This is the fourth article in the coverage of the movies related to 2012’s The Avengers. To get to the overview click here.
Wow it’s good to be back!
This article has been delayed a little bit because the subject of Iron Man 2 begs for a very intense dissection so I am sorry for the delay and if you are scared of wall of texts (note: I will add some pictures later on to make the boring parts look awesom) I beg you not to click on:
The sequel that can’t go wrong
Iron Man 2 seemed like a surefire bet. The origin of the hero was told. Mickey Rourke was hired for the villain after his recent award-winning performance in The Wrestler. There would be more of Samuel L. Jackson. Scarlett Johansson was announced to play a (according to interviews) morally ambiguous SHIELD agent. And we would see Iron Man’s sidekick War Machine which translated into the following equation:
Scarlett Johansson = Hot
Iron Man = Awesome
War Machine = Iron Man + Gattling Gun
Sam Jackson = Motherfucking
Gattling Gun = Testosterone
Iron Man 2 =
Motherfucking 2*Awesome + Testosterone + Hot > Iron Man 1
With this equation in mind we were in for one hell of a ride… or so we thought.
Let’s repeat everything that has worked!
Watching Iron Man 2 is like watching a best-of Iron Man 1 cranked up 5 times with added sparks. Everything you like in Iron Man 1 is back but MORE AND BETTER!
- You liked the holographic computer?
How about an entire room of holograms with animated basketball trashcans?
- You liked two robots hitting each other?
How about two robots hitting twenty other robots?
- You liked spontaneous dialog?
How about four people shouting at and interrupting each other?
- You liked Stark as a jerk?
How about Stark being a complete asshole?
As I mentioned in the marketing analysis the pre-Avengers movies are ideal market research opportunities and said research affects not only the team-up movie but also the individual sequels. When Robert Downey Jr. was cast people were not sure if he would be likeable at all. This even lead to Iron Man beginning with the terrorist attack and then showing us the life of Tony. The director and crew felt that people would hate Tony too much so they moved the attack first in order to make us feel sorry for that guy before finding out how despicable he was.
Then Iron Man hit the screen and people loved Stark because he was new, he was fresh and different. But instead of saying “Well people like the jerk who can redeem himself” the conclusion seemed to be “Well people like the jerk”.
Where the original movie had a fairly simple story arc this installment has a million opportunities but never focuses on one left alone finishes a single storyline. Tony is dying because of the Iron Man suit and needs to find a viable replacement for the core element.
This storyline is actually quite fascinating as it puts the character on a self destructive path. But Tony never really faces any obstacle to overcome. He gets in trouble with the Government, he gets in trouble with Rourke, he gets in trouble with Sam Jackson, he gets in trouble with Rhodey, he gets in trouble with Pepper – then his dead father sends him MAGIC and everything is OK after that.
The plotdevice that saves the day
There are a lot of times when my inner fanboy tries to find something good in this movie. I desperately look past the annoying bantering between Pepper and Tony and more bantering interrupted by Tony bantering with someone else. I try to look past the unfunny role of Happy (director Jon Favreau) who not only has way too much screentime for a gag-cameo but is also shockingly unfunny.
I try to ignore all those things… but when Tony finally discovers the element his father hid for him that will resolve all tension everything falls apart. There is just no way this scene works and it is deserving of a separate article about Science Seal of Disapproval. It is just way too convenient and makes Tony’s father look wiser than Jigsaw when it comes to after-death messages.
