"Ironman 2" and How to Develop a Protagonist with Help from Supporting Characters
While I wouldn’t say that there have been any outright flops or cinematic failures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (apart from maybe Marvel Entertainment's The Immortals, which I’m sure most people have already forgotten up), like any franchise, there have been story bumps and script hiccups along the way. Thankfully, most of them came relatively early in the game as the Marvel Studios and its cinematic universe were still finding their footing.
Last week I talked about some of the missed opportunities with The Incredible Hulk, Marvel's lowest box office film to date. This week, I want to look at the third film of the MCU and the one that always seems to come up when people talk about their least favorites in the franchise:
Almost ten years later, is Ironman 2 really deserving of its reputation? Does it get put at the bottom of everyone's MCU list simply because the other films in the franchise are that much better, or is it rightly maligned on its own merit?
My answer to all of these questions, after going back and reviewing Ironman 2, is a resounding yes and no.
The problem with Ironman 2 is that the bad and the ugly often overshadow the good. So let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly with the sequel to the original Ironman, and identity a few areas where the writing succeeds and troubled spots that writers can learn to avoid in their own work.
The Good: Tony’s Arc
If we want to look at the entire character arc of Tony Stark in the MCU, legacy seems to be the driving force behind everything he does.
Don't waste your life!
This was the charge given by Yinsig to Tony Stark in the cave in Ironman.
What do you want to leave behind for future generations?
What do you want your legacy to be?
This is the question Tony asks his fans (and self) at the opening of the Stark Expo in Ironman 2.
Tony Stark was given a second chance at life in the first Ironman and follows up by trying to do something with the life he has. That doesn't mean he's going to get it right every time. His heart is right, but his machinations, like his machines, are flawed. Ironman 2 shows just how flawed Tony Stark can be on his own.
In my analysis of the first Ironman, I wrote about Tony Stark's agency and will are the heart that powers the MCU, and I stand by that. Ironman is one of the strongest characters in the MCU even if his solo films are not.
In Ironman 2, Tony Stark attempts to solve the riddle behind the flawed arc reactor that's killing him, he must also learn to accept the reality that he cannot do everything on his own. Here, Ironman 2 introduces or expands the role of several key characters to assist Tony in his journey or pick him back up when he's disillusioned, defeated, and knocked down.
The Really Good: Supporting Characters
Perhaps more than any other film in the MCU, save Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers, Ironman 2 boasts one of the better supporting casts for its hero, with each character worthy to be called a hero in their own right.
Just look at Tony Stark's team of allies in Ironman 2:
· Pepper Potts
· Colonel Rhodes (War Machine)
· Happy Hogan
· Natasha Romanov (Black Widow)
· Agent Coulson
· Nick Fury
· The legacy of Howard Stark (his father)
I struggle to even label any of these characters as "supporting". Many could lead their own respective films. Some soon will.
Tony Stark is deeply flawed and at times unlikeable as a protagonist. But when he is at his worst, he’s always had people in his life to fight for him, fight with him, and sometimes even fight against him when he needs a kick in the pants. In Ironman 2, the support team steps up BIG TIME!
Great allies and supporting characters pick the hero up when they've been knocked down and knock a little sense into them when they've gotten too high.
No one in Ironman 2 (or the MCU) can do what Tony Stark can do. But that's the point. They're not meant to. The writers of Ironman 2 don't introduce characters to step in and do Tony's job for him. Yes, Pepper is given control of Stark Industries (where she thrives), proving Tony Stark isn't meant to be a CEO or suit and tie executive. His true purpose is to be the Ironman.
Other characters push Tony to do what only he can do while filling in the gaps of what he cannot, complimenting his strengths with their own.
Rhodey (War Machine) is the best friend who becomes the ultimate wingman.
Happy Hogan is the loyal sidekick who will follow the hero into any fight, even ones he knows they'll lose.
Natasha Romanov (Black Widow) is the ally the hero never knew he needed.
Nick Fury is the all-seeing (or half-seeing) mentor who pushes the hero to become something more.
Agent Coulson is the good-natured conscience that sticks with the hero and keeps him grounded and on task.
Pepper Potts is the life partner, saving grace, and heart armor the hero cares about and needs most.
Tony Stark is a maverick, but him learning how to rely on others prepares him to be the team player we’ll see when the Avengers eventually assemble.
And then Tony gets the ultimate assist from the legacy and wisdom of his father, the late Howard Stark.
The Okay: The Stark Legacy
In a story where the hero questions his own legacy, forcing him to confront the legacy of his legendary father, a man he's always respected but never fully understood, is appropriate.
Through video footage reminiscent of Walt Disney in the Wonderful World of Disney special, Tony learns that his father saw him as his greatest creation, knowing he would go on to do greater things than he ever could.
Limited by the technology of his era, Howard Stark left the secrets to a revolutionary technology for Tony to refine. This technology is not only the key to the future but the solution to fixing and improving the arc reactor.
In many ways, the arc reactor is the metaphor for Tony’s own internal needs as a character.
