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Why Iron Man 2 Doesn’t Quite Work

John on May 9, 2010 at 3:11 pm

There are some spoilers in what follows, so if you care you might want to come back to this after seeing the film…

I’ve been reading the reviews. Consensus seems to be that Iron Man 2 is good but not as good as the first film. I agree with this assessment, but I also think I know why. The first film was about Tony Stark. He went from rich playboy with no conscience to rich playboy who defends children in far away lands. That’s a pretty great character arc and the film (especially Robert Downey Jr.) made it believable all along the way. We were rooting for Tony Stark to be Iron Man because it made him better than he was. He became a hero. That’s a great story.

The structure is very different in the second film. This isn’t Tony Stark’s story, not really. This is Tony Stark playing a supporting role in Whiplash’s story. That’s the structure. The film opens on Whiplash and when he eventually gets what is coming, the film is essentially over. The problem is that Whiplash is never quite a sympathetic character, even as a villain. We’re led to believe that his dad (who we see die in the first scene) was treated badly by Tony Stark’s father. But later we learn that, actually, Stark Sr. found out Whiplash’s dad was a bad guy and had him deported. So Whiplash hates Tony Stark but it’s not clear that he really has been wronged, certainly not unjustly, by the Stark family.

So, who’s up for a film about a heavily tattooed and ultimately irredeemable villain who doesn’t speak much English? This is what Iron Man 2 is really about. There’s no way for it to be as compelling a film as the first one for that reason. It’s too bad because the acting is great. The action is much, much better than the first film. And the humor, while it seemed more scarce, is still pretty solid.

How it Could Have Been Better?

The series is called Iron Man, but it’s really about Tony Stark and exploring his story, his talents, and his demons. As with most good stories, the villains represent a dark path the hero could have taken. So, in the first film, Obadiah Stane represents an older Tony Stark without a conscience. He’s what Stark would have been if not for that shrapnel that literally and figuratively changed his heart.

To take another example, the Green Goblin in the first Spiderman film represents what happens when great power is used for personal gain. This is precisely the path Peter Parker was tempted to go down when he tried to make money in the wrestling ring. In The Dark Knight, the Joker represents a driven man with no moral limits. We see that Batman comes awfully close to this line. Whether he will cross it and become like the Joker is the question at the heart of the movie?

So what does Whiplash represent in these terms? Well, like Tony, he’s a brilliant, talented guy who had a troubled relationship with his dad. Unlike Tony, he deals with it by planning revenge. In essence, he’s going to take out his personal sense of disappointment on someone else. So the obvious question for this movie to deal with is revenge and forgiveness. Whiplash should have been the character forcing him to make choices which are at the heart of every single superhero film ever made. But in this film Tony barely makes any choices. The ones he does make he makes badly. He gets drunk and starts fights. When he finally decides to pull it together it’s not really clear why or if it’s a choice.

All of the elements were already in the script. Even the ending which involves Tony finally making peace with his friend and rival Rhodey. The problem is that the narrative is stubbornly structured on Whiplash, and that is a story which has no payoff and no redemption.

It’s a well made film and a fun ride, but not a winning story like the first film. But hey, two out of three ain’t bad.

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Category: Movies |

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