“I’ve privatised world peace!”
In the early first act of Iron Man 2, Industrialist-turned-philanthropist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the then-CEO of Stark Industries goes on a well-orchestrated charm offensive. He gets on the front cover of Forbes, Rolling Stone, Wired, USA Today, and other major publications. He spars with rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), whose private military contractor Hammer Industries has major problems in getting its prototype weapons systems to market. The exchanges between Stark, Hammer and Senator Stern (Gary Shandling) at a Washington DC news conference are some of the funniest about civil-military relations since Herman Kahn‘s stand-up comedy in Air Force talks about Cold War nuclear deterrence.
After their Monaco battle, Stark confronts villain Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) in a police holding cell. As a Russian political realist, Vanko will have nothing of Stark’s carefully cultivated public image and theatrics. Paraphrased from memory, Vanko tells Stark: “Your family’s reputation is built on lies and stealing others’ work. You’re doing this [charm offensive] because your family has killed many people, and now you feel guilty about it.” In other words, the utopian vision of Tony’s father Howard Stark — part World Fair 1939, Walt Disney and Buckminster Fuller in a 16mm demonstration film — has shaky foundations.
Vanko is cast as the film’s villain because he knows Stark Industries’ secrets and why the hopeful communitarian vision that Stark promotes has a big dose of personal hypocrisy. Stark says one thing in public and does the opposite in private. Both ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ have understandable motivations. The character structure is typical for scriptwriting manuals on Hollywood blockbusters and genre franchises: Hammer playing a comedic, ineffective sub-villain who offsets Stark and Vanko, whilst Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow and Lt. Col James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle) are Stark’s allies. Vanko’s Cold War back-story could have put Iron Man 2 on the same level of villain genesis as the X-Men (2000) prologue.
Some reviewers feel that Iron Man 2‘s second act is too low-key. For me, it involved character development over breathless action scenes: director Jon Favreau introduced 5 or 6 major characters, including Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) of Shield. In retrospect, Iron Man 2 will be viewed as both a franchise sequel, and as a transition film in the broader Marvel Universe, which leads into Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012).