This blog is about writing. I don’t post about politics. I don’t post about my personal life. I don’t post about anything not pertaining to writing. But today I will make an exception.
This is because I found an amazing project unfolding on YouTube. A video essayist called Nando v Movies invited other YouTube video essayists including Just Write, Lessons From the Screenplay, HiTop Films, Screen Prism, Mr Sunday Movies, Brown Table, Captain Midnight, and Gubz (in short, everyone but Nerdwriter and Every Frame a Painting) and got each of them to produce a video titled “One Marvelous Scene” about one favorite scene from any movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and release it simultaneously. He even called on other YouTubers to produce their own take on the same theme and offered to add them to the playlist.
Nando can explain the concept better than I can, so I suggest you watch the video.
The playlist now contains over thirty videos and counting. If I were a videographer, I’d add one myself. But since I am not, instead of a video essay, I will write an actual essay.
I have two reasons for doing this. The first one was elaborated on by Bill Maher. He said that grown up people should spend less time taking the Marvel Universe so seriously and start spending more time on actual serious cultural pursuits. In short, stop watching Tony Stark for the eighteenth time and start reading Toni Morrison. Well, he has a point. And he’s partly wrong. And I thought I needed to talk about that. (I turned 56 years old last week.)
The second reason is more personal. I am an aspiring, and largely unpublished, writer. I am the sort of person who subscribes to YouTube channels like Just Write and Lessons From the Screenplay and daydreams about writing a best seller one day. In the pecking order of all writers, I’m on the bottom of the slush pile. In my day job, I treat cancer. My specific specialty is dealing with a very rare, very malignant kind of cancer that constitutes about 1 in ten thousand cancer cases. This cancer is practically a death sentence. The five year survival rate is usually reported to be between 2-5%. (Some reports say differently.) The margin of error in pathology is about that number. (Again, some reports disagree.) So if you survived this kind of cancer, you could plausibly argue that the diagnosis must have been wrong, because the diagnosis is wrong about as often as the patients survive. Just about every textbook and every guideline basically tells you not to try to treat this cancer. Don’t torture the patient with ineffective chemo and useless radiation. Just give the patient palliative treatment and send them off as comfortably as possible. That’s the type of cancer I am known for treating. Currently, I have saved 4 out of 12. And they are not surviving on weekly infusions of chemo. They are drug free, disease free, and have gone back to work. By conventional medical wisdom, that makes me a liar, a fraud, or worse. A 25% remission is not supposed to happen in this particular kind of cancer. Even then, half the patients still don’t respond at all. 75% die, usually within a year. It’s a disheartening work where you get crushed by setbacks and failures and disappointments and the ever repeating tragedy. And the grieving families. The worst part is that I am constantly disrespected, humiliated, snorted at, and ignored by my colleagues. And when thing get really bad and I feel crippled by defeat, I go home, pour myself a drink, and watch a DVD of Ironman 2. And that helps me get back into the ring.
What I am saying (and I hope someday I could get Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. and everyone else involved in this movie to know this) is that Ironman has actually saved lives in the real world. I owe the production a salute.
So naturally, if you asked me to talk about just one scene in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I would have to pick a scene out of Ironman 2. And that is a difficult task because up to this point I never analyzed why I relate to this movie so much. I could very plausibly destroy the therapeutic effect this movie has for me by picking it apart. Sometimes, an escapist fantasy should stay an escapist fantasy.
(Spoilers Ahead, if you have never seen Ironman or Ironman 2)
First let me start with the flaws of this movie. The first that comes to mind is the villain. Ivan Vanko is a villain with potential. He has much in common with Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the Joker in the Dark Knight, one of the most celebrated cinematic villains of all time. Just like the Joker, Vanko is a villain who is not motivated by money, and he is a mirror image of the hero. Ivan and Tony are the only people in the world who could assemble a miniature arc reactor from scraps. He is the only person (other than Nick Fury) who understands the hero’s most pressing concern (“Palladium in chest. Painful way to die”). They even share fathers who were, in the words of Nick Fury, “two sides of the same coin”. Vanko understands that Tony Stark’s greatest vulnerability is the popular perception of his invincibility, and that “If you can make God bleed, there will be sharks in the water”. Ivan Vanko has the basic elements to be the perfect antagonist for Tony Stark.
