11 Days of Marvel: Iron Man 2


Marvel_Cinematic_Universe_logo

What Is This, Who Are You, What’s Going On, and How Did I Get Here

The Marvel Cinematic Universe con­sists, so far, of eleven movies1, three tele­vi­sion shows2, and five “one-shot” short films3. Already announced are anoth­er eleven movies4 and four tele­vi­sion shows5, all plan­ning to be released by 2019. Since 2008, the MCU films have made approx­i­mate­ly $8.3 bil­lion in world­wide box office rev­enue, more than any other film fran­chise so far.

People have strong reac­tions to the MCU. Twelve sec­onds of search­ing will show you peo­ple decry­ing it as the end of mod­ern cin­e­ma along­side oth­ers exalt­ing it as the apoth­e­o­sis of “nerd cul­ture.” Some comic book fans hate the changes the movies make to the tra­di­tion­al canon, while oth­ers exalt the MCU for bring­ing new read­ers to comic store shelves. But what­ev­er your feel­ings are about the MCU, it is impor­tant if you want to under­stand mod­ern American (and beyond, too) cul­ture. And, per­haps more to the point, it’s not going away any time soon.

So for the next eleven days, art historian/game schol­ar Erin McNeil and her hus­band, Ontological Geek Editor Emeritus Bill Coberly, are going to watch every extant movie6 in the MCU and respond to each in turn. Both of us have already seen all of these movies at least once before, which should allow us some crit­i­cal dis­tance. After we’ve writ­ten our respons­es (which we write with­out talk­ing to each other, and which may vary in length), we’ll have a lit­tle con­ver­sa­tion about the movie. Also, because this is still a blog, after all, we will each rank the movies we’ve seen thus far.

We’re going to assume that you’ve seen the movies, and will thus be pret­ty free with spoil­ers and will not spend a lot of time rehash­ing what hap­pens in each movie. We may dis­cuss the TV shows occa­sion­al­ly, but will try to keep any asso­ci­at­ed spoil­ers to a min­i­mum. We start today with the very first MCU movie: 2008’s Iron Man, direct­ed by Jon Favreau, and star­ring Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Leslie Bibb and Clark Gregg.

But first, because every­one approach­es these movies a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly, some con­text from the two of us.

Bill Coberly

At some point, I’m not sure when, I became invest­ed in these movies. I’m also not sure why this hap­pened: many of them aren’t par­tic­u­lar­ly good. But some­where around Thor 2, I real­ized I was going to attend every sin­gle one of these movies with­in about a week of their open­ings. It’s not because I’m a huge comic book per­son. I read them occa­sion­al­ly, and I am more flu­ent in the goings-on of the Marvel comics than the aver­age per­son, but I don’t “fol­low” any par­tic­u­lar comics. I’m also not sure that I would call myself a “fan” of the MCU. I don’t like to think of myself as a “fan” of any­thing, though this is prob­a­bly just self-deception. But I am fas­ci­nat­ed by adap­ta­tion and franchise-management. I always want to know what they are going to do next. Which ran­dom ref­er­ences that they make in each movie will later be uti­lized, and which won’t? And over­hang­ing the whole project is one huge ques­tion: how long can Marvel keep all these plates spin­ning before they all come crash­ing down?

I’m excit­ed about this marathon part­ly because I like most of these movies, but also because I want to see how the project evolved as time went by. What did the MCU think it was about in 2008, 2012, and 2015, and how has that per­cep­tion changed over time?

Erin McNeil

Of all the things my hus­band has made me do, con­tin­u­ing to allow the Marvel Cinematic Universe to suck­le at the teat of our dis­cre­tionary income is not the absolute worst. These movies are a feat of plan­ning, mar­ket­ing, and don’t get me start­ed about how many ani­ma­tors (hope­ful­ly SCAD grads) they have helped employ. Not being one to revel in comic books in gen­er­al, I come to these movies with a rather clean slate. I real­ly do love Science Fiction and Fantasy (from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones, to Dune and Ender’s Game), so there is much in the MCU that should appeal to me. I tend to take it as my mis­sion to be con­trary to my husband’s wish­es, but in this case I think that there are many other much sil­li­er projects and uni­vers­es we could have become invest­ed in.

I know, I am so sup­port­ive. But part of my job is to remain objec­tive, to not allow Bill’s bom­bast and monogamist cheer­lead­ing to cloud my read­ing. I find that in gen­er­al it is quite easy to allow one’s sig­nif­i­cant other’s opin­ions free rein, par­tic­u­lar­ly if your part­ner is as con­vinc­ing as Bill. Thus, in most of my encoun­ters with the MCU I have been jus­ti­fi­ably appre­hen­sive. I am hop­ing that this refresh­er marathon will help me to sort out the pieces and to come to some opin­ion of my own that is not sim­ply the antithe­sis of my husband’s.

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Iron Man (2008)

Erin’s Response: Tony Stark is His Own Big Bad

Watching Iron Man for the sec­ond time (almost 8 years later!), I was struck by how young Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow look, and how rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle obvi­ous CG there was in the whole movie. The first Iron Man suit moves like a real model, and it is so unbe­liev­ably cool. The first suit show­cas­es both Tony’s genius and his regret­table change in for­tunes. With the first suit we are able to see how bril­liant Tony actu­al­ly is; and through­out the movie, when­ev­er we see him express his genius, there is work attached to it.

But per­haps the most inter­est­ing thing about Iron Man in the con­text of the MCU as a whole is how small Obadiah Stane is as a vil­lain. This is a tad incongruous—after all, Stark Industries under the lead­er­ship of Stane has become a world-wide menace—but com­pared to Ultron or Loki, Stane feels like small pota­toes. His only goal is good, old-fashioned prof­it shar­ing. He is the heav­i­ly cap­i­tal­ist Iron Monger.  Jeff Bridges chews scenery with rel­ish, but he never feels scary or insur­mount­able. He doesn’t feel big, even when his suit is sub­stan­tial­ly larg­er than Tony’s. While Stane is the pro­fessed antag­o­nist of Iron Man, Stark’s great­est oppo­nent is actu­al­ly Tony Stark. Tony must try to tame his alco­holism (a prob­lem the other movies, if I am remem­ber­ing prop­er­ly, don’t real­ly deal with), his impetu­ous­ness, and his lone-wolf ten­den­cies to make it through this movie alive.

This is a feel­ing that I found very absent from many of the other MCU movies, which by and large seem to be about punch­ing big­ger things hard­er. Iron Man must work and be smarter, often­times out­wit­ting a past ver­sion of him­self. I think in this way, Iron Man actu­al­ly man­ages to cap­ture the cre­ative process, and I don’t think I was so keen­ly aware of this the first time I watched it.

Favorite Moment: All of the clear­ly impro­vised dia­logue, par­tic­u­lar­ly between Tony and Pepper. Just all of it.

Least Favorite Moment: I found it hard to believe that one brush with death made Tony real­ize bad peo­ple were using his weapons. He’s no shrink­ing vio­let or ostrich with his head in the sand – cer­tain­ly he had an idea what was going on before he was kid­napped!

Moment I Thought Was My Favorite Until Watching It Again: Pepper Potts’ deliv­ery of “at least three olives” was hys­ter­i­cal in the­aters, but unfor­tu­nate­ly didn’t land as well the sec­ond time.

Runner Up: “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave.….….….….….….….….….….….….….….….….….……[approximately forever].….….….….….….….….….….…..with a box of scraps!” I know it’s such a memet­ic line, but I couldn’t help but feel that Bridges just for­got what he was sup­posed to say.

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Bill’s Response: “A Bigger Universe.”

Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a big­ger uni­verse. You just don’t know it yet.” — Nick Fury

A lot of what makes the MCU inter­est­ing to me is the three­fold ten­sion you can see in most of its movies. First, you have the con­cerns of what­ev­er direc­tor is try­ing to make this movie into a halfway-decent movie on its own. Second, you have the broad­er con­cerns of the fran­chise, as that direc­tor is told he (hope­ful­ly, some­day he or she) has to make a series of oblique ref­er­ences to other movies, past and future, to cre­ate the impres­sion of one massive-yet-coherent con­ti­nu­ity. Third is the Marvel exec­u­tives, the busi­ness­men, the suits, des­per­ate­ly count­ing pen­nies and ter­ri­fied that at any moment the floor is going to drop out from under them.

Iron Man is one of only two movies in the entire fran­chise that could pos­si­bly have stood on its own with­out the broad­er MCU. The Incredible Hulk, tomorrow’s movie, is the other one. The MCU wasn’t a thing yet: it was the begin­ning of an idea, an attempt to make a series of big-budget movies that mod­eled the for­mat of comic books, all inter­con­nect­ed yet each osten­si­bly stand­ing on its own, with the goal, let’s not kid our­selves, of mak­ing All of the Money In the World. But in order for that to hap­pen, Iron Man need­ed to work.

And it does work. I sus­pect, at the end of this project, that Iron Man will be toward the top of both of our lists. But you can see it hedg­ing its bets the whole time. There are a few ref­er­ences here and there that might refer to other Marvel prop­er­ties: they estab­lish that Tony’s father, Howard, was a “Nazi-killer,” already set­ting him up to have worked with Captain America. They intro­duce S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson says this isn’t his first rodeo, and Nick Fury implies that Iron Man is not the only super­hero in the world. But oth­er­wise, it could eas­i­ly have stood on its own, or maybe have intro­duced a series of for­get­table Iron Man movies, much like the mid-2000s Fantastic Four series. It is part of a big­ger uni­verse, but it doesn’t know it yet.

What I’m say­ing is that Iron Man is kind of a weird movie to watch, seven years and 10 movies later. It’s still a good movie. Downey and Paltrow have the best chem­istry we’ve yet seen in the fran­chise, and Downey throws him­self into the role with every­thing he’s got. He’s good in the later movies, but I don’t know as he’s ever as good as he is in this one. He’s snarky, irre­spon­si­ble, and a huge jack­ass, but he’s got a child­like excite­ment in his eyes when­ev­er his toys start to work for the first time, and we also start to see the begin­nings of the manic obses­sion that caused so much trou­ble in Iron Man 3 and Ultron.

I had def­i­nite­ly mis­re­mem­bered how the holo­grams worked in this movie. In later movies they look a lot more mag­i­cal, all blue and green and flung around the room at the flick of a wrist. He still con­trols them with touch­es and ges­tures in Iron Man, but they’re much more con­signed to the holotable, much more obvi­ous­ly tech­no­log­i­cal in nature, with more imag­in­able lim­i­ta­tions. In later movies, Stark and friends recon­struct crime scenes and invent new ele­ments and explore the human brain in these mys­ti­cal, glow­ing rooms that look more like Final Fantasy VII than any­thing you could imag­ine Apple putting out at any time soon. Iron Man, super­son­ic suits of armor aside, is much more ground­ed in tech­no­log­i­cal real­i­ty.

With the excep­tion of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Iron Man fran­chise is more polit­i­cal­ly ground­ed, too, with ref­er­ences to ter­ror­ism and the military-industrial com­plex form­ing the back­bone of all three movies. The nar­ra­tive ten­sion in all three is very sim­i­lar: the ter­ror­ists are bad peo­ple, but the American weapons com­pa­nies might be happy they exist, since they drive their prof­it mar­gins. I’ll be curi­ous to explore this theme more once we’ve seen Iron Man 3 again.

On that note, I don’t have any­thing super insight­ful to say about Obadiah Stane, but, man, Jeff Bridges is a god amongst men, a nation­al trea­sure. Some day, hope­ful­ly many years hence, Jeff Bridges will die, and on that day, I will spon­ta­neous­ly lose my abil­i­ty to appre­ci­ate art and fine whiskey7. Stane is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly Jeff Bridges’ most and least Jeff Bridgingest role. If you had asked me to cast a hyper-capitalist sharky Wall Street exec­u­tive, Jeff Bridges would have been at the bot­tom of my cast list. He was Kevin Flynn! He was the Dude! Yet he plays Stane, clad in those godaw­ful shirts with the blue tor­sos and the white col­lars8, with the right mix of unabashed greed and sad attempts to be hip. Stane is what you would get if Jack Donaghy drunk­en­ly watched The Big Lebowski and decid­ed that that must be how cool peo­ple talk. Stane is Jeff Bridges play­ing an old, greedy man doing his best Jeff Bridges impres­sion. Thus, Obadiah Stane, despite his some­times murky moti­va­tions and occa­sion­al­ly goofy dia­logue (“Do you real­ly think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?” he says to a par­a­lyzed Stark, apro­pos of noth­ing) may well be my favorite MCU vil­lain.

Favorite Moment: I mean, it’s got to be the tank thing, right? When Tony gets shot out of the sky by the tank and then dodges anoth­er shell, and then he shoots the tank with a lit­tle tiny rock­et and it blows up as he walks away? That’s got to be it.

coolguysdontlookatexplosions

Least Favorite Moment: I’m gonna go ahead and say the moment when Terrence Howard looks at the sil­ver pro­to­type armor and says “Next time, baby.” Partly because it’s a pret­ty weak moment that exists only to yank your chain, and part­ly because Terrence Howard isn’t Don Cheadle in this movie. This isn’t real­ly his fault. Most of us aren’t Don Cheadle. But Don Cheadle’s Rhodey > Terrence Howard’s Rhodey, and that moment just reminds me of that.

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And Now, A Conversation

Erin: While I can total­ly believe that Stane is your favorite vil­lain, don’t you think he comes off as more than a bit stilt­ed and murky?

Bill: No, he total­ly does. He’s prob­a­bly not the “best” vil­lain in the fran­chise. And, to be clear here, if he’s my favorite, it’s prob­a­bly most­ly because he’s JEFF BRIDGES. But one of the rea­sons I like him is specif­i­cal­ly because of that “small­ness” you men­tioned. Stane and the ter­ror­ists are jerks, but none of them is a world-ending threat.

Erin: But in some ways that is the prob­lem, and one of the things I get so tired about with super­hero movies. They dis­guise real world prob­lems and invent new ones. But did you see the JERICHO? Shit, son.

jericho

Bill: That’s a next-level mis­sile, man. I’ve got to imag­ine the US mil­i­tary saw that scene and imme­di­ate­ly called Jon Favreau to ask how they can get some of those. Anyway, peo­ple talk a lot about how super­hero movies and comics can deal with real-world issues, but I think it’s often a lit­tle bit silly. We’ll talk about it more when we get there, but for all that I liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the peo­ple that say it was a “smart polit­i­cal thriller” prob­a­bly shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

Erin: OFF TOPIC

Bill: :p

Erin: ;)

Bill: In that case, I guess I’d ask what you thought about Iron Man’s approach to the dynam­ic between the ter­ror­ists and the military-industrial com­plex? We’re gonna come back to it in Iron Man 2 and par­tic­u­lar­ly 3, so what did you think about it here?

Erin: I think that it has a hard line to walk. On the one hand, it is a comic book movie (and funny, and fun) but on the other, it has to do what all fantasy/sci-fi must do: change a few vari­ables and see how the humans react.

Bill: Yeah, I’m not sure this movie has any­thing TO SAY beyond “hey it’s not great when weapons man­u­fac­tur­ers get super greedy” which, like, yeah. sure. way to take a stand. In fair­ness, I don’t remem­ber peo­ple talk­ing about this movie as hav­ing much in the way of a polit­i­cal mes­sage.

Erin: It would have been bet­ter if Tony wasn’t com­plete­ly obliv­i­ous, but rather start­ed to feel like he was becom­ing too dark. That would have been more inter­est­ing. And I am not sur­prised that no one talked about its pol­i­tics at the time, but think of all the strange things we have had hap­pen since then: Syria and poi­son­ing civil­ians, stay­ing even longer in Iraq/Afghanistan, the expan­sion of drones by the US mil­i­tary, and so on. We are a very dif­fer­ent pop­u­lace now.

Bill: That’s prob­a­bly true. I don’t real­ly think of 2008 as real­ly being all that long ago, but of course it was a very dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal cli­mate. That said, can we talk a lit­tle sass about Man of Steel for a sec­ond?

Erin: If you must.

Bill: Do you remem­ber that bit at the end of Man of Steel when Superman punch­es a drone out of the air and you can just imag­ine Zack Snyder being all “YEAH MAN POLITICAL COMMENTARY” as he shot­guns a Bud Light™? At least this movie never does any­thing like that.

Erin: HA! No, it does not. And in fact, our mil­i­tary comes out look­ing real­ly, real­ly good. Exceptionally good.

Bill: That’s true. The movie goes out of its way to do that: Rhodey and the other sol­diers are always sym­pa­thet­ic, and they even make sure to state that the mil­i­tary hasn’t gone into Gulmira (when Tony does his first real IRON MAN action) because “they were using human shields,” show­ing that they want­ed to avoid civil­ian casu­al­ties. I won­der if the movie would be more or less sym­pa­thet­ic to the mil­i­tary if it were made today?

Erin: I think that we are more skep­ti­cal of both cap­i­tal­ists and the mil­i­tary now, so prob­a­bly not as well.

Bill: So, now that we’ve start­ed this epic jour­ney, what are you most inter­est­ed to see in the MCU as a whole, or the Iron Man series in par­tic­u­lar?

Erin: I am always inter­est­ed in how they por­tray women. Pepper was pret­ty fun in this movie, and I think that chart­ing her growth in the next few will be fun! I remem­ber think­ing their chem­istry wasn’t as good in the other Iron Men, but maybe watch­ing them clos­er togeth­er will make them more inter­est­ing. I def­i­nite­ly think that most TV series ben­e­fit from binge watch­ing, and I won­der if that will be the case here, or if they will start to feel all the same. How about you?

Bill: Yeah, that’s a very legit­i­mate point: at some point, will all the punch­ing and explo­sions blur togeth­er, or do they real­ly feel dif­fer­ent? A part of me is also inter­est­ed in chart­ing how Iron Man’s por­tray­al varies in the 5 movies (6 if you count his cameo in Hulk) he appears in. He start­ed this whole mess, and he appears in the most movies as a main-stage char­ac­ter. He’s not my favorite Avenger, but he’s arguably the most impor­tant one if you want to under­stand the fran­chise as a whole. I’ll also be curi­ous to revis­it the movies I didn’t like very much (Iron Man 2, Hulk, Thor 2, Guardians of the Galaxy) and see if they make more or less sense in the broad­er con­text.

standingup

That’s it for Iron Man! Come back about this time tomor­row for our response to The Incredible Hulk, and feel free to com­ment below if you have any thoughts you’d like to share!

Notes:
  1. Iron Man 13Captain America 12, Thor 12, The Incredible Hulk, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers 12 []
  2. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, and Daredevil []
  3. The Consultant, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer, Item 47Agent Carter (which was later spun off into the TV show men­tioned above), and All Hail the King. These are usu­al­ly includ­ed with Blu-rays of the main­line movies. []
  4. Ant-Man, Captain America 3, Dr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, a yet-untitled Spider-Man movie, Thor 3, a two-part Avengers movie, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and Inhumans []
  5. AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders []
  6. Yes, just the movies. They form the back­bone of this whole oper­a­tion. Also, how much time do you think we have? []
  7. Okay, so remem­ber up above when I said that I don’t like to think of myself as a “fan” of any­thing? I’m def­i­nite­ly a fan of Jeff Bridges. []
  8. I’m sure there’s a name for that style, but I refuse, as a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple, to look it up. It’s an affront to com­mon decen­cy, and I’m fair­ly sure the 2008 finan­cial col­lapse was Wall Street’s pun­ish­ment for allow­ing it to con­tin­ue. We are all sin­ners in the hands of a Sartorialist God. []

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and now Editor Emeritus (that means he doesn't really do anything any more) of the Ontological Geek. He currently studies law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wonderful wife and a pair of small and snuggly terriers.

  • I had things to say, but…Bill didn’t like GotG?
    You’re dead to me. Begone from my sight, hea­then.

    • Bill Coberly

      We’ll see if I still dis­like it on the sec­ond round, com­ing back in about a week. But I didn’t hate the movie, it just did absolute­ly noth­ing for me. I walked out of it going, “Sure, fine, what­ev­er,” which is not how I want to walk out of super­hero or sci-fi (whichev­er you want to call it) movies.