As Nick Fury tells Tony, "only you can solve the riddle of your heart." Ironman 2 proves this to be true but also doesn't hesitate to offer the hero the resources, support, and ammunition to help him figure things out.
The Bad: Whiplash
From the moment casting for the Ironman sequel was first announced, many people were confident that actor Mickey Rourke could step into the role of Ivan Vanko (Whiplash) and mirror Robert Downey Jr.'s comeback with a cinematic comeback of his own. Let's not forget, Rourke had just returned to the spotlight following his Oscar-nominated performance in 2008's The Wrestler, and many assumed that he'd be a natural and worthy choice to step into the ring and go toe-to-toe with RDJ's Ironman. This wasn't the case.
If you've followed my writing or analysis at all, you'll know that I tend to be pretty critical of stories that are unclear about their antagonist or create weak obstacles for their heroes. I don't believe every story needs an outright "big bad", but if you're not going to create a viable threat to challenge the hero's goal, their ultimate triumph won't feel earned or even triumphant.
The son of Soviet scientist Anton Vanko, Ivan grew up in exile, resenting the Starks for destroying his family. This makes sense, and Ivan provides a nice broken mirror for Tony. However, what's his motivation? What's his end goal? Revenge? Against who? Howard Stark? He's dead. Okay, then... um... Tony Stark? I guess he'll do. But what does he hope to accomplish?
Killing him? Embarrassing him? Making money off of his technology? Taking credit for his father's science? Destroying the Stark legacy? How far is he willing to go?
Ivan's motivations are unclear, his plan is weak, and he never poses any real threat to Ironman or Tony Stark's superior technology. When Whiplash first shows up in Monaco, everyone panics because someone has found a way to replicate Ironman's technology. But have they?
The U.S. government's fear is that a foreign adversary will eventually find a way to develop Ironman suits for themselves. This is why they want to seize Tony’s technology (and private property) and use it for military applications.
But is the Ironman suit the real achievement (and threat), or is it the arc reactor? Hasn't the arc reactor technology been at Stark Industries for a while now? What tech is the U.S. military afraid will fall into the wrong hands?
Whiplash shows up with a poor man's arc reactor and a couple of whips. What was Whiplash hoping to accomplish with his Eastern Promises whip cracking demonstration? Is this even a threat to Ironman or a minor inconvenience?
Ivan Vanko could have been so much more. However, revenge is boring as a primary motivation when it's not grounded in a viable plan or measurable end goal.
Compare Whiplash to Erik Killmonger of Black Panther or Loki of the first Thor and first Avengers.
Erik Killmonger wants revenge for the death of his father and for Wakanda hiding their technological advancements instead of using them to help others around the world. Killmonger, however, is after more than just burning down Wakanda or destroying T'Challa. He pursues the throne so he can use Wakanda's technology to empower people around the world he sees as oppressed.
Loki also wants the throne of Asgard for himself. Becoming king and defeating his brother are just his way of gaining power and proving his worth.
There are reasons why Loki and Killmonger as two of the MCU’s best. Maybe Marvel needed characters like Whiplash to figure that out.
A Missed Opportunity: Justin Hammer
I personally love Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) as a villain and wanted to see him step up as the primary antagonist of this film. As the head of a competing weapons manufacturer, his motivation is arguably MUCH clearer.
Tony Stark changed the game with the advent of the arc reactor and Ironman suit. In doing so, he also obliterated the competition and probably made a lot of tech obsolete, without even a second thought or hint of remorse.
Tony Stark has always been smarter, better, and gleefully arrogant about everything he does, including embarrassing Justin Hammer. That is a prime set up for a greedy, unscrupulous, and disenfranchised corporatist and competitor to push back.
Films like Aquaman and most entries in the James Bond franchise have multiple antagonists. However, in these stories, there is usually a hierarchy of power to the villains, bosses, and henchmen.
For example, in Aquaman, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) has a personal vendetta against Arthur Curry, but he’s only a second-tier villain to King Orm/Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), who is the more powerful and dangerous foe.
In great stories with multiple antagonists, there should be an order of power. Obstacles need be tackled and villains defeated in ascending order, saving the biggest threat for last.
The marketing of Ironman 2 made Whiplash out to be the big bad and made Justin Hammer a secondary villain. In my opinion, the roles should have been reversed. Justin Hammer should have been the primary antagonist and Whiplash his pawn.
The villain problems of Ironman 2 probably became its biggest distraction and ultimate downfall, which is too bad. There’s a lot of good things to learn from, particularly when it comes to the effectiveness of the film’s supporting characters.
With a few tweaks, I think Ironman 2 could have risen beyond its flaws and gained elevation in the MCU standings. At its core, Ironman 2 can feel like more of a setup than a standalone piece of storytelling, but as part of the greater universe, it's small bump in a larger story.
Anyway, that’s all for now. What did you think? Where does Ironman 2 rank on your list? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
As always, thank you for stopping. If you liked this, don't forget to tap the heart below or subscribe. And feel free check out my other perspectives, including my analysis of Ironman and The Incredible Hulk.
Thanks again. Now get back to writing.