Chris versus the Movies: A Case for Iron Man 2

Posted: May 7, 2010 in Braak, comic books, Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

Iron Man 2 has been getting some mixed reviews, including a ferocious panning from io9’s Charlie Jane Anders.  io9 is a website to which I have some small connection, and after reading CJA’s review, I determined that I ought to throw in on this.  Charlie Jane and I do not always agree on things; sometimes we disagree wildly.

This is one of those times.

There are two ways to look at Iron Man 2 — one, I think, is substantially stronger than the other, but both yield an extremely entertaining movie.  Charlie says she was bored the whole time, and okay; maybe it doesn’t have the stuff that she likes.  I was not bored the whole time, because it has things that I like:  quirky characters, humor, and flying robot battles.  Those things are just there, and if you don’t like those things, then don’t bother reading any further, because I don’t think I can defend Iron Man 2 to you.

(Maybe you think the part where he creates a new element in his basement is ridiculous pseudo-science.  Well, look, that’s correct, but whether you appreciate it or not depends on how you say it.  If you say, “What?  Did he just build a supercollider in his basement?”  then you’ll probably think it’s crazy.  If you say it like, “What!?!?!?  Did he just build a SUPERCOLLIDER in his BASEMENT?” then you’ll probably think it’s crazy AWESOME.)

But if this does pique your interest, let me talk about the two ways to look at it.  First, the weaker version:  Iron Man 2 as a film by itself.  CJA insists that some people will tell you that the story meandered because it suffered from too many villains, but I think this is patently false in two respects:

The first is that it doesn’t have any more villains than Iron Man. In the first movie, Iron Man fights some jets, some terrorists, and Obadiah Stane.  That’s three villains:  the government, the Ten Rings, and Iron Monger.  In the second movie, Iron Man fights War Machine, Whiplash, and some deadly robots.  That’s still three villains:  the government, Whiplash, and Justin Hammer.  In fact, much like in the first movie, two of these villains can be seen as a composite:  a close reading of the film makes it clear that Justin Hammer is really Whiplash’s stooge, and part of his plan from the beginning.  Hammer is hardly a villain at all, just a means to provide Whiplash with the necessary resources for his own villainy.  So, technically, Iron Man 2 has fewer villains than Iron Man.

(Moreover, all of these villains exist as practical consequences to Iron Man’s existence:  the government wants the weapon that he made, Justin Hammer’s cut-throat but inferior tech is the product of Stark giving up all of its government contracts, Whiplash has a personal vendetta against Iron Man.  Compare to Spider-Man 3, which ALSO had three villains — one of whom was retconned in so that he would be related to the story, and one of whom FELL FROM SPACE and never related to the story at all.)

In the second place:  the story doesn’t really meander at all — it’s got a pretty solid through-line, really.  The government wants Stark to give up his weapon, Stark insists that it’s safe just in his hands, a villain with a personal grudge knocks him around (proving his position false), the tech “gets loose”, Stark has to get everything back under control.

What the movie really is about is Stark dealing with his own ego and narcissism, his addiction, his self-destructive behaviors.  Charlie Jane is quite right in saying that he is, in a sense, the villain of the movie — everything bad that happens happens as a direct result of Tony Stark being a kind of a jackass.  The moral lesson is actually the answer to the issue raised in the first movie:  in the first movie, Iron Man decides he’s going to undo the mess that Stark Industries has created.  In the second movie, he has SUCCEEDED.  This is the sequel to his guilt:  his smug sense of self satisfaction at having won.  It is the perfect time for an adversary that’s actually equal to him to appear.

I suppose I don’t really understand what the problem with this is.  I think it’s a trouble that we get into when we talk about superheroes — this is a future post with a lot that’s going to go into it, but for right now:  calling Iron Man a superhero is grossly reductive.  In what way is he a superhero?  Because he has a secret identity (not actually a secret at this point) and he has powers yes.  And therefore the assumption is that he will do good and fight crime, as all superheroes must do.

But, of course, Iron Man doesn’t really “fight crime.”  He’s not Spider-Man, he’s not a vigilante, flying around Manhattan and taking out muggers.  And whoever he is as a character, it’s a hell of a lot more than just his Iron Man powers.  Thinking of Iron Man as a superhero, and then trying to cram him into the mold of the moral, guilt-ridden revenger is asking to be disappointed.

