Empty Calories – Problems with Narrative in Cinema and Television – Part 2

Part 2 – Iron Man 2 or Why Character Motivation is Important

During Iron Man 2 there are a number of issues set up that, over the course of the film, the audience is slowly let in on, as pertaining to Tony’s character.  He is slowly being poisoned by the arc reactor in his chest and is dying.  He is concerned about legacy (both his and his father’s).  He fears for the future of his company.  He is also concerned about who will take over the mantle of Iron Man once he is dead.  This fear of the future, and review of the mistakes of the past, is an acceleration and extension of the previous film’s emphasis on Tony changing his ways, rejecting being a weapon manufacturer, and wanting to see a better future.  In all, it makes a lot of sense as it continues the themes of the first film in a natural and logical progression.  However, Tony’s actions in the film, particularly with regard to Ivan Vanko, the ostensible villain, seem to run counter to the established character motivation and contradict the subtext and context developed in both Iron Man and this film.  This forms the crux of where the established subtext and character motivation are ignored in favour of narrative convenience, just as with Jackson’s use of Arwen in LotR.  The important point here is to remember that although much of Tony’s state of mind is revealed over the course of the film, it is meant to be present in his character from the start.

Iron Man 2

Before getting into the details of this, let us first consider who Ivan Vanko is and how he is presented in the film.  As the MCU films clearly have no difficulty in taking inspiration from the comics but have no desire to adapt specifics or storylines faithfully and are perfectly happy to change, subvert, invert, or discard aspects at will, we don’t need to consider the comic history of the ‘villain’.  This is solely focused on the character created in the film.    Vanko is presented as the angry, bereaved son of a brilliant scientist who co-invented the arc reactor with Stark’s father, Howard Stark.  Yet, where Howard became a multi-billionaire, Vanko’s father was denied any sort of monetary recompense for the invention, thrown out of the country, and died in penury.  Vanko himself is dirty, poor, and Russian.  His hair is lank and greasy, his skin covered in tattoos, and his teeth aren’t the pearly pieces of perfection that are flashed in Tony’s well practiced smirks.  Apparently that is all we need as an audience to believe that he is a polar opposite (at least visibly) to Tony, and that is enough to establish him as a villain.  However, he has a justifiable reason for ‘revenge’ (which is usually the motivating factor for a superhero origin).  His father was not recognised as the co-inventor of the arc reactor, and has been written out of the history books.  He didn’t receive even a fraction of the money that Stark’s father received.  So we are presented with an origin story that in many ways mimics Tony’s journey in the first film.  With minimal equipment he designs and builds an amazingly powerful weapon, just like Tony, from scratch, using and refining the arc technology.  He is doing it, not out of a need or desire for money, but to right a wrong, at least as he sees it.  Again, the traditional revenge motivation of a hero origin and that closely mimics Ton’s own origin in Iron Man.

When he then initially confronts and fights Tony on the race track, Tony ultimately wins (as befits the hero of the story) and Vanko is incarcerated.  Tony then takes an opportunity to visit Vanko in the holding cell.  When in the cell, Tony has time to offer some unsolicited advice about the technology and how it could be refined, but makes no real effort to find out how, why, and where Vanko came from.  Given that the device Vanko created was clearly made from arc technology, but adapted in a way that demonstrated a true understanding of the technology and not merely using it as a battery.  Tony recognises it as brilliant, if crude, much like Tony’s first Mark One suit made in the cave in Afghanistan.  This is the first point that I would argue that the screenplay misses an opportunity.


Vanko is then sprung from the jail by Tony’s rival, Justin Hammer, or at least via his machinations.  Tony then starts to investigate Vanko, uncovers the link to Vanko’s father, and immediately dismisses it because apparently Nick Fury said that Vanko’s father was a bad guy as he wanted to make money from the arc reactor that he had co-designed with Howard.  Essentially, Vanko’s father was a genius who helped developed the arc reactor, and that Howard Stark had him expelled from America for seeking to monetise the invention.  You know, capitalism… just like Howard Stark the military industrial capitalist billionaire.  This would be the second point at which the screenplay could have taken a more deliberate turn into consolidating and supporting the underlying themes of the narrative, instead of opting for a stereotypical and ultimately superficial dismissal of theme and context to satisfy a simplistic villain origin.


Vanko designs the remote drones, and ultimately gets into a fight with Tony and Rhodey at the Stark Expo, before he ultimately dies.  Hammer is portrayed as a comedic villain and is not overtly punished, killed, maimed, or even dealt with properly, in the film.  We last see him being led off by uniformed police and nothing is ever said about him again.  But there is a recurring theme in all the Iron Man films about a hidden evil villain using physical henchmen and ostensible villains to perform their dirty work.  It would not have been out of place to have Hammer’s role increased and made more genuinely threatening and less cartoonish, especially given this narrative link between all three films.


We can understand the reticence to once again have a CEO type figure as the main villain in the film, as perhaps that would have been too close to the first movie and the character of Stane.  However, the film makers chose to include Justin Hammer, and chose to have him be a villain instead of a foil in the film.  So again, there are a couple of minor changes to the film that we can make that would actually create a more seamless and more thematically cohesive film, that would not necessarily change a significant number of the scenes or even the established story beats.