When a crazy man is the best part
Not only did this movie have Mickey Rourke (more on that in a few paragraphs) it also featured Sam Rockwell who I really enjoyed in Moon. So this was another fact that made me think Iron Man 2 would just knock the original out of the water. But Justin Hammer is just a lunatic. He talks in a way that makes you wonder if this guy has any understanding of social behavior. In any other movie I would have probably hated this character but he is so over the top in an otherwise boring movie it was a pleasant experience. Rockwell seems to be the only one realizing how ridiculous the movie was and topped it with every scene he was in. There are almost no memorable scenes but one is a really standout:
When Hammer is presenting the weapons to Rhodey it is just laugh out loud hilarious. Taken as a short this clip is just gold with Rockwell nailing every line getting from “not disco enough” to “hippie control”. Out of the villains Rockwell’s caricature is the more enjoyable half compared to…
The main villain
Iron Man 2 is a conglomerate of possible storylines. It is a movie with a very basic and uninspired structure, filled with characters who pause the main story to talk about something that the movie could be about. Very much like there is much talk from Tony about Legacy the villain of this movie is am empty shell that likes to talk about what it could have been.
Mickey Rourke’s character is probably the biggest waste of the film. While Stark is just a caricature he is still funny. Rourke is bland. He attacks Tony in public to show him that Iron Man is not a god.
But that’s about it. He talks about a big plan but it is not enough to talk what you can do when you end up not doing it. It is like someone is approaching you about a science project. Telling you how great it will be. Holding speeches about how it will revolutionize this and that and after two weeks he shows you his results which is a sheet looking like this:
Project: Super anti-matter-fusion-giga-quantum-energy reactor
How it works: Somehow
Research: thought about it and I am pretty sure that it would be cool
You can break a lot of things in Iron Man 2 down like this. The movie tries to masque itself as ambitious and clever but beneath it beats the standardized hearts of a soulless sequel.
- Am I too harsh?
- Would I be less harsh if the movie were not pretending to be complex?
This movie is like the smug guy in a business suit on a party. The one who has no idea of anything but will pretend to be someone who is “in the biz” – preying on gullible people falling for his lies. Much like this smug guy Mickey Rourke enters with the gravitas of a formidable screen villain. He faces Iron Man in a pretty well put together fight, spits blood at the hero, laughs at him and then gives a speech which is actually quite well written:
If you could make god bleed,
people would cease to believe in him.
There will be blood in the water
and the sharks will come.
All I have to do is sit here and watch,
this world will consume you.
Pretty big words and we are lulled into this wise man with his shiny suit. But that is it. After this Tony and Rourke share a total of 1-2 minutes together (the final fight) and in between Rourke is in the basement building robots. If your villain is making claims as Rourke did and you don’t let him interact with the heroes until the end then you better have something up your sleeve to make the end unforgettable to justify the preparation it took the villain.
- Something that will shatter your believes.
- Something that can crush the hero.
- Something that can utterly destroy everything the hero has done…
Drones shooting at Iron Man fulfills none of the above.
The final fight – british style
It’s a good excuse for special effects. But storywise it is a completely laughable plan.
Compare this to a great villain like Moriarty (Andrew Scott) in the British TV-series Sherlock (if you haven’t seen it go see it and don’t worry there won’t be big spoilers).
In the finale of Sherlock’s season 2 Moriarty arrives with an ambiguous message “get Sherlock”. He is put on trial and Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) has to testify. Both hero and audience know that something is not right.
As the plot unravels one finds out that Moriarty plans to completely destroy everything that Sherlock Holmes has achieved. And – without spoiling anything – his plan is a bit more ambitious than robots with big guns.
Actually Moriarty’s plan is so cunning and brilliant you can’t help but shiver as the pieces are unveiled. As the movie builds towards a climax the net or Moriarty tightens and you start to really fear for Sherlock – is there actually a way out? Can he outwit his arch enemy?
It is during this incredibly well written and acted climax that Moriarty lives up to his reputation as the greatest enemy of Sherlock Holmes. This is not a battle that can be won by punching a robot. The tension is not whether or not Iron Man’s armor can sustain enough CGI-bullets. This is a true battle between ideas which is infinitely stronger than a battle of good strength against evil strength.
Get off your high horse!