Also, Ivan Vanko is played by Mickey Rouke, who is every bit as competent an actor as Heath Ledger but more experienced and more nuanced. Had the makers of this movie tried to build a story centered on two flawed men revolving around each other, like Batman and the Joker, it would have been a perfect casting choice to put Mickey Rouke opposite Robert Downey Jr.
But this potentially great villain is squandered. He is never a direct obstacle to Tony’s quest for the solution to palladium poisoning. He knows exactly where the kinks in Tony’s armor are but never efficiently attacks it. He escapes from prison by faking his death at the end of the first act and disappears into a laboratory, presumably dead from the point of view of the rest of the world, and Tony Stark never learns that he is still alive until the third act. Ivan Vanko may be the villain, but he is not the antagonistic force that drives the story.
Justin Hammer (played brilliantly by Sam Rockwell) is another interesting side character who falls short of being the main antagonist. He is also a mirror of Tony Stark (in the words of Jon Favreau, “Daffy Duck to Tony Stark’s Bugs Bunny”). He also does not present an obstacle to Tony’s main quest.
So what is the antagonistic force that drives the story? It is Tony Stark’s inner demons.
Let me explain the story in detail by tracing the classic plot points. In the setup, we learn that Tony Stark, after publicly announcing that he is Ironman, has become a public hero, but secretly, he knows he is dying from palladium poisoning. After realizing that there is no replacement for the core to fuel the reactor in his chest, he gives away his art collection, gives control of his company to Pepper Potts, opens a lavish Expo, drives in an F-1 race car, and generally behaves like he wants to go out with a bang. This is a man at the end of his rope making his preparations to die, but cannot admit even to his closest friends what is happening to him. The inciting incident comes when Ivan Vanko shows up on the race track and attacks him. But Vanko soon “dies” in a prison explosion, so Tony no longer has a villain to fight. However, his interest is peaked when he realizes that there is common history between Ivan Vanko’s father and his own. The story stumbles into the second act without the protagonist making any conscious choices or heading out on a quest, but because Lt. Col. James Rhodes flies off with an Ironman suit, incidentally becoming the heir to the suit in case Tony dies, thus completing Tony’s preparation for his demise. Tony does not “answer the call” to go into the second act. He is despondent, eating doughnuts inside a doughnut sign. He believes he has tried everything and that he is going to die. Nick Fury provides some backstory about Ivan Vanko’s father, Anton Vanko, and Tony Stark’s father, Howard Stark, and a box full of hints left by Howard. Tony half-heartedly leafs through Howard Stark’s notebooks in hopes of finding a solution to his palladium poisoning. Then, at the midpoint of the story, Tony discovers a film record of his father talking to him through the camera. The cold, distant, and probably emotionally repressed father, who could never say nice things to his son in person, says to the camera that Tony is his “greatest creation”. This inspires Tony to make one last desperate attempt to admit to Pepper Potts that he is in mortal peril and would like her support. He fails miserably. This is the darkest hour, the “all is lost” moment of the story for Tony’s efforts to connect with others. But it comes long after the “all is lost” moment for saving his life from palladium poisoning, which was off screen before the movie started. Then, he has an inspiration to take one more look at the Expo model and finds the key to the missing element. He scans the model, renders the molecule, and finds the secret. He declares “We’re back in hardware mode!”, picks up a sledgehammer, and literally busts a hole in the wall that contains him. The “third act twist” comes when Tony gets a phone call from Vanko revealing that the villain was still alive and forcing Tony to use the new reactor when it was not yet fully tested. The climax is the battle with Vanko and his drones, the resolution is Tony’s first kiss with Pepper Potts. He never did confess his vulnerabilities, but he did sort of connect with Pepper and Rhodey.