Because that’s not what he is; what he is is a good-hearted but self-absorbed addict who has built an invincible personal superweapon.  The movie about that guy should plainly be the movie about him facing down his addictions, dealing with the consequences of his arrogance, struggling with the boundary between personal accountability and national security.  And that is precisely the movie that we got:  it is NOT Spider-Man, it is NOT The Dark Knight, it is NOT…uh….Daredevil.  That’s because Iron Man isn’t any of those guys.

Now, this is still the weaker way to look at it.  There are elements of this plot that could have been better and more fully explored.*  But it’s still a damn entertaining movie, and includes flying robot battles and Sam Rockwell being completely hilarious.

But there’s an even stronger way to look at this, and that is in context with The Avengers.  I maintain that The Avengers is a project of unprecedented ambition in the history of cinema.  Certainly, I don’t know of any other plan that involved making, what, FIVE DIFFERENT MOVIES, all with the intention that their main characters would then meet in a sixth movie.  This is actually comics’ legacy to the narrative form; no other media explores crossovers in quite this way.  It’s something that only could have come from the comics, and deserves respect at least for its audacity.

The thing is this, though:  when you make a movie that’s got five main characters in it, they all have to be there for different reasons and, more importantly, they all have to be different characters.  When we look at Iron Man 2 by itself, it’s right to say that there’s no reason that Iron Man should have the same moral framework or character arc that any other hero does.  When we look at it in context with The Avengers, it becomes plain that Iron Man MUST NOT have the same character and moral framework as the others.  There’s no law claiming that a superhero needs Spider-Man or Superman’s pathological humility, but there is a law saying that you can’t make a movie with five guys like that.  It’s called Braak’s Law, and I enforce it with raging apoplexy and cruel invective.

The moral lesson that Iron Man learns in this context is also the answer to the previous film:  he first wants to undo the damage that Stark Industries has done, to assuage his personal guilt.  He now, having succeeded at that, needs to learn that he is not the only hero in the world –that the responsibility for global security does not rest on his shoulders alone.  This tension — between his instinctive self-aggrandizement and his awareness that the job is actually more important than he is — is what will make him part of an interesting character dynamic in The Avengers film.

In both respects, we got exactly from Iron Man 2 what we should have expected:  the next part of an ongoing character evolution that is still incomplete.

*How, you are asking, could it have been stronger?  I, braak!, freelance dramaturg will tell you.  [SPOILERS!]  In the film, Whiplash and Stark’s fathers used to work together.  But Stark’s dad deported Whiplash’s dad (Anton Vanko) when he found out that Vanko wanted to just sell the tech to make a billion dollars.  Obviously, this would have been better if it were the other way around — if Howard Stark had been the cut-throat profiteer, and Vanko had objected, so Stark took sole credit for his designs and got him sent back to Russia.  This makes puts the ironies (Iron Man is the hero son of a son of a bitch father; Whiplash is the son of a bitch son of a hero father) at maximum strength.  It also permits a better solution to the main problem of the piece:  Tony Stark is trying to make a new arc generator because the one he’s got is poisoning him.  In the movie, he succeeds by finding a secret message left to him by his father.  Obviously, what SHOULD have happened is that Stark needed to reject his father’s designs and figure out something new — so that it was his adherence to his father’s legacy that was holding him back.  Iron Man is, after all, the hero of the future.  Probably, this scenario should have involved SHIELD giving him vibranium.

SUPPLEMENTAL:  Why the Iron Man 2 party scene is good, where the Spider-Man 3 jazz-dance scene is bad:

The number 1 problem with the Spider-Man 3 scene is that Venom didn’t belong in this movie at all.  The symbiote literally falls into the story from outer-space; as a consequence, everything to DO with the symbiote is — by extension — extraneous to the movie.

However, even accepting the need for Venom in the film, the scene doesn’t actually make any sense.  Remember what happens:  out of spite because Mary Jane broke up with him, Peter Parker takes Gwen Stacy to a jazz bar where Mary Jane is singing, and then he leaps around doing a jazz dance so that she will be jealous.  Why are we meant to think that this jazz dance would make anyone jealous?  Why would Peter Parker, possessed by the symbiote, indulge in increasingly human petty jealousies?  If he is going to do that, why does he behave not as the sexual predator that we would expect (with Parker’s own wants merged with the sociopathy of the symbiote), but in a wholly-desexualized manner?  The dance itself was kind of silly, but I think that’s less of a big deal than these other parts.  What the hell was it DOING there?  What was its consequence?  Nothing happens as a result of that scene that doesn’t ALSO happen as a result of something else.

