[Warning: The following post contains spoilers for Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Marvel’s The Avengers.]
Yesterday: Iron Man
In anticipation of the U.S. release of Iron Man 3 (damn you, you lucky, lucky countries who already have it), and because I just recently bought the supercool Blu-ray boxed set for myself, I decided to re-watch the preceding six films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe saga which comprise “Phase One,” subtitled, “Avengers Assembled,” and to blog on the experience. So many of us saw each of these films when they came out, one at a time, but particularly for the earlier ones, we weren’t necessarily thinking of them as part of the larger arc that they eventually revealed themselves to be, and so what I’m perhaps most interested in on this viewing is to not only examine them as standalone stories but to see how they function as chapters of the longer story of how the Avengers assembled.
Yesterday, I re-watched Iron Man, and now we proceed to its sequel, Iron Man 2. Now, some purists may argue that these films should be watched by order of release date, and while I generally agree for the other entries in the series, I make one exception here. Yes, The Incredible Hulk was released before Iron Man 2, but it ends with a scene in which Tony Stark appears in a bar, to discuss the Avengers Initiative with General Ross, a scene that chronologically occurs after Iron Man 2, at the end of which Tony agrees to work as a consultant for the Avengers. And while the structure of the films themselves make it impossible to watch the story in complete chronological order, since the timelines of Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor all overlap (they all happen, more or less, concurrently), it is particularly jarring to see Stark working for Nick Fury right before a film in which we learn he’d rejected Fury’s offer from the previous film. Marvel even filmed a short, “The Consultant,” available on the Thor DVD, to help explain the continuity.
And so we pick up six months after Iron Man left off, in a world that is aware not only that it has a superhero in its midst but that his identity is one and the same with one of its most prominent technological minds, a fact that seems to be making the average person very excited and the military very concerned. Should it allow a private citizen to wield unchecked power that not only rivals theirs but might make America itself a target from outside enemies who consider Stark and the USA to be one and the same? It’s to the film’s credit that both sides of the issue are represented. The government and military are run by bureaucrats who don’t have the average person’s best interests at heart, and what right do they have to demand that a private citizen turn over his own proprietary technology? But, on the other hand, it is dangerous for one person to have this much power at his hands, and Tony Stark’s arrogant come-and-get-me challenge to enemies, as well as his hubris in declaring that no one else is capable of accomplishing what he has done, might put many more people in danger than he is actually able to defend. And as we come to discover, the irony is that there is someone else out there who can do what Tony has done: the son of one of the very men who helped his dad begin to harness arc technology in the first place. In other words, Tony would not be where he is today without this man’s father, who he never knew existed. Howard Stark, like his son, liked taking all the credit.
Tony Stark is that rare breed of superhero who, as a character, is more complex, enthralling, and flamboyant than any of the villains who face up against him. Comic books have a long tradition of heroes who can’t help but seem rather vanilla when compared to their more creatively named nemeses and their sensational antics. Stark, on the other hand, has more ego, panache, and gee-whiz gadgetry up his sleeve than a dozen Jokers, Riddlers, and Doc Ocks combined. As I said in yesterday’s post, he is reminiscent of a Lex Luthor-Bruce Wayne hybrid, albeit more genuinely charismatic and smarter than either. In other ways, he can also act like an overgrown child, his tragic flaws being hubris and impetuousness, which often causes him to underestimate external dangers (because his estimation of himself is so very high) and to unintentionally hurt the ones who love him most. The exhilarating and phenomenally entertaining Iron Man 2 focuses on this side of him even more then the first film did.
Near the start of Iron Man 2, we are party to the dazzlingly, jaw-droppingly resplendent Stark Expo in Flushing, Queens, at which Tony is showing off to the world what he hopes to be the culmination of his father’s dreams of the technology of the future (we will later see the first Stark Expo, in the 1940s-set Captain America film). Sprawling and fantastical, Stark Expo combines the retro-futuristic overtones of the World’s Fair with that of Disney World’s Tomorrowland and Epcot Center, updated with shiny, shimmery, 21st century design. Meanwhile, Tony’s narcissistic opening speech satirizes Steve Jobs’ Apple Keynote Addresses, amplified by the glitz and glamor of a Vegas show, complete with Iron Man-costumed showgirls. While ostensibly meant to honor his father, Stark Expo, above all else, is a love letter from Tony Stark to himself, in which he revels in his own genius and celebrity. Over the course of the film, it is exactly this attitude that will get him into trouble.