Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, and Jon Favreau, 2008
Last time I said that, as I watched these Avengers movies, I found myself asking two questions: first, what did the filmmakers have to work with in terms of the property's basic concept — how resonant is the premise behind this character, what anxieties does it address, what fantasies does it fulfill? Second, what did they make of the material they were handed? Viewed in this light, I have to revise the assessment of Iron Man I made after my first viewing back in 2009. At the time I thought that while I had enjoyed the movie quite a bit, that probably had less to do with the qualities of the movie itself than with my lifelong investment in the character. But, looking at it again, no — this is genuinely good. It's not only the best of the Avengers movies by far, but gets more out of the source material than the comics managed to get in nearly half a century.
The most obvious improvement, I thought the first time around, was to the character of Tony Stark. I've heard Stan Lee say in interviews that the idea behind the character was to take someone his beatnik audience would instinctively despise — an arch-capitalist, and even more than that, a weapons manufacturer, the embodiment of the military-industrial complex — and make a superhero out of him. As the decades passed, writers alternated between (a) depicting Stark as a wealthy playboy who was always out with a model when an emergency called the Avengers into action and (b) coming up with storylines about the consequences of that lifestyle: he became an alcoholic, he got shot by an unstable woman he'd had a fling with, etc. In the '00s, Stark was repositioned as a bit of an antihero, revealing his identity as Iron Man and backing an initiative requiring that all American superheroes register their powers and either retire or become government agents, bringing him into conflict with Captain America. None of which, in 45 years of Tony Stark appearances in the comics, made him remotely as interesting as Robert Downey Jr. makes him in about 45 seconds. I mean, when I first started reading the Iron Man comic, Denny O'Neil had put Jim Rhodes in the armor, and it was revolutionary in that suddenly Iron Man wasn't a total stiff. Then that storyline ended, and Tony Stark returned, and it was back to "Thanks, I needed that! My wide-spectrum energy assimilation circuits were getting a little rusty from lack of use!" To go from that to the opening scene of the movie, with Tony in the Fun-Vee — "You're kidding me with the hand up, right?" "Is it cool if I take a picture with you?" "Yes. It's very cool." …on the one hand, it's pointless to quote like this because it's all in the delivery, but at the same time, it's also no surprise that everyone in comics instantly started writing Tony Stark exactly like this. Pattern 25 says that movies tend to be experience delivery systems more than they are stories, and Iron Man falls into this category — but it's pretty astounding that the experience this movie became a huge hit for delivering was the fun of how the lead actor portrayed the superhero's civilian identity.
That said, this time around I was impressed by how Iron Man functions as a story. First and foremost, there's the origin sequence. There are superheroes whose origins everyone knows because they get recounted every fuckin' time the character shows up. But when I was a kid I read dozens of Iron Man comics and his origin came up approximately never. Part of that was because by the '80s the references to South Vietnam were showing their age, and the business about having to wear the chest plate 24/7 had long since been discarded… but a lot of it was just that it was judged insufficiently iconic to be worth retelling. I probably would have made the same judgment. But, dang, it sure works here. Look at what I said above about resonance, and then consider how this sequence stacks up to other superhero origins.
One pretty straightforward division to make is between origins that are accidental and those that are deliberate. An example from the "accidental" category would be the Flash: Barry Allen happens to be standing next to a cabinet full of chemicals — as you do — when it gets hit by lightning and he gets splashed, giving him superpowers. (Ladies and gentlemen, DC Comics!) An example from the "deliberate" category would be Ant-Man, a.k.a. Giant-Man, a.k.a. Goliath, a.k.a. Yellowjacket: Henry Pym is a scientist who wants to develop a chemical that will allow him to grow and shrink, so, y'know, he goes ahead and does that. And changing size becomes his superpower, in all of his subsequent superheroic identities.