Returning to the moment when Tony meets Vanko in the cell, this could be when Vanko raises the issues of Anton Vanko being betrayed by Howard Stark.  Given the complex relationship Tony had with his father that is partially explored in this film, and that Howard has always been portrayed as a character with feet of clay, Tony can justifiably not believe this, but be curious enough that he wants to find out more, and therefore leaves Vanko in the cell.  At most this would have required only a couple more lines of dialogue, and would explain why Tony wanders in to give unsolicited advice and basically then wanders off again without uncovering anything of interest.  It would give the scene more impact, and it would also provide a greater narrative justification for Tony to delve into his father’s effects.  This could have led to Tony digging up Howard’s old boxes and discovering the old schematic, without the need to shoehorn in Nick Fury just so happening to have kept an old locker of Howard’s for over thirty years for no real reason.  The fact that Fury has kept this seems to be an awkward and overly convenient plot contrivance that feels false, and does little to advance Fury’s character as a brilliant spy, but makes him appear as a deus ex machina whose inclusion creates a plot hole about why this information wasn’t shared earlier.


Tony could have initially rejected this information, refusing to believe his father could be so callous.  Tony could then get drunk, have the same party scene, and Fury could still have shown up to assess whether or not Stark was a threat that needed to be dealt with.  Fury’s dialogue could have then emphasised that Howard was under political pressure to get rid of Anton due to the cold war sentiments and the need to protect the company.  This would have exposed Vanko’s story as true, emphasised that Howard had feet of clay, but was not necessarily being villainous as there is enough of an excuse here to forgive his behaviour, and it would have given Tony the impetus to correct a mistake from Howard’s past and thus securing a better legacy for the Stark future.  It would also emphasise the opening of the film in which Tony stood up to political pressure over the Iron Man suit providing a neat point of contrast to his own father’s actions in that Howard bowed to the political pressure.  This would emphasise that Tony is again moving past his father’s legacy, and is growing as a hero.


Realising that his father was imperfect, but that Anton, and by extension Ivan, had been treated unfairly, Tony could then have resolved to correct this historical mistake, realising that he and Ivan were very alike, and, had things been a little different, could have been two geniuses working at the company together.  The sins of the fathers could be forgiven and a new, more benevolent, future could be realised. This supports the various themes underlying the narrative, is consistent with Tony’s story arc and character, is consistent with Howard’s character, and feels psychologically real.  It builds on the earlier scenes and connects them to the main narrative making it feel more solid and cohesive.


Meanwhile, the rest of the film plays out much as is already established.  Ivan is broken out of the jail and works on the drones for Hammer.  He launches the attack at the Stark Expo seeing his chance to take down Stark.  With most of the drones dispatched and Rhodey out of his control, he then dons a suit to confront Rhodey and Stark in order to exact his revenge.  Thus far it has all played out almost exactly as the released film.  But when he confronts Tony and Rhodey, Tony could say sorry.  There could be a moment in film in which the usual dialogue of superhero clichés and bravado is interrupted when Tony apologises and extends an olive branch to Vanko.  In effect, Tony becomes a hero who tries to do more than punch his enemies, or shoot them with high tech weapons.  Tony can try to fix the error from the past, and establish a brighter legacy for the future.  By apologising to Vanko for what his father did, and offering to make amends, we would see that not only has Tony grown as a character, but that he has grown as a hero.  He accepts that there were mistakes in the past, and this is a way to provide a better, different future legacy.  Again, extending this olive branch when, at this stage, Ivan’s body count is lower than Tony’s is not particularly egregious, particularly if the deaths can be pinned on Justin Hammer as the mastermind.


The film makers could then have Vanko accept the apology and work with Tony and Rhodey to bring down the drones, either succeeding and paying off his crimes by working for Stark Industries, or, alternatively, Vanko could perish in a moment of self-sacrifice to save an innocent bystander, Pepper Potts, or any other situation and thus he will have paid for his crimes with his life.  This ending would lack the simplistic action hero denouement we have become so accustomed to in which the hero kills the villain, so it may not have played well to a test audience, but it would certainly have been a more consistent and coherent direction for the film.


Or, should the film makers prefer to have him remain a villain and be killed off to satisfy our collective bloodlust and need for simplistic resolutions, they can have Vanko refuse the apology as too little, too late, and continue the attack only to perish.  This would confirm Vanko as a villain beyond saving, and so the audience can feel even more satisfied that he died.  At which stage, Tony could then express genuine sorrow and remorse about having to kill Vanko as they could have been ‘brothers’.  In this way, Tony reaffirms his decision not to simply be a weapon that kills and solves problems through violence, but emerges as a true hero.  Vanko could still be a villain, but now seen through a tragic lens, and how circumstance and mistake can lead to radically different outcomes.  This has the benefit that you still have the action denouement, the villain is still punished and killed, Tony is even more heroic because he offered a way out, and you don’t have to change any footage apart from a little bit of dialogue.


As it stands in the film, Vanko is a victim of Howard Stark, and even his own father, but the film forgets this and casts him solely as a villain.   Tony and Rhodey celebrate his death as if they are psychopaths who don’t care about human life and conveniently forget that Vanko was a product of the situation created by his father and Tony’s father.  Further, this callous disregard for life, or at the very least, cavalier attitude to it, goes against the entire arc of Tony’s development as a hero who wishes to be a force for good, who has pledged to defend rather than prosecute, and who is seeking to redress past failures to leave a brighter legacy.  Instead, this film unintentionally casts Tony as a myopic, cruel, and bloodthirsty vigilante, who falsely valorises his imperfect father at the expense of those that his father mistreated.  It undercuts the entire subtext created by the first two acts in favour of a simplistic, revenge narrative, that contradicts all the character development established by the first film and the first two thirds of the second film, leaving Tony in much the same position he was in at the start of the first film.

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