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Reflections on Iron Man 2 by Andrew Mihovich

Friday, June 13, 2014

The first note about this movie I have in my tiny notebook is “Dark version of main theme at beginning”.  We discussed this in the discussion after the movie—as Ivan goes to work on a suit to rival Tony’s, we hear a dark, sinister take on the main theme of the movie.  The fact that it also has definite Soviet undertones didn’t occur to me until somebody pointed it out.  Presumably, it just so happens that Russian music lends itself to being dark, sinister and overbearing when the situation calls for it. (In fact, one of the things that helped me realize this was from the X-Men cartoon from the 1990s, where Colossus, a Russian character, had similar theme music.  I always liked it.)

This makes a point of at least two things: First, Ivan Vanko is a very dangerous character.  If he is after Tony Stark, for whatever reason, then he means trouble.  Second, the influence from the main theme of the first movie stresses their similarity—Ivan Vanko is a technological genius working on a power suit of his own. (In this case, that only serves to make him more dangerous, though I found myself not quite having the feelings of dread to match the music.  Not yet, anyway.) Third, he is Russian.

In the same breath, I note one of Ivan’s quirks: “Card suits on fingers.  And a burd.”  This is picked up again later.  One of the things that helps sell Ivan Vanko as a character and a legitimate threat is the various quirks that are given to him.

Ivan Vanko’s status as a new character and a legitimate threat is supported by the sheer number of little quirks given to him.  He has a pet cockatoo, which he feeds Vodka.  He has tattoos all over his body, from card suits on his fingers to I-don’t-know-what.  He looks darn cool in an alley with an overcoat, shades, and his hair done up.  He isn’t Obadiah Stane (the villain of the first movie, memorable but arguably taken for granted) and he isn’t the Mandarin (a favorite for the third movie and Iron Man’s arch-nemesis in the comics), so they get creative in selling him on his own merits.  A sympathetic backstory of a warped childhood doesn’t hurt—so to speak.

While I’m on the subject of Vanko, two other things come to mind.  First, Mickey Rourke is reportedly a very good actor.  I can’t say, really—I’m not familiar with his work.  However, taking that for granted, it was one and a half viewings before I realized, in contrast with the measured, charismatic performances of Hammer, Stane, and even Raza: Vanko is blunt.  His actions are blunt, his mannerisms are blunt, even his features are blunt.  He is clearly intelligent, even articulate, and he comes alive after a fashion when he is in his element and his prodigious technological skills are engaged, but he still comes off in many ways as a revenge-driven brute. (This probably partly reflects his upbringing.)

The other thing was his very first scene.  This film, like many before it, has fun (re-) introducing its characters, and in many cases, their faces.  It’s a minor thing, but it still made its way into my notes, partly because I’ve become rather intrigued by the variety surrounding the “face reveal” shot.  I could go on at length, but in this movie alone:

-Ivan Vanko’s very first scene sees him stewing in a corner as his father dies of alcohol poisoning.  What’s going through his head—if it’s even supposed to be clear—I can’t say.  But it’s ten seconds before he turns to meet the camera for the first time, and his father for the last.
-Tony’s re-introduction is a stark (excuse me) contrast, as, following a flashy entrance in the Iron Man suit, his helmet is removed to reveal him grinning, loving the crowd and soaking up attention.  Robert Downey Jr. is good at that—just one of his many talents. “It’s good to be back,” he says, and the audience agrees.
-Rhodey’s reappearance is ingenious, and I can’t claim credit for noticing, though I like to think I’d have figured it out on my own.  He is introduced facing away from the camera, until it’s clear who he is, new actor or no.  “I’m here, it’s me, let’s move on,” he says.  Tony tries to say something. “Drop it.”

I could go on about similar scenes for many members of the cast—I could dissect Pepper’s re-appearance to an unnecessary degree, or any one of Justin Hammer’s scenes—but let’s move on.

Back to Stark.  There is an art to re-introduction, and there’s more to it than revealing just another bearded face.  Stark’s first scene is a bombastic, impressive re-introduction to the audience—ego and all.  The scantily-clad go-go dancers kind of make that clear, and Stark drives it home with a thoroughly vain, charismatic speech about his accomplishments.  Both audiences, as a group, love him for it.