What these examples have in common is that neither one is a response to anything. In a fairly standard account, you can't really be said to have a story until you've presented (however briefly) some initial state of affairs, disrupted that status quo with what David Mamet calls a "disordering incident," and shown how the character or characters respond to that disruption. Otherwise all you have is "just a bunch of stuff that happened." For instance, contrast the origins above with that of Batman. Batman's origin story begins with a status quo ante in which Bruce Wayne is a privileged child with loving parents. Then comes the disordering incident, as his parents are murdered in front of him by a mugger. In response, he spends his childhood and adolescence undergoing intensive training in order to fight crime. Both Bruce Wayne and Henry Pym become superheroes deliberately, but compare why they do so. Wayne devotes himself to developing amazing abilities as a direct reaction to the trauma of being visited by unspeakable personal tragedy and being unable to do anything about it. Pym devotes himself to developing amazing abilities as a direct reaction to… a vague sense that he'd like to make the world a better place? And a desire to show everyone what a great scientist he is? Those motives are a lot less resonant, or at any rate a lot less visceral, than the horrible memory of helplessness that motivates Batman. I mentioned "anxieties" above, and I think there's a strong case to be made that the fundamental anxiety underlying the superhero genre is the fear of being powerless to keep yourself or your loved ones from being hurt — and that one of the main reasons the genre has demonstrated such staying power is that almost everyone has had that experience and been scarred by it to some degree.
The other side of the coin is that superhero stories let the audience enjoy the fantasy of not being helpless. One of the stock tropes in superhero comics is the "oh boy, did you ever pick the wrong person to try to rob / rape / murder" scene: the bullet bounces off the bad guy's intended victim, or said victim transforms into her fearsome alter ego, and the bad guy realizes he's in some extremely deep shit, and we dream of how wonderful it would have been if we could have turned things around on the tormentors in our own pasts. But the key here is that in these scenes the intended victim is already a superhero. In origin stories, that isn't true. Again, take Batman. A moment ago I said that the disordering incident in his origin story is the murder of his parents. But a disordering incident is supposed to raise questions for us, questions we're so intent on seeing answered that we will eagerly sit through the next few minutes of the story. In this case, the big question is "How will Bruce Wayne cope with this tragedy?", and maybe you're interested in that question, or maybe you're not. But watch what happens when we frame things a different way. We'll still say that our status quo ante is that Bruce Wayne is a privileged child with loving parents, and the three of them are walking home from the theater. Then a mugger suddenly appears out of the darkness and points a gun at them! If we consider this the disordering incident, the questions it raises have much higher stakes. Who will live? Who will die? Consider also that, if we turn from the language of a David Mamet drama seminar to that of a seventh-grade English class, this is the "problem," and problems call for solutions. Bruce's parents have a gun pointed at them! Life and death hangs in the balance! How will Bruce solve this problem? What will he do?
Then comes the anticlimax, as the answer turns out to be… nothing. Bruce will not solve the problem — how could he? — and as a result, he will watch his parents get killed. That doesn't make for a very fulfilling story. To which David Mamet might reply, that's because it's not a story — it's a disordering incident. "The nail doesn't have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail." There are two problems with such a reply. One is that the account above is not only not a very fulfilling story, it's not even the disordering incident for a very fulfilling story. A boy's parents are murdered in front of him, so he… grows up, buggers off to the Himalayas for a few years, goes to ninja school, and then comes back and beats up on a bunch of unrelated crooks? I suppose you can argue that all of this is the disordering incident for the entire 74-year run of Batman stories, but that still leaves the second problem: you can argue all you like that a house is a house and a nail is a nail, but empirical evidence suggests that the best origin stories are those that are fulfilling both as starting points for longer tales and as stories in and of themselves.
So how do you pull this off? It seems as though a good superhero origin needs to involve not just a response to a disordering incident, but a resolution to an immediate problem — and that seems to require a ludicrous synthesis of the deliberate and the accidental. "Bruce Wayne and his parents were walking home from the theater one night, when a mugger appeared out of the darkness and pulled a gun on them, but luckily they happened to be standing next to a cabinet full of chemicals that someone had left on the street corner, and a bolt of lightning struck and the chemicals splashed Bruce, giving him superpowers that he used to foil the attack…" The thing is, this may sound ridiculous — but something not altogether unlike this became the standard superhero origin, at least over at Marvel. See, pretty early on Stan Lee understandably got tired of coming up with a unique origin for every character, so he came up with the idea that the Marvel Universe was full of mutants, born with an x-factor in their genes that led them to develop superpowers sometime around puberty. It wasn't long before writers realized that the "sometime" clause allowed them to whip up problem/resolution origins to order. For instance, look at what Chris Claremont did with the New Mutants:
Karma: Xi'an Coy Manh is the daughter of a colonel in the South Vietnamese army. One day the Vietcong attack her village, and a soldier is about to kill her twin brother. Oh no! What can she do? Just then, Xi'an discovers that she has the mutant power to reach into others' minds and possess them. She stops the soldier from shooting, saves her brother, and becomes a superhero!
