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    Marveling At The Past - Iron Man 2 (2010)

    "If they make them as entertaining as this one, I will gladly sit through another ten Iron Man movies.  Once again Mr Favreau, I am so sorry I ever doubted you."

    That is a quote from my original review of 'Iron Man 2'. I just wanted to lay it out there up front. I enjoyed the film. I saw the same flaws as everyone else but I also saw an energetic, witty comic book movie. That is more than I can say about some of the Marvel movies we've covered. In fact I look back at the previous twenty articles I've done and realised that of those twenty films, I only considered eleven of them to be time well spent at the cinema.

    What was so disappointing about 'Iron Man 2' for a great many people? I can only speak for that special select sect of the audience of which I am part that greatly anticipates each and every comic book movie, that devours every image and trailer, that speculates about potential plot points on the 'superhero hype' forums, that demands the filmmakers pay due reverence to the source material and then use that as a the chief argument against the film went it doesn't turn out well.

    In our little world, if the first film does work then it seems pre-ordained that the second will be even better. The origin story is out of the way, the defining moments and plots from decades of comics are ready to be plucked, the director, writers and cast have more confidence in the material, the studio has more confidence letting the filmmakers tell their story, and the audience is salivating for it. I'm sure a good few people walked into 'Iron Man 2' without even questioning whether it would be a better film that the first. It just had to be the case. When 'Iron Man 2' fell short, I think there was a feeling of utter disbelief. The flaws one associates with a franchise that is out of ideas and running itself into the ground, a feeling usually reserved for the 'third film curse' were already laid bare in the second film. In fact, certain podcasting friends of mine were so disappointed that they have already written off 'Iron Man 3' as something to look forward to. You cannot have a more damaging effect on a franchise than that.

    So why did I enjoy 'Iron Man 2'? The main reason was that it was a film with something to say and its themes were crystal clear to me from my first viewing. I always have admiration for any movie which actually tries to be about something. The film's failure is in the execution of its actual plotting and the fact that, when all is said and done, it tried to take the character of Tony Stark on an emotional, life threatening personal journey but actually chickened out of taking him where he really needed to go.

    As we always try to do in this series, let us navigate through the patchwork of the film's ideas and themes, rip them apart and try to put them back together with a little rethinking in order to try and imagine a better film.

    'Iron Man 2' is essentially about the legacy of two fathers, in former partners Howard Stark and Anton Vanko, and how that is inherited by their sons, as well as how both sons live in the shadow of their fathers. Ivan Vanko is driven to revenge by the ghost of his father just as Tony Stark's dad casts a shadow over everything he does. It is about the importance of the gifts and the words we leave to our children which condition them for life. In fact Anton's last words to his son are what drive Ivan to create the Whiplash suit and go after Tony. Howard Stark's last words to his son via an ancient 1960's recorded message are what change Tony's entire perspective of his father and drive him to save his own life.

    Finally, being in the unique position of having a superhero whose identity is know to the entire world, and not having to bore us as an audience with scenes of him trying to keep that secret, the film is about getting drunk on success and prestige and crashing into a brick wall as a result. In the film this is symbolised by the Monaco Grand Prix where Tony, a creature of utter impulse living his life at 100mph, collides into a brick wall by the name of Whiplash. This is one of the few instances in the film that actually shows us something instead of telling.

    One of the frustrations I felt with the plot of the film is its habit of 'tell don't show'. At one point, Rhodey warns Tony that the U.S. Military are practically about to march into his house with tanks and take the Iron Man suits by force. Don't tell us something as cool as that. Show it to us. At another point, Nick Fury talks about how the work Howard Stark and Anton Vanko were doing with the Arc Reactor technology was going to dwarf any arms or energy race the world had ever seen and change the planet. Again, we are teased with a perfectly good idea for an actual plot for the film and it is casually tossed aside in exchange for a directionless one where Justin Hammer becomes the new premier arms contractor for the US Military. As much as I enjoy the final battle with Vanko and the Hammer Drones, it is just lights and explosions. There is nothing really at stake.

    And yet it is more appropriate in an Iron Man movie than perhaps any other Marvel film property for the stakes to be high, the villains to be plotting world domination and fate of the entire planet to be at stake. Iron Man is not a character whose story is played on the intimate stage of a single city like Spider-man. Those he has his deep, personal struggles, Tony Stark solves the world's problems and fights evil on a global scale. In this film, all the ingredients are in place to make a James Bond scale action epic but the execution sells them short. You have the world's most powerful technology which must not fall into the wrong hands. You have unscrupulous arms dealers. You have a Russian villain.

    When I first heard that the villain of the film would be a Russian, I immediately conjured images of Iron Man fighting off hordes of tanks in Moscow Red Square. I figured Whiplash would be Russia's less sophisticated, down and dirty version of Iron Man, officially sanctioned by their government and challenging America's armoured protector to an ultimate smackdown on their soil, possibly even re-igniting the cold war. The fact that the filmmakers were bringing the character Soviet spy 'The Black Widow' only added fuel to the fire. Alas, Whiplash turns out to be an uninspired, revenge crazed (though we see very little of his hatred for Stark) tech geek who actually spends most of his time making robots and typing keyboard commands.