Let’s talk about Stark.  Let’s talk about why these movies are so popular and so much fun.  In the comics, Tony Stark, is (quite) a character, too.  But at his most basic, he is a flawed hero, the CEO of Stark Enterprises, and also (with an appropriate origin story) Iron Man.  He is also clever, rich, and largely uninhibited in a way that would be difficult to match with fellow Marvel heroes Hulk or Captain America.  The writers, directors, and Robert Downey Jr. have taken Tony Stark—the central character of their multimillion dollar blockbuster—and run with him.

That is to say, they have thrown everything into making him a clever, entertaining, charismatic, larger-than-life powerhouse of a hero (such as he is) who is also Tony Stark.  He makes funny quips left and right, an art at which which Robert Downey Jr. appears to be genuinely adept (the “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” joke from the first movie was reportedly not in the script but improvised on the spot, on-camera) in an environment of loose consequences as a character who thrives on being a lovable egotist.  Cary Grant, eat your heart out.  He uses his vast wealth quite liberally, and if he wants to respond to his existential crisis by jumping in on the Circuit de Monaco, then he is going to do it.

The word I’m looking for is escaping me—Chutzpah?  Gall?  Audacity?  That might be it—but he pulls off amazing tricks, feats and one-liners of every variety, looks darn good in the meantime… and hits the beats that make him recognizably Tony Stark and Iron Man of Marvel Comics.

But more to the point, he is Tony Stark of Iron Man and Iron Man 2. (The relative amount of screen time he spends as Iron Man and Tony Stark, and the overall problem of working a semi-realistic plot into any superhero movie, just occurred to me.  But I can get into that some other time.)

This actually takes me through the first four pages of my notes.  The only thing I haven’t touched on is Pepper’s absolutely stunned reaction to being promoted to CEO.  I’m not sure where I would go with that.

Revenge!  This is the first word on the next, page, minus the exclamation point, and it brings me to something very important about Iron Man 2’s plot. Iron Man 2 hits many of the same beats as its predecessor, even for a sequel.  Tony’s struggle, two major villains, one foreign, one a “second banana” figure, one besting the other’s guards in an act of betrayal, scantily clad dancers working for Tony, a somewhat disappointing climax, an unorthodox sequel hook after the credits—they’re all there.  The second movie does them well enough, while bringing in an exceptional amount of its own material, including character background, development, and setups for more movies. (All of which can presumably be found in abundance in the comics, but what they worked into the movie is impressive.  Stop me before I get sidetracked.)

One thing Iron Man 2 is missing, however, is a certain kind of sueprheroics.  The first movie featured a realistic terrorist organization, The Ten Rings, as one of its villains.  While corrupt businessman / iron-monger Obadiah Stane turned out to be the movie’s “real” villain, Iron Man also had to face off with a band of marauders terrorizing innocent people in the Middle East, the likes of which we are certainly familiar with in real life.  Iron Man takes them to the cleaners.  We cheer him for it.

Iron Man 2 is missing this.  Its main villain, Ivan Vanko, has his eyes on one man: Stark.  Iron Man is fighting to save his own life.  Yes, Ivan endangers and even kills various innocent bystanders, and Iron Man goes out of his way to defend them, but this is a fight between the two men.  This would not normally make a bad movie, just as Stane’s attempt to take over Stark Enterprises in the first movie would not have made a bad movie, and in point of fact, it doesn’t make a bad movie.  It’s well-made, well-received and a lot of fun.

It is, however, also a superhero movie.  One of the main roles of superheroes is to defend innocents from threats—fantastic or mundane—and save the day. (To be fair, there is a repeated emphasis on how Iron Man has had a significant impact on worldwide violence, but while arguably more important and a creative concept to boot, it doesn’t have the same effect.) Except for a few scenes where Stark must save innocent innocent bystanders caught in Vanko’s attacks, Iron Man 2 is missing superhero-style superheroics.  That may not be 2’s only weakness compared to the original, but it’s a signficant one.