Cannonball: Sam Guthrie is a 16-year-old coal miner in West Virginia. One day one of the mine shafts caves in, and he and a fellow miner are trapped with the roof about to collapse. Oh no! What can he do? Just then, Sam discovers that he has the mutant power to blast through solid rock with no harm to him or to anyone he is carrying. He escapes just in time, saves his co-worker, and becomes a superhero!
Magma: Amara Aquilla is the daughter of a senator in a lost colony of the Roman Empire. One day an evil sorceress throws her into a volcano. Oh no! What can she do? Just then, Amara discovers that, by a very happy coincidence, she has the mutant power to control lava. She erupts back out of the volcano, ablaze in red and yellow swirls, and you know the drill.
Etc., etc., etc. All of these origins trade on that resonant theme of helplessness, and they all resolve an immediate problem, but they still share one critical flaw: every one of these resolutions is a total deus ex machina. Which, at long last, brings us back to Iron Man. The movie starts with Tony Stark as a hedonistic playboy, splashing around in the gray area between hilarious and obnoxious. He's got fuck-you money, and he uses it like it says on the tin. He thinks his work manufacturing weapons for the U.S. military makes him a good guy, but he's also been very careful not to investigate the issue deeply enough to threaten that comfortable belief. This work takes him to Afghanistan, where his humvee is ambushed. His troop escort is killed. He flees on foot, and a bomb lands near him; it says STARK INDUSTRIES on it. It explodes. Stark takes a lot of shrapnel. As blood blossoms on his dress shirt, everything goes white. When he comes to, there is a video camera in his face, and behind him, half a dozen masked men with assault rifles are reading a statement. That is one hell of a disordering incident.
(I should pause here to point out that, while I'm currently focusing on the underlying structure of this sequence, a lot of what makes Iron Man such a good movie is in the tone and the details. When Stark is held hostage in a cave deep within the Hindu Kush, when he's shown the huge caches of Stark weapons the local warlord has amassed, when he refuses to build the next-generation missile the warlord demands and is half-drowned in a bucket, it's all rendered quite naturalistically, much more in the vein of a modern war film than of a comic book movie. The helplessness here feels very real, shudderingly close to Daniel Pearl territory. And yet the entertainment value is high: the editing is crisp, the dialogue could hardly be improved, and there's even a fair bit of humor — the "we don't need this" moment is the sort of thing a prose writer envies.)
Now, it's true that Stark doesn't have to react immediately to escape the fix he's in. But the time bombs he does have to face — the limited patience of his captors, and the deadly shrapnel in his heart — have short enough fuses that his origin sequence feels like a single, extended crisis. And he doesn't get out of it by getting splashed with magical chemicals or conveniently developing late-onset mutant powers. No — where Iron Man stands out from other superheroes is that his origin involves someone deliberately creating a superheroic identity for himself, in response to a life-threatening crisis, that resolves the crisis. The sequence is fulfilling on all fronts. Even the very form his superheroic identity takes is more resonant than most. Superhero stories play on our anxiety about being vulnerable to danger, and when people feel vulnerable, what they want is protection. Superman may be invulnerable, protected by his Kryptonian skin, but standing there in bright blue spandex, he doesn't look it. Iron Man, especially in the bulky walking-tank Mark I model, does. Throw in the fact that, unlike in the comics, this sequence also represents the pivotal moment in the moral development of Tony Stark, another piece that is generally lacking in those mutant origins, and… yeah. Somebody connected with this movie saw what none of Iron Man's previous creative teams had seen — that with the right execution, this could be the best of the superhero origins — and the the filmmaking team managed to stick the landing on that execution. As Yinsen and Stane both say at different points: "Impressive!"
