This is one in a series of posts discussing the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including their narrative strengths and weaknesses.
It’s not unusual for sequels to be a letdown. This phenomenon doesn’t just happen only in film, but also in writing. This even occurs among famous writers. C.S.S. Lewis’ followup to his hit, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, was the less well received, Prince Caspian. The second book in The Chronicles of Narnia was good, but found itself treading much of the same ground.
Iron Man 2 was a fine film, but it suffered heavily from essentially torturing its central character. The Tony Stark of the first film was plagued by a number of vices, including his excessive drinking and womanizing. However, the writing in the first film managed to walk a fine balance of indulging Tony’s vices while also showcasing his charm.
The second film doubled down on the negative qualities of Stark, making him increasingly unlikable throughout the first half of the film. Narratively, it actually wasn’t out of place for the film. Stark is essentially dying through the first portion of the movie as he struggles to replace the arc reactor in his chest. So, why was the film received so comparatively poorly?
Stark’s worst qualities are amplified to a point of being near irredeemable. In terms of tone, this tips the careful balance established in the first film into far more negative territory. The Stark of the first film had noble intentions in trying to right the wrongs of his company. The Stark of the second film was overly indulgent in his superstardom and, combined with his many vices, made for the most unlikable version of the character.
A second weakness in the film was the villain of Ivan Vanko. As written, Vanko’s motivations were at first unclear and later, just too simple. The movie boiled down to a simple revenge quest on Vanko’s part. This villain plotline did not mesh naturally with the Stark plotline involving his efforts to replace the palladium core in his chest and created two separate, only lightly related plots that never quite fused.
Cohesion is an interesting concept in storytelling. When two plotlines are too disparate, they become so unrelated that the movie feels disconnected. When the two plotlines are too similar, they become redundant. In writing, it’s important to present two storylines that can shift the attention of the audience, keeping them engaged, without making it feel as if those two plots are distinct stories. Sitcoms use this approach regularly, featuring A storylines and B storylines.
In Iron Man 2, the uncompelling Vanko storyline is too disconnected from the far more interesting Tony Stark dying storyline, and neither character is likeable. One lesson for writers is to use supporting characters as a positive in their work. Iron Man 2 could have benefited from making either Rhodey or Pepper Potts less like nagging, parental figures and more like assertive leads, which would have gone a long way toward making the audience feel more emotionally attached to the story. As it stands, Vanko is boring and Stark is unlikeable, making hard to stay engaged with the narrative.
The takeaway for writers is to pay attention not only to the characterization of the protagonist, but the antagonist as well. Lack of compelling characters bring down any story. It’s also important to take care to demonstrate how your separate storylines relate to one another. Both characters and storylines need to be compelling to keep an audience engaged, and they need to be connected to one another so that the audience feels engaged with each storyline as well. Otherwise, they will favor one storyline more heavily than another, to the degree that they disconnect from one plotline and lost interest in the material.
However, while it’s important to see what Iron Man 2 got wrong, it’s also important to see what it got right. The writers put forward a central story of Stark reconnecting with his deceased father long after the man’s death. By trying to follow up on the senior Stark’s work, Tony came to a better understanding of who his father was. Unfortunately, this also highlights how underdeveloped Vanko was. The film opened with Vanko’s own father dying, a man who was as knowledgeable about technology as Tony’s father. This could have made for tremendous parallels in the narrative, but this was never explored.
The writers were content to let Vanko be little more than a plot device for moving the narrative forward. Tony’s exploration of his relationship with his father might have had so much more texture with a strong parallel in Vanko. He could have also benefited from writers more willing to explore the parallels between the ‘hero’ and ‘villain,’ as well as benefited from a story that more deeply explored how the actions of our fathers in the past have repercussions for us in the present.
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