All this talk about Vanko.  What about the movie’s other villain, Justin Hammer?  Some would argue that he just isn’t as interesting as Vanko.  There may be something to that.  However, there is one angle I have come up with, ever since the ride back after seeing the movie for the first time: Justin Hammer is what Tony Stark could have been.

He’s a good deal less skilled.  He’s a lot less charismatic.  At certain points, he is certainly more ruthless.  But he is also an amoral, egotistical, self-absorved showboater in charge of a major corporation.  There are tricks he pulls that even the “old” Tony might not have, such as being Senator Stern’s puppet, or hiring a maniac who just tried to murder his biggest competitor to work for him, to say nothing of the way he breaks Vanko out of prison, but he is not a far cry from the Tony Stark we see at first.

Given how Tony changed after his epiphany in Afganistan, I do wonder what we might see from Hammer after being arrested and disgraced (the disheveled hair and broken glasses, which he later loses altogether, were a nice touch) while vowing payback the whole way out.

Where was I?  Still at the racetrack, according to my notes—an easily missed line about Tony suggesting that Pepper get a massage from the new girl (which probably isn’t that hard to unpack), a note about the foreshadowing as Hammer watches Vanko’s attack on Tony with more interest than fear (and me expecting I could do scenes like that if I bothered to write more), and…

I described a while back how Iron Man 2 was lacking in self-sacrificing heroics.  There is one roundabout exception to this: Tony’s friends, Rhodey, Pepper, Happy, and less personally, Fury and Romanov, trying to save him.  This isn’t in my notes, but it did strike me about the movie and one of its messages: How not to deal with an existential crisis, imminent or otherwise.  The movie presents a very good picture of someone responding to the prospect of death by alternately performing spontaneous, half-thought-out acts of charity, clamming up and refusing to tell his friends what’s wrong, and toward the end, getting drunk and acting like an animal.  These are pitfalls he falls into so that, ideally, the audience won’t. (I’m still not sure why he didn’t turn to an external power source that wouldn’t affect his bloodstream.  But that’s beside the point.)

This is followed by a note about adapting and improvising in writing.  I think there was a lot of that in this film, and it benefited for it—many of the best ideas are brought up on the spot, and I don’t just mean on-camera ad libs.  But that’s a bit much to get into right now. (I think I was still thinking about Stark’s sheer, no-holds-barred characterization, described earlier.)

Then there’s a note about Vanko’s escape… and the note about how Iron Man “never stopped protecting us.”  Again, it is a kind of superheroism, and it does work on its own terms, but it arguably lacks the “oomph” expected of a hero defending the innocent.

That said, this brings us to two of Vanko’s lines to Tony: “If you make God bleed, people will cease to believe in him,” and more simply, “You lose.”  We also discussed this after the movie, the first in particular.  I won’t repeat what was said there, except that the point about Jesus actually bleeding is oddly apropos, and that it may be important to note that Vanko is a villain.  However, there is one wrinkle to this claim that may not be obvious: It is not that he was able to damage the seemingly invincible Iron Man suit or literally make Tony bleed, though he certainly did both.  It isn’t even that he showed that contrary to Tony’s claims, such suits were possible, and immediately so, though this is closer.

What he proved, more conceptually, is that Tony Stark was not the only one who could do it.  To hold to Vanko’s metaphor, in the eyes of some of Stark’s more single-minded supporters, as both Iron Man and the creator of “Iron Man”, he showed that he was not a “god”.

My notes trail off a bit here, apart from some amusement at Hammer claiming that he and Vanko are “very alike”. (He is set up as a buffoon at every turn, isn’t he?  I stand by my “What Tony Stark could have been” hypothesis.)

Shortly after this, we have the “party” scene, and the lowest that Tony Stark sinks.  My first note is about the powerful “fallen” image after his fight with Rhodey: Collapsed in the corner of a wrecked room, with an unusual party light shining on him. (Off that, Rhodey takes the suit to the military.  End second act.) It called up my own ideas for a Birdman movie, but that’s well outside of this analysis.  In the same breath, though, there is a note about the “scary” party—and how, as Tony slips into drunken, nihilistic “anything goes” mode and starts blasting wine glasses out of the air, to the delight of the (also drunken) crowd, it is portrayed as a very bad thing, thanks in no small part to the very ominous music.