Picking an incredible series for a comparison might seem a bit harsh. After all Iron Man is “just a comic movie” and those type of movies don’t deal with such sophisticated conflicts… if you still live in the 90s.
Spider-Man 2 is just one of many examples I picked because a The Dark Knight comparison would just be instant flame-bait. The battle between Dr. Ock and Spidey is not about a good guy stopping an evil guy. It is about a man who wants to fulfill a lifelong dream. A man who has come so close to what he had always wanted to do – only to have it taken away. Because of this he feels wronged and wants to finish the one thing he still believes in. It is no longer a battle of forces but a battle about the idea “can you let go of your life’s work” which is a conflict that can only be resolved on a personal level.
The question “should a bad guy be stopped” is something that is very easy to answer.
It is much harder to argue against the beliefs of someone like Magneto. Sure his methods are extreme but the uncomfortable fact remains that he is somehow right. Overcoming a threat like this is no longer something we are 100% certain.
The bigger picture
In the marketing article I compared Iron Man 2 to the sacrificial lamb who had to be beaten in order to get what Marvel wanted. Not only does the movie already struggle with a lack of focus both villain- and hero-wise it also has to include the MCU storylines which are represented by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the black pirate (Samuel L. Jackson).
Neither of them are really connected to the main storyline nor do they leave much of an impact and they could have been removed without anyone noticing it. The pirate gives Tony a case to discover a plotdevice to end all his problems and Black Widow has one action scene and reprograms Rhodey’s suit. Funny enough in the original version it was Jarvis who reprogrammed Rhodey’s suit and Black Widow only had an action scene which culminated in her finding out that Rourke had left (taken from the audio commentary of Iron Man 2 – yes I watched the movie I can’t stand with audio commentary, sometimes I hate myself).
Agent Coulson still hasn’t gotten a restraining order by Stark and lurks around to grin and tell us he is leaving for Thor.
The problem with those three characters is not that they are not characters from Iron Man’s story. The problem is that they are not integrated into the storyline. While all of them talk about other things happening outside of the movie none of those have an effect on Iron Man 2.
They are just winks that say “something else is going on”. But the universe of Tony Stark doesn’t change because of that. One of the great things that the MCU could do is fall back to characters we know from other movies and elevate roles which would seem like stock-characters to something with a bit more dimension (we’ll get to that in Thor).
Maybe it was because it was Marvel’s first stab at the MCU but here the MCU is not an atmospheric net to enrich the story. It is a roadblock in the middle of the highway stopping our fantastic Audi R8 (no product placement at all) while we are going at 180 mph.
Taking the edges off
Where Iron Man was a bold and risky move (at least the first two thirds) Iron Man 2 does nothing like that. A friend of mine found a very nice allegory for the two movies by comparing the song in the credits Iron Man by Black Sabbath with Highway to Hell by AC/DC. While the first is very catchy it is also a bit “dirty” and not completely harmonic, especially the beginning. On the other hand the AC/DC song is a clean, harmless rock song.
In a way those two pieces of music reflect the overall style. Iron Man was a great often very odd and strange movie whereas Iron Man 2 has smoothed out those bumps not realizing that it was the thing that made the movie special.
The personal conflict and wrongdoing of Stark in part one is replaced by a poison plotline, something that Tony is not really responsible. The poison is nothing personal it is just a design flaw that Tony can resolve without personal cost. Howard Stark is accused of being not as great as we thought but in the end he is the nice loving father Tony always wanted with no problems aside from one or two glasses a day. The hero does no longer want to right his wrongs – he wants to destroy himself because he will die. And when he is not dying he just defeats the bad guy.
In Iron Man 1 Tony arrives in Gulmira and shoots (!) the terrorists. Which is a pretty shocking scene for a superhero movie. Maybe this scene is the one that shows us that Iron Man is not the shiny hero. With all the Avengers being heroes you need some not-so-good in your lines after all.