Also impressive is how the rest of the movie maintains this level of quality. Again, this is true both in its structure and its execution. Meriting particular applause is the way that scenes of virtually no inherent interest, the "Tony builds his armor" sequences that in practically any other movie would have been rendered as trying-on-hats montages, become comedic highlights in this one. And since part of their purpose is to show Stark's isolation, Robert Downey Jr. has to play entire scenes with only robot arms and fire extinguishers to react against, and he manages to make it look like they're all part of a deservedly acclaimed comedy troupe. I will say there is one misstep: in the return-to-Afghanistan sequence, it's pretty hackneyed to suddenly focus on one father and son. It's the sort of thing Steven Spielberg made a point of avoiding in Schindler's List: "I didn't want people to come away saying, 'Oh, yeah, the Holocaust. That thing that happened to those five people.'" Aside from that, it's hard to find any complaints. The structure of the movie is so tight, each scene accomplishing half a dozen things at once and leading logically to the next, with every transition an "and therefore" rather than an "and also," and never a moment of "wait, what's going on now?" Iron Man is a hell of an achievement.
Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby, Justin Theroux, and Jon Favreau, 2010
Iron Man 2, on the other hand, is a hot mess. Most of the first movie's virtues are missing. Where Iron Man was lean and tight, the sequel is full of flabby scenes — look at the interminable expo sequences, for instance, or the Tony/Pepper banter that feels like a first take of uninspired improv — alternating with perfunctory interstitial scenes that mechanically move the plot forward. And where Iron Man provided the thematic resonance and cool factor of the best superhero comics while remaining naturalistic enough to avoid feeling "comic-booky," the sequel is camp. Villains with self-consciously wacky quirks, Robert Downey Jr. and especially Sam Rockwell hamming it up, celebrity cameos — they might as well have brought Joel Schumacher in to put nipples on the armor. And then the whole thing devolves into a loudness war, with Iron Man fighting War Machine (for the second time in the same movie) while drones blast away at New York City crowds while Black Widow fights her way past a legion of Hammer guards while World Circuit Whiplash makes his move and eventually everything explodes.
And while Iron Man 2 meanders through a sort of revue of half-assed renditions of storylines from the comics — here's Tony vs. Rhodey from #192 (and #310), here's "the armor is killing me" from #215 (and #280, and vol.3 #12) — it also suffers from some flaws peculiar to feature films. One is the way that virtually everything that makes stories worthwhile — the way characters grow as people, how relationships develop between them, you name it — gets boiled down to a handful of emblematic moments and shoehorned into tight spaces. So here we have Tony Stark's daddy issues introduced out of nowhere at the 1:08 mark, and seven minutes later, at 1:15, he watches an old movie outtake that resolves them! (Though I guess a therapist would still charge like $35 for that.) Then we have the notion that the solution to Stark's palladium poisoning comes from the discovery that a model of the pavilions at his father's technology expo from 1974, emblazoned with the legend "this is the key to the future," is secretly a model for a new element. The most inane thing about this isn't even the suggestion that the reason we don't whip up a bunch of new elements every day is not the difficulty of generating sufficiently intense ion beams, or the instant dissolution of the synthesized transuranic atoms, but our lack of a picture of how to arrange the protons and neutrons — this is none too serious sci-fi, and I can buy that Howard Stark might have found a miraculous island of stability somewhere on the periodic table. What I can't buy is that, having made such a discovery, the elder Stark would encode it into architecture in the hope that four decades later his son would find a discarded diorama of the place and puzzle out the mystery. This is the sort of nonsense you end up with when you are entirely concerned with "It ties back into the expo! And with his dad! And it's ironically low-tech! And it's visual!" and not at all concerned with "This isn't something that any human being who ever lived might conceivably do!"
I couldn't help but wonder how the same team that did such great work on the first movie could produce this and apparently be satisfied with it. But look at the credits and you'll see that it's not exactly the same team. Apparently the higher-ups looked at the success of the first film and decided to bring everyone back except the writers. And when you make that move, this is what you get.