The soundtrack is also important shortly thereafter: In the fight between Stark (Iron Man) and Rhodes (War Machine), the music—diegetic music, no less—helps to very nearly play it for laughs, with a strong element of fun in seeing these two comic book heroes slug it out on the big screen.  However, by the end, things become very un-funny as the music drops out entirely.  It’s not funny anymore.  A minute later, we’re looking at the fallen hero described two paragraphs ago.

My next note…  a brief thing about Fury and Romanova’s faces, the latter “introduced” in a form-fitting bodysuit before her identity is revealed.  And let me just say that in a movie already full of fun actors and characters, I love Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. (There’s a notable story behind his casting, but this isn’t the place for it.) (I do also note that this is right after the first movie… which it actually isn’t, now that I think about it.  How fast did that paladium spread all of a sudden?)

Say my notes: “Elaborate backstory.  I like it.  Scope.” Again, this movie goes into the pasts and details of its characters, though it is limited by its two hours of screentime. (Comics nothing, I wonder what the novelization gets up to.) There is also a note to the effect of, “Hammer.  Engineer or not?” It isn’t clear just how much of an engineer Hammer himself is, even if he is clearly below Stark and Vanko. (On the one hand, there is his loving, detailed description of “The Ex-Wife”.  On the other is his total lack of comphrehension at what Vanko was up to until he explained his “drone” concept—any good engineer should have been geeking out in the same breath as berating him.)

This movie has lots of “big” characters, I noticed, and I’m not just referring to Tony Stark, charismatic, brilliant superhero and former head of Stark Enterprises.  Other players include the current CEO of Stark Enterprises, the CEO of Hammer Enterprises, a prominent United States senator, and—the one who inspired the note—the director of the ultra-cool fictional defense organization S.H.I.E.L.D..  The power and authority behind every other character in this movie arguably adds to its appeal.

...followed by a note about actions, MOs, speech and reactions (inspired by Downey’s reactions to discovering the “new element” with his late father’s help—all of them, one after the other) to match.  Tony Stark, protagonist extraordinaire, may be the main source of great moments (of which cramming the entire “World of Tomorrow” display into his car and driving off is only one), but he by no means has a monopoly on them.  It’s that kind of movie—very “packed”, very fast-moving.  And we love it for it, at least insofar as it’s very—almost purely—fun. That’s when (taking the original notes) I finally realized how “blunt” Vanko is.  If that’s how he comes off, presumably, that’s how Rourke intended it.

Speaking of “big” characters, the final battle has the appeal of many comic books, probably more so than even most fantasy novels, or possibly many comic book movies to date: Super-powerful combatants trading super-powerful blows in a battle we just don’t have the means for in real life.  This is followed (as Vanko closes in in his personal, refurbished suit) by the two-word note, “Boss fight.” Little more needs to be said about that, I think, except that I am a long-time video gamer and proud of it.

Well, that, and that (like the first movie) I personally had a hard time getting into the climactic scene.  Vanko may have had Rhodey and Stark on the ropes, so to speak, but… given Vanko’s “energy whip” weapons, it’s hard to read when our heroes go from “still fighting” to “mortal peril”.  I’m not sure what to expect from Iron Man 3.

But that wasn’t in my notes.  The last thing I have written, before a few notes about the post-movie discussion, is “Bittersweet ending… averted.” This goes back to the first time I saw Iron Man 2.  Vanko is beaten.  However, he still sneers: “You lose.”  His drones begin to self-destruct.  However, our heroes escape in plenty of time, so—while he could have been simply overestimating himself—it does not seem like that’s what he meant.  Tony narrowly rescues Pepper, but Vanko could hardly have known about her.

Then they make it to safety… and beneath them, explosions light up the city.  That was it, I thought.  He didn’t get Tony, but he left his mark.  It’s the second movie of the trilogy.  How many people did Vanko just take with him?  By the sound of it—none.  I was strangely disappointed.  But that wouldn’t have been a fun way to end a fun movie.

Setting up for an Avengers sequel, getting Stark and Rhodes decorated by their political enemy, and discovering Mjolnir after the credits—that was fun. (The first time around?  I laughed like the Joker.)

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