Now, consider the Iron Man 2 party scene.  Tony Stark, knowing that he’s going to die, decides to go to his birthday party in the Iron Man suit.  He shows off in the suit — as we know that Tony Stark is wont to do — blowing holes in things that people throw into the air.  He is drunk and behaving stupidly — precisely the way that we expect Tony Stark to do.  The premise of the scene is concomitant with Stark’s increasingly reckless and narcissistic behaviors, with his addiction to the celebrity and power of the suit.

Moreover, the consequence of this scene is that it is what galvanizes Jim Rhodes into stealing an Iron Man suit and fighting him — AS HE SHOULD.  Stark’s reckless behavior is what makes the issue of the conflict between Stark and the government complex.  It is not just a question of the government wanting everything that might be useful — it is ALSO a question of Stark being a drunken jackass with an invincible personal superweapon.  Not only does it fit into the story, but it’s necessary to the story, to add a layer of moral ambiguity to one of the story’s central conflicts.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    Yeah, that’s what really threw me as I kept reading Charlie’s review – it took me a while to realize she was saying “Stark is the villain of the piece” and meaning it as a NEGATIVE THING.

    Maybe it’s just that I’ve read enough Iron Man comics to know they’ve been hammering home the point that Tony Stark is is own worst enemy for, like, decades. It is like saying “Bruce Wayne has kind of a bat motif to his crimefighting.”

    I shall have further thoughts on the movie when I see it (fingers crossed) Sunday or Monday.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Also, there’s a “Drunken Iron Man” sequence from “Twisted Toyfare Theater” that I have GOT to scan and post sometime this weekend.

  3. braak says:

    Yeah, I had a similar problem. Three paragraphs in, I’m still saying, “Yep, that’s Iron Man, all right!” before I notice that this is really the lynchpin of her dissatisfaction with it.

    Huh. Anyway, I guess it’s tasteless for me to link to my own blog in the io9 review. Here’s hoping some considerate TQP reader, moved by my eloquent defense, will do it on his or her own.

  4. Carl says:

    Saw it tonight– thought it a fine evening of entertainment. For me, it was a bit bloated in the middle (I could have done with about twenty fewer minutes) but the third act more than made up for it. And yeah, the cast arguably comprises the finest collection of actors ever assembled for a superhero flick– not a performance to be had here that wasn’t stellar. (Though I wish I thought Johanson was sexy, but I don’t and never will. I’ve missed missed that boat entirely.) I think Stark is an extremely compelling character and that Downey absolutely kills in the role. Nothing about his arc or the protrayal lacks here.

    I do have a question, though, for those of you more familiar with AVENGERS than I. Is Jackson right in this role? Why am I getting so much PULP FICTION off of him here when a little more STAR WARS: ATTACK OF THE CLONES is what’s called for? At least, that’s my recollection of Fury. But, in fairness, its been twenty years.

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    RE: Samuel L. Fury – I’ll field this one.

    The Nick Fury the Avengers movies are playing with is based on the Ultimates version, where artist Brian Hitch used Jackson as a visual model. And the movie-Avengers will likely follow the more militaristic version featured in those books. So in this sense, Jackson doing his Shaft/Jules hybrid works just fine.

    Now, the ORIGINAL Fury was a (white, stubbly) WWII grunt who fought alongside Captain America (and took a life-extending formula so he’s still in charge of SHIELD), though somehow I doubt we’ll see Jackson in that role (though…dude, awesome if they did). Also, in the 60’s comics, he and Tony Stark had a close relationship, where Stark was the chief weaponeer for SHIELD.

    Most recently, Fury in the (proper) Marvel Universe has been used as a past-his-prime, paranoid Cold War spook who manipulates super-people to his own ends, with occasionally terrible results.

    His last disastrous outing with super-folk (Bendis’s “Secret War” series) got him kicked out of SHIELD, at which point he went deep underground.

    In the meantime, Tony Stark took Fury’s place, which led to even more horrible crap that led to the GREEN GODDAMN GOBLIN becoming head of SHIELD.

    But it’s all okay because Norman Osborne is currently getting the ever-loving shit kicked out of him in the current “Siege” crossover story that’s going to make everything just ducky again.

    This is Jeff Holland, Reading Marvel Comics So You Don’t Have To.

  6. I don’t think the Ultimates Fury was a WWII comrade of Cap’s — in one of the Ultimates issues they show him losing his eye in Gulf War I. This leads me to believe he’s modern-day all the way.

    But the idea of flashbacks in an Avengers film to Samuel L. Jackson as a WWII grunt in the segregated military, getting covert but explosive shit done despite his white superiors … fuck yeah.

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    @Jefferson Robbins: I said the Original (white stubbly) Fury, not Samuel L. Fury. He lost his eye in an early flashback issue of Ultimate X-Men.

    Though apparently, in the Ultimate Origins miniseries, it was revealed that Samuel L. Fury was a WWII soldier who was given a version of the supersoldier serum. Thanks, Wikipedia!

  8. Jeff Holland says:

    @Braak: Holy crap…this is why I’m disappointed in myself, that I never tried to become a Hollywood screenwriter: because your dramaturg point is so FUCKING OBVIOUS to me, that I can’t believe it isn’t what’s in the movie. I mean…that’s BASIC GODDAMN WRITING: cast off the shackles of your ghost-dad’s attitudes to reach some greater height? It’s just sitting there!


  9. braak says:

    See, I know we talk about how fruitless it is to get worked up about how movies could have been different, but that’s the thing that really gets to me; it’s not that any given movie could have been substantially better — it’s that, in most cases, it would have been SO EASY to make it better.

  10. Another way Iron Man 2 could have been made better: if someone had explained how Jim Rhodes could successfully steal an Iron Man suit that a) no one but Tony has ever worn and b) is POWERED BY THE PACEMAKER IN TONY’S CHEST and c) is AT LEAST PARTLY CONTROLLED BY TONY’S HOUSEHOLD SUPERCOMPUTER.

    (I just saw the movie yesterday, and while in the theater I may have drifted off to Bimini for a moment or two, so if that was in any way explained within the film, I apologize and sincerely wish someone would clue me in.)

  11. braak says:

    Yeah, don’t worry about that, too much. I like to think that Stark had always planned for Rhodey to eventually have one of the suits, and so built one that had its own arc reactor built in, but they don’t ever explicitly say it.

    You have to…you have to just not worry about that.

  12. Jeff Holland says:

    In the donut-shop scene, Fury and Natasha imply that Tony had set things up so that Rhodey could access a suit – granted, they only imply this by pointing out how many failsafes Tony usually had in place and don’t say anything about them being deactivated or anything.

    But the takeaway there is that Tony, expecting to die soon, had allowed some wiggle-room in his security that would allow Rhodey to take control of a suit. Presumably AFTER he died? And not “In case of drunken escapades, break open glass,” or anything. But…yeah. Don’t worry about that.

    (I think you’re supposed to assume the suits are now all powered by their own arc-reactors, that don’t necessarily have to plug into Tony’s specific chest-piece. Again: Don’t you worry about that.)

  13. Was he planning to fill Rhodey in on the icing problem?

  14. braak says:

    I admit that, during that whole sequence, all I could think about was, “What about the icing problem?” Rhodey’s an experienced pilot, though, he probably kept to lower altitudes when he realized something was up.

  15. Jeff Holland says:

    I am guessing that at some point in the 6 months between movies, Tony at least let him try out the suit. Because dude, WALKING has got to be pretty tricky in that thing, let alone retinal controls.

  16. Ciji says:

    “This is Jeff Holland, Reading Marvel Comics So You Don’t Have To.”

    God bless you for that.

    All I have to add to this excellent discussion is that Don Cheadle made for a better Jim Rhodes than Terrence Baby Wipes Howard could have ever been.

    And we saw Rhodes had his own code to the IronCave (I don’t know what it’s called) earlier in the movie, and Jarvis didn’t announce his approach like he did with Pepper, so it was clear to me there was a level of familiarity and trust establish between the two.

  17. Amanda says:


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