    It should have worked. With all the other problems in Tony's life at this point, the ultimate nemesis for him at this point is an unrelenting, psychopathic force of nature that has an unnatural amount of hatred for a man he has never met but represents everything he should have been according to a father who has condition his son to that condition of loathing for decades. The obvious reason that the character of Ivan Vanko/Whiplash doesn't work is that he only fights Tony in two brief scenes, and is easily defeated in both, but it goes beyond that.

    I don't know how many of other people noticed but neither Iron Man nor War Machine actually get hurt in the film. They get knocked down a few times but our heroes never seem to lose a single chink in their armour. Whiplash has been designed by the filmmakers to pose a serious threat to Iron Man and yet his most dangerous attack, his electric whips, merely temporarily slow him down. In the Monaco battle specifically, Iron Man simply grabs hold of the whips that are wrapped around him, pulls Whiplash closer to him and takes the guy out. I know in the comics the character is referred to as 'The Invincible Iron Man' but that doesn't really translate well to film. You have to make your heroes hurt and feel pain. Say what you will about how, for example, the first 'Spider-man' film has dated but you cannot deny that Sam Raimi knew enough to have Peter Parker get the utter shit kicked out of him in his final fight with the Green Goblin. The audience feel scared for the character. The odds of him winning seem impossible. Since 'Iron Man 2' makes it clear that nothing can hurt Tony while he is in the suit, there is none of that jeopardy. If Vanko's whips actually worked, if they were deadly enough that a single touch from them could blow one of Tony's armoured limbs off, and being totally ensnared by them could shut the entire Iron Man suit down, then the physical threat of the Whiplash character suddenly begins to work.

    But not even that is satisfying if we don't feel or understand anything for the character. Vanko's need for revenge on Stark is poorly defined and the screenplay seems to turn it on and off at will. The idea that Vanko has a more complicated goal than to simply kill Tony there and then at Monaco is an interesting one (though it doesn't escape the fact that he couldn't if he tried), that he merely needed to trigger that one event to instigate everything that will follow where the world will turn on Stark and eventually destroy him. The problem is that if Vanko's job is done by the end of the first act, where does the character go from there? He is practially forced off screen and into Justin Hammer's workshop to bide his time until the third act when the story requires a physical antagonist again and Vanko suddenly decides he'd like to kill Tony properly this time.

    When Vanko storms onto the race track at Monaco, his target finally right in front of him after months of patience and preparation, it should be a great moment. The audience instead feels nothing because the reasons for Vanko taking that shot are utterly banal. The film starts with the potentially cool concept that Anton Vanko developed the Arc reactor technology with Howard Stark but lazily decides that the former was deported back to Russia simpy because he wanted to 'get rich' from it. Anton gets drunk, depressed and dies. His son yells at the ceiling in a comically laughable way and sets out to destroy the Stark legacy.

    What if Howard Stark was actually the one who made the wrong choice all those years back and the actual legacy he has left for his son is one of retribution at the hands of the entire Soviet empire? Imagine Nick Fury tells us instead that once Howard and Anton had developed the plans for the Arc reactor, the latter decides that this could be the key to ending the cold war. Anton Vanko was merely a naive scientist with real aspirations to change the world who defected from his country merely so he could bridge the gap between them and the United States. It is Howard Stark who decides he cannot take the risk of letting this technology fall into Russian hands, fearing it will only lead both countries further down the path of destroying each other, and has Anton deported.

    Now you have added an interesting shade of grey to Tony father, forced to make a difficult but ultimately wrong choice. You have a defined, interesting character in Anton Vanko. And you give Ivan perfectly understandable motivation to hate Stark.

    To take it further, what if Ivan Vanko's motivation was not so much to destroy the Stark legacy but simply redeem that of his own family? Imagine that Ivan has been recruited by a covert sect of the Russian military to develop his father's technology for them and to become their version of Iron Man. Imagine that Vanko's mere presence as such during the Monaco confrontation triggers a long thought buried wave of tension between the United States and Russia. Imagine that, as a result of his humiliation at the senate hearing, Justin Hammer himself defects to Russia to equip Vanko with his trademark state of the art firepower. Imagine that Rhodey and the US military actually do break Stark's door down and take his suits, not only because of Tony's erratic behaviour, but because the country now appears to be on the brink of a new cold war and needs the edge. Imagine, as a result of that, Rhodey becomes 'War Machine' and the new face of American defence to reassure the public in the face of this crisis. Imagine Vanko taunting Tony to face the new and improved Whiplash in Russia in a move which is merely designed to escalate the conflict but which our hero, with the rest of the world crashing down on him, gives in to. Imagine even that perhaps arch nemesis 'The Mandarin' is actually the one behind the scenes manipulating the world superpowers into World War III, in the classic tradition of Blofeld from the Bond movies.

