Starks in Stasis

Iron Man 2’s entire second act features both its hero, Tony Stark, and its villain, Ivan Vanko, under house arrest. The two men, now mirrors to each other, are said to be defined by fathers’ legacies. The film opens with Vanko’s father dying in poverty, having been deported by Howard Stark decades earlier. Later in the film, Tony Stark mentions his own father never having loved him as a child. However, these circumstances never manifest in the form of either characters’ actions, let alone their ethos.  

Stark’s motivation is disconnected from anything pertaining to his father Howard, a ghost he watches on film and a man who ought to be the linchpin for this entire conflict. Vanko even calls Stark’s family “thieves and butchers” who rewrote their own history. But Stark’s story, from this point on, only involves realizing his father believed in him all along, which impacts neither what he does, nor what he believes.

Similarly, Vanko’s plan, despite his talk of making Gods bleed so people can see who they truly are, never actually involves changing anyone’s view of Stark or his family. Justin Hammer even conspires with Vanko to “go after [Stark’s] legacy” but this exchange is rendered meaningless.

What ought to have been a mirror to (and an extension of) the first film, in which Stark is forced to face his past, instead becomes a story where interpersonal drama is both delayed and diluted. Despite talking explicitly about destroying the Stark name, Vanko simply continues building his own suit in the hopes of fighting Stark. There’s no external perspective — that of the public, or any other character — to represent how the world sees Stark or his family. Vanko’s weapons mirror Iron Man’s tech, but nothing Vanko does ever challenges Tony Stark as a character.

Stark, the Living Dead

Tony Stark’s biggest battle in Iron Man 2 is accepting his own mortality, a challenge that presents itself when the arc reactor keeping him alive begins to poison him from within. This question of mortality could have made for an interesting contrast with his perceived Godhood; he did bring about world peace, after all, and people worship him for it.

Of course, a story trajectory such as this would have required shining a light on how exactly he changed the world. But the film makes sure to avoid political specifics at all cost, a likely outcome of its script having to be military-approved.

Instead, Stark’s battle with mortality is dramatized through his juvenile behaviour. He throws lavish parties, pees in his suit, and endangers his guests by shooting lasers at watermelons, a fun sequence that seems like it might to lead to Rhodes reining him in. However, this subplot is cut short just a few minutes later. Rhodes — who oscillates between being shocked that the military wants weaponized suits, and excitedly weaponizing these suits himself — simply absconds with Stark’s extra armour instead of helping his dying friend, something he learned of just a few scenes prior.

An hour into the film, this through-line of Stark dying at the hands of his tech is thrown out the window, when S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) come around for some pre-Avengers setup. They provide Stark with a slick antidote, circumventing any need for him to confront his own reckless actions, at which point they introduce Stark’s conflict with his father. Rather than augmenting the story of Stark facing his mortality, the celluloid ghost of Howard Stark simply replaces it.

Thanks to a quick injection from Black Widow, the poison clogging up Stark’s system instantly subsides. His veins suddenly cease to take on a mechanical appearance. The symbolism could not be more perfect: the intruding shared-universe erases the most potent visualization of Stark being his own worst enemy, robbing the film of any real dramatic challenge. Problem solved.

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