Iron Man the Science Guy

I like my made-up comicbook science as much as the next guy, but it’s something Iron Man 2 botches severely. Tony Stark finds the map to a new element hidden in Expo plans left to him by his father, a man who had trouble showing his love, but a man whose secret belief in Stark now remains through his work. It’s the kind of pseudo-scientific soap opera I can get on board with — or rather I would, were it grounded in a discernibly human story.

As Stark rummages through old belongings, he finds a confession from his father, one that has little bearing on either man in the long run. Howard’s secret love for his son adds a nice texture to Stark’s story, but their supposed disconnect never manifests in either Iron Man film. Stark’s arrogance was never framed as stemming from paternal insecurities, nor is it framed as such from this point forward. Doubting his own abilities was never a problem for Stark either, so the reveal that his father secretly believed in him is a solution to non-existent problem.

Stark discovering this new element simply happens to coincide with the discovery of his father’s true nature. It’s only half a story, playing lip-service to a potentially complex tale of Stark having to contend with his father’s secret love alongside his secret crimes.

Howard having deported Anton Vanko plays even more villainously in 2019, and his involvement in creating the Atom Bomb doesn’t even come up as it did before. Instead, all we truly learn about Howard Stark is that he helped found S.H.I.E.L.D., an organization whose sole purpose in this film is connecting it to the rest of the series.

Tony Stark being an innovator was central to Iron Man, in which he began using his tech in new ways after his change of heart. In Iron Man 2, his innovations are either in service of actions scenes that feel cut short, or in service of continuing Howard Stark’s work without contending with either of his hidden natures — as a loving father or as a mass murderer. Remove all of Ivan Vanko’s dialogue from the film, in which he talks about Stark’s murderous legacy, and the story remains the same.

Iron Man ends up fighting “bigger Iron Man” once more, but unlike Iron Monger in the first film, this bastardization of Stark’s tech represents nothing for the characters and what they believe. “Bigger Iron Man” just happens to have whips now. It’s the nothing-est of the handful of nothing Marvel films. And yet, it succeeds in one very key area that stops it from being a complete disaster.

Saved By Performance

The Tony Stark of Iron Man (2008) leads directly into the Tony Stark of The Avengers (2012) and Iron Man 3 (2013). The rest of the saga— films like Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016) and even Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) — retroactively re-frames gaps in the series’ political approach as mistakes made by Stark himself. The janky detour that is Iron Man 2 has little by way of character development, but its strong performance from Robert Downey Jr. carries it over the finish line, establishing a character that fits perfectly into this ever-shifting continuum.

Iron Man 2, perhaps inadvertently, plants seeds for ideas that would eventually be explored. The theme of contending with one’s legacy is a central part of Stark’s story (and of all the Avengers’ stories) later in the series, while Stark’s views on his mortality eventually come to the fore. Even the film’s half-baked ideas about private vs. military security would become a central focus. Iron Man 2 ought to feel like an outlier for failing to properly establish these narratives, but it remains a fascinating piece of the puzzle in retrospect thanks to its lead performance.

Robert Downey Jr. is an expert at delivering dry quips, but he shoulders even these half-formed ideas with finesse. There are tales of legacy and mortality hidden somewhere beneath the mess that is Iron Man 2; Downey Jr. embodies them in ways that allow for the Tony Stark of future films to expand on. This Tony Stark, who eventually deals with complicated questions of power, legacy and his own place in the world, is born during Downey Jr.s’ closeups in Iron Man 2, as Stark reflects silently on his own history.

As much as Stark watching old home movies has no bearing on how he changes, Robert Downey Jr. internalizes all these half-formed ideas — mourning, reflecting and contemplating, rather than his usual joking M.O. — thus cementing Marvel’s greatest strengths, even in its weakest film. Whatever the Marvel movies’ flaws, and they are numerous, at least they’ve never gone wrong with casting.


Expanded from an article published April 4, 2018.

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