    I'm sure some of you are thinking that there is enough material there for several films and cramming it all into a different vision of 'Iron Man 2' would be even more of a mess than the finished film. Well just look back at the film again and think about how much time is wasted with pointless scenes. There are endless bickering scenes between Tony and Pepper Potts. There is pretty much all the stuff with Natalie Rushman/Nastasha Romanov/Black Widow. There is the unfunny running joke about Ivan's bird and Hammer's attempt to bring it back from Russia. There is the agonizing stretch in the middle of the film where Tony goes crazy at a party and fights Rhodey. And we haven't even mentioned all the scenes of Tony getting metal poisoning, replacing the rotten energy cores in his chest and creating a new element. If you take all of that out, I'd say you would have a fair amount of time to tell the action epic I just described.

    As I aluded to near the start of the piece, the film wants to take Tony on a personal journey to the brink of death but doesn't have the conviction to go to the place every fan wanted it to; adapting the 'demon in a bottle' storyline where Tony battle with alcoholism. The film dilutes the very concept of Tony battling with demons of any sort with its weak substitute of him having to find a replacement element to keep powering his Arc powered heart. The problem he faces is simply an external one. Finding a solution does not require him to conquer anything but simply doodle with a hologram, arrange some pipes around the room and fire off a laser or two.

    I just think that if you were able to present the contrast of the entire planet being on the brink of destruction with the image of a solitary soul clinging on to nothing but a bottle, the audience would really feel that the world has gone to hell and would feel overjoyed by the release at the end when Tony manages to pull almost everything back together. In fact the film would end with Tony having defeated Vanko and Hammer, with US & Russian relations stabilised, and with Iron Man back on watch. Yet even after accomplishing so much, Tony confesses to Pepper that all of it pales in comparison to simply having the resolve to not pick up that bottle anymore.

    You would have probably the darkest, deepest and most epic of any Marvel movie to date as a result. Instead the 'Iron Man 2' which we got was one that, as so many comic book movie sequels tend to, lost its identity. By the time we have reached the hour mark we come to the realisation that Iron Man is not going to be flying off to combat evil in foreign lands or engage in spectacular flying sequences or practically be on screen at all. The film forgets that it is an Iron Man movie. If a two hour film with 'Iron Man' in the title didn't find the time to feature much of the character, what pray tell does that bode for 'The Avengers'?

    If I'm still a ranting Marvel fanboy by summer 2012, I'll be glad to look back and tell you.

    Reader Comments (4)

    "If I'm still an ranting Marvel fanboy"
    The above quote from the last line of your text is in need of correction!
    Your welcome.

    01-8-2011 | Unregistered Commenterzeb

    Biggest disappointment of 2010. The characters were boring, the story was weak and rushed, the action was cheesy, and the acting was bad (especially from Scar Jo). The only redeeming quality this film has is the special effects.

    01-8-2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatt K

    Really great post, Phil.

    Your comments echo a lot of my own sentiments about the film, which was severely disappointing. Not disappointing because it was a bad movie, disappointing because it was a good movie that could have been incredible. What's most bothersome about Iron Man 2 is the wasted potential--the fact that everything was set up for a home run, and in the end it's not even as good as the first film.

    Iron Man 1 was great, but it had plenty of flaws. What I found most offensive about the sequel was that so many of those flaws remained. They were absolutely forgivable in Iron Man 1, but Iron Man 2 needed to step out and come into its own, which it never did.

    That said, I still liked Iron Man 2. I liked it enough to see it twice in theaters. It was a very entertaining movie, most of the character interactions (even the pointless ones) were energetic and fun, and it managed to be a lot funnier and more character-focused than most comic book flicks. That I appreciate immensely.

    What I didn't appreciate was the unfocused nature of the plotting. I think you laid out pretty well what was wrong with it. Having Howard Stark end up the bad guy would have added so many layers to the story, but they didn't have the guts to go there, and that kind of sums up the entire film. Basically every story thread in the movie feels undercooked since they weren't willing to take some risks.

    I'm still really excited for Thor, Captain America, and Avengers... hopefully having a new director for Iron Man 3 will jump start the franchise in 2013, but Avengers is really going to make or break the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment, I think.

    01-8-2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

    Never picked up an Iron Man comic in my life and went into the film opening weekend, refusing to read most of the reviews and yet... around the hour mark, when Stark tried to make it up to Pepper (for some reason. I guess she was pissed off at what he did at the party, but its never really explained) by buying an entire fruit-stall seller's strawberries (on the side of a very narrow looking road!), my eyelids started to feel heavy.

    Everything you have suggested Phil, is a lot more interesting than what happened on screen, but when you have someone like Bill O'Reily making cameo appearances in your film, moral ambiguity is probably the last thing on your mind.

    01-9-2011 | Unregistered Commenterwelshfilmbuff

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