Welcome back, true believer (as Stan Lee used to say), as we continue our delve into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In Issue 25 of Parallel Worlds Magazine we looked at how the MCU began, with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. This time, we look at the continuation of Iron Man’s story — and see Marvel attempt to convince the world to take the idea of Thor as a superhero seriously.
We’re still solidly in the series of movies that Marvel dubbed ‘Phase 1’, so this is very early days in the franchise. As before, there will be spoilers here; so if you want to watch these movies fresh, consider doing so before reading on.
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 is the MCU’s first true sequel. It takes place less than a year after the original Iron Man, and you certainly don’t need to have seen The Incredible Hulk (in fact, a comic tie-in called Fury’s Big Week reveals that this movie takes place at the same time). Our big question, however, is what does this movie add to the MCU and Stark’s story?
In all honesty, the importance of this movie to the overall franchise is difficult to see without hindsight. The plot is thin, and the mcguffin “new element” stretches credulity (and is never seen again); but the movie does introduce many elements that will become important, or lend importance to other events, in the future. Iron Man 2 is about legacy: what you inherit from those before, and what you leave for those who follow. As such, in some ways it encapsulates the entire MCU’s attempt to bring Marvel’s old comic stories to a new audience in new formats.
Stark is, quite appropriately, pleased with what he has brought to the world as Iron Man. When the government attempts to commandeer his technology, he claims that he has privatised world peace. As we hear in the video clip of his father, Howard Stark, at the Expo, Tony has realised his father’s dream: that through technology, world peace can be achieved. We also learn that Stark has major issues with his father, which is one of his defining traits across his entire character arc.
It’s interesting that Hammer and Vanko mirror the two halves of Stark’s life — one attacking his civilian life and the other his heroic one.
Throughout the earlier parts of the movie, Stark is concerned about what he will leave behind. Being Iron Man is slowly killing him and he hasn’t found a solution. Of course, as the narcissistic character that we know and somehow love, he hasn’t told anybody. Whether reluctant to display weakness or not wanting to give people a chance to talk him out of his actions (or both), he keeps it to himself, whilst acting so irrationally even those who know him are confused. Stark becomes almost a caricature of himself; perhaps as a desire to emphasise that he is Tony Stark, and not Iron Man.