Shooting those terrorists is a personal decision. Tony’s hatred has made him execute those people and as said in the previous article a good sequel could build on that and let him reflect on his anger.
Has Iron Man really helped the world?
Or has he just added a bigger weapon onto the playing field?
While there is a lot of talking about possible Iron Man clones and an armor war those things just happen without the hero being held responsible. The Armor wars is not an actual conflict but a set piece at the end which has no consequences other than trashed metal.
All the edges are gone. Iron Man is now a popular hero so he can’t do anything wrong (see Captain America review). He doesn’t kill he just fights robots.
Robo-violence is one of the worst kinds of violence in my opinion as it is a disguise for horrible mutilation. Michael Bay also knew that one can easily rip out the spine of a character or behead him if it is just a robot who bleeds red oil. The same is true for Iron Man 2. Iron Man and War Machine shoot robots and rip them apart – everything in accordance with the PG-13 rating. In an emotionless conflict the destruction is the spectacle not the heroism. The kills are glorified and to keep appearances Iron Man does not kill the main villain either. Rourke blows himself up so that the hero doesn’t need to live with the conscience that he just took the life of the man who lost his father because Howard Stark hated communists – let’s all celebrate.
What could have happened?
Iron Man 2 could have been the story about idols and inspiration.
Tony sees a mirror of himself in Vanko. With the aid of Black Widow they unravel the uncomfortable truth that Tony’s own father was responsible for the death of Vanko’s father. This leads Tony to question if his father was indeed the hero he always thought.
Like a true villain Vanko first attacks Stark and then accuses Iron Man of being a public threat, pointing out the fact that he just upped the war instead of stopping it.
Because of her Russian background (and maybe common history) Black widow interrogates Vanko in his cell but he is such an eloquent villain he manages to get her emotions and uses her rash actions as a way to break out of prison.
With no one on his side Tony spirals into his alcohol addiction while Rhodey takes over the Iron Man suit to keep the ongoing crisis from happening (storyline Armor Wars from the comics).
Vanko gets more influential and floods the market with the Iron Man technology to pervert Tony’s idea: instead of stopping weapons production Stark would go down into history as the man who introduced the atomic bomb of the 21st century effectively making him again the “Merchant of Death” he was in part 1.
Remember Iron Man 2 takes place over the course of a few weeks but why can’t a comic book movie take place over a longer time?
Black Widow goes with Rhodey against Vanko as a personal vendetta. When both Rhodey and Widow are unable to stop the escalation Tony finally swallow his pride. His father might have not been the flawless hero but he made the best of his situation. This gives Tony the inspiration to step out of his shadow, overcome his personal feelings and finally act for a greater good and not his own ideas. This greater good can be represented in form of SHIELD and the black pirate – once again all depends on characterizing Sam Jackson as a real human being and not a footnote from another movie.
The big showdown centers around the question of guilt, grief and heritage. Maybe completely without suits – the enemies trash each other’s suit and are completely “defenseless”. No robo violence but actual confrontation. Two sons with different fates, both buried under the shadows of their fathers – only Stark could prove that he is a hero by overcoming this flaw.
Iron Man 1 – Stark becomes less selfish
Iron Man 2 – he outgrows himself and accepts
that he is not the final authority.
With Stark growing beyond his selfish wishes he now is ready to join the pirate in the upcoming Initiative. So you beat two birds with one stone: a standalone story that thematically also works with the Avengers.
So after this rant I guess it is fairly obvious that I cannot really stand Iron Man 2. Objectively it is probably a pretty entertaining film to pass an afternoon. But I can’t be objective because I am too passionate about Iron Man 1. The great thing about discovering ongoing stories is the question how they will unfold. A serialized story works differently than stand alone works. There might be short stories that are lyrically way above franchises but with a serialized story it is different. It is about you spending time with the characters and wondering what lies ahead of the road.
And if the start of the journey was a Siesta in Barcelona the trip to some village in rural Austria is not really something you would expect.