So, Ironman 2, one of my favorite movies of all time, and arguably one of the movies that kicked off the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a deeply flawed film from a structural perspective. The villain is not central to the plot. Tony Stark is never forced into making choices that question his core values. None of the plot points are the result of his decisions. The core conflict and the action conflict do not mesh. The climax has little to do with the central struggle of the story. And the character arc is incomplete. Not a complete train wreck, like the Last Jedi, but quite flawed. Still, Ironman 2 grossed an estimated $600 million worldwide, and the Last Jedi grossed over a billion. I suppose it says a great deal about the necessity of following story structure. You do not really have to follow story structure to a T in order to create an enjoyable, relatable, or salable story.
So what is it about this movie that makes me keep coming back to it? This is an entertaining escapist fantasy, but at its core, this is a story about the loneliness of a successful man. Tony Stark is a freakishly intelligent, freakishly rich, and freakishly capable man. Everything about him isolates him from everyone else. And as Vanko states, if you can make God bleed, there will be sharks in the water. And those sharks are everywhere. Tony exists in a exaggerated version of “Only the Paranoid Survive” corporate world. He must maintain his facade of invincibility in order to make it through. The need to appear invincible to the public dovetails with his need to appear invincible in his private relationships. The big man in a suit of armor struggles to take off his suit of armor. Tony has an easier time drowning his troubles in alcohol and adrenaline than opening himself up to his closest friends.
But this is not only a story about the evils of toxic masculinity. Tony is certain that he is going to die. This is a man in deep despair, all out of options. He has already decided to give away, or part with, all that means anything to him, including his position as CEO and his suit; things that define his life. Then, when all seemed to be lost, he discovers his father’s coded message. He get’s back into hardware mode. Tony Stark – the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist – the gambling, womanizing, hard drinking, hard partying, race car driving, weapon selling, art collecting, corporate running, politics playing, stage performing, super-hero-cum-super-star – is at heart a hardware guy. Even before he became Ironman, he was taking apart hot rod engines in his spare time for fun. He is a machine geek who likes to fool with tools. Half the runtime of the first Ironman movie was dedicated to building and testing Mark 1 and Mark 2 Ironman suits. Ironman 2 is a story that traces the journey of a super star on a stage of a packed auditorium back to his roots in the hardware mode. I think it is significant that his very first line in the movie is “It’s good to be back”.
So if I were to choose a favorite scene from Ironman 2, after agonizing over it for a while, I decided I would have to choose the scene where Tony renders the new element and gets back into hardware mode. Some people may argue that this is just a CGI eye candy scene, but to me it signifies the moment when Tony is humbled in the shadow of his genius father and finally rediscovers himself as the hardware guy that he is. (And incidentally, while I was in the process of composing this essay, I found an extended version of the same scene that did not make it into the final edit of the movie that seems to vindicate my theory.)
And as for the larger question posed by Bill Maher, should grownups spend so much time discussing the merits of Marvel Movies when there is so much great literature to discuss, here is my response: We are not discussing Marvel Movies. We are sharing a common language in a world where common languages have become increasingly rare. Yes, these are escapist fantasies. Comic books are not profound literature and super hero movies are not fine cinema. And as an aspiring author who hopes to publish actual literature some day, I would be dismayed if people stopped reading books without pictures. But we were awed by Marvel Movies. We cried at Marvel Movies. We were encouraged by Marvel Movies. We were emotionally moved by Marvel Movies. And although comic books are, ostensibly, for kids, kids who grew up admiring Captain America grow up and carry over some of those values into their adult life. These are our common experiences. Our common moral guides. We can talk about Marvel Movies across political lines, across religions, across genders, across cultures, across professions, and across generations. I am a 56 year old man writing about it from Japan. We need escapist fantasies because real life is hard. And the harder it is, the more we need it. Real life has no narrative structure, is full of plot holes, and generally makes no sense. We need stories to keep it together. Yes, we should be reading more mature stories as we grow up. But there is more benefit than harm in nurturing a common emotional language. This One Marvelous Scene project proves my point.
Hats off to Nando from Nando v Movies for inciting this project. Thank you to everyone who read this essay. And the greatest gratitude to Stan Lee, who not only created super heroes, but proved that super heroes are real.