Iron Man 2
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
The first Iron Man was about an egomaniac living out a dream of celebrity in the most exciting way possible. This sequel is about the unsustainable nature of such a lifestyle. It is at times overblown to ridiculous extents. At other times it is underwhelming. This is all intentional. In Iron Man 2 we see an icon suffer the consequences of living in constant pursuit of stardom. It is an action film in which the action is steered by personal issues, and it is an infusion of meaning into the Iron Man film franchise.
His blood becoming increasingly toxic due to overuse of the reactor that both keeps him alive and powers his Iron Man armor, Tony Stark is dying. His very source of celebrity is killing him. Yet, he is resigned to embrace that celebrity as tightly as ever, giving up on survival so that he can live out his final days in style. It is only when he experiences an intervention of sorts, headed by the leader of a secret government organization, that he begins to forgo his wild displays of narcissism in favor of the pursuit of a meaningful life. During this time, Stark is also faced with the threat of two men who are out to harm him for various reasons: Justin Hammer, a weapons manufacturer who wants to take the government’s contracts (and the public’s attention) from Stark, and Ivan Vanko (a.k.a. Whiplash), a man who, as a result of a wrongdoing involving his and Stark’s fathers, wants to disgrace the hero. With these threats approaching from both within and without, Stark is forced to assume some degree of humility and accept help from those around him.
Director Jon Favreau took a significant risk in his approach to the story of Iron Man 2. Whereas the first film focused on displaying how awesome Iron Man is, this one begins by showing how ridiculous he has become. When we first see Iron Man, he is diving from an airplane, landing on the stage of his company’s expo, and boasting about his exploits while women in Iron Man-like cheerleading attire dance on stage. If we were to take this seriously, the film might not be able to recover. Later, we see Stark wearing his Iron Man suit not to fight bad guys but to intensify a party at which he is becoming exceedingly drunk. By the time he announces the fact that he has urinated in his suit, there is almost no hope of saving his image. This act is superseded minutes later by what might be the lamest Iron Man fight scene conceivable, a clumsy brawl throughout the Stark complex in which Stark faces off against another man in an Iron Man suit while the two argue and a DJ plays “Another One Bites the Dust” in the background. In the first act, Iron Man establishes himself not as a hero but as a joke.
Foremost Stark competitor Justin Hammer functions both as another example of the folly of narcissism and as a means for Vanko to acquire the resources necessary to present Stark with an outside challenge. Sam Rockwell plays the character with a tightrope balance of energy and impotence, always trying to wow others with his personality but remaining just socially incompetent enough never to succeed. The difference between Hammer and Stark is that Stark has the attention he desires, and he goes to absurd attempts to keep it. Hammer lacks the charisma, the power, and the fame of Stark, but he is desperately intent on stealing it. He testifies against Stark at a Senate hearing in order to weaken the latter’s reputation, but he feigns friendship with the man at parties, when such an association can benefit his own reputation. He attempts to mimic the charisma of Stark at his own expo, but his attempts to instill excitement are ineffective. He hires Vanko to help him develop a weapon that will topple Stark’s reign in the industry, but despite having vasts amounts of money and intellect, he cannot keep the criminal in check. The character’s hubris is his undoing.
Whiplash enters as a man with similar goals, though he aims only to pollute Stark’s fame, not to acquire it. His purpose is not to challenge Stark personally (Stark’s biggest enemy in this film remains himself) but to give Stark something tangible to overcome in order to demonstrate his victory over his own thirst for celebrity. His character is not interesting in itself but in what it shows us about the main character, namely that he has to accept help in some areas of his life. Working with Hammer, Vanko is in a unique position to present Stark with a significant threat without having a reputation to uphold, unlike Hammer himself, who has much to lose. Whiplash looks cool, maybe, but his role is merely that of a hurdle.
One of the most important problems Stark has to overcome is a deep-rooted feeling that his father did not love him. This issue's introduction is somewhat abrupt since it had no part in the first film, but it is a fitting source of character development, serving as the psychological foundation of Stark’s need to act out. During the film’s second act, however, Stark is simultaneously offered the chance to become part of a team and given a new understanding of his father. One character offers him assistance in fighting his impending death and a personal video message from his father, which expresses his love for his son, and Stark begins to change. Gaining the appreciation that he had thought was absent, he has less reason to crave attention, though he does retain a notable proclivity for such things as that has become embedded in his personality. This newfound appreciation also allows him to accept help for the first time. Appropriately, this change is never extreme but is instead believable. Stark is still Stark, and these changes take place within the boundaries of his character. The simplicity of his father's message that primes this change is perhaps too great (it is essentially an “Everything I did was for you” message), but it gets the job done. Because of the partially forced nature of this aspect of the movie, it is difficult to feel what Stark is going through, but the progression works for the overall story.
Adding credence to the film's events, Favreau confronts the often implausible comic book heritage of Iron Man throughout, teasing the viewer with apparent flaws and later providing explanation. During the character’s first fight against Whiplash, there is a moment at which all action pauses so that the camera can showcase Stark donning a portable version of the Iron Man suit. In the few seconds it takes for the armor to assemble itself around Stark, Whiplash should have been able to finish him with a swing of one of his electrically-charged whips. It is a moment one is likely to pass off by noting the need to give due attention to the suit’s first appearance in the film, but later Stark asks Vanko directly why he didn’t kill him when he could have. Vanko’s answer, that his goal was to mar the image of the almighty Tony Stark and cause him prolonged pain by exposing his imperfect nature, may be shortsighted on the character’s part, but it makes sense in the overall understanding of Vanko’s drive and the film’s story. Another such incident occurs when Rhodes is able to steal one of Stark’s Iron Man suits with surprising ease. This, too, is explained later in the film, and it is accomplished in a way that adds depth to the character of Stark. Favreau is playing with the audience in these moments and others that are similar, but he is also attacking the (albeit, seemingly fading) tendency of comic book movies to eschew plausibility simply because comics themselves have a long history of doing so.
Though this film is, unlike the first Iron Man, more interested in the development of its main character than in the spectacle thereof, it does provide its trademark action in smaller doses. Some of these moments venture outside the actions of Tony Stark to give new characters the chance to show off, but the best action is reserved for Iron Man. The final battle features his first team-up, with a character that is 99% as cool as he is, in which the two fight off a horde of Iron Man-like drones and then have a showdown with Whiplash. The scene is perhaps too brief, if only for the limitless possibilities such a scenario provides, but it is orchestrated with the primary intention of providing visuals that please on a fundamental level: robots and robot-like men shooting all sorts of weapons at each other in a serene and dynamic environment. It is visually pleasing, and it is the payoff of the development Stark undergoes throughout the film.
As a sequel, Iron Man 2 needed to remain fun while adding depth to its characters. It succeeded. Its story is not as efficiently told as it could have been (Vanko and Hammer could have been conflated into a single character, for instance, and no aspect of the story would have been lost), but to aim for economy in such a film would be to ignore its reason for existing. I say this not because the Iron Man films are comic book films but because they are entertainment. Given that Favreau was able to keep adequate focus on his main character, the unnecessary abundance of secondary characters helps add to the overall spectacle. The film is an unapologetic attempt at showmanship, and it is that showmanship that forms the very basis of Iron Man the franchise and Iron Man the character.