mix — let’s go with Thunderbolts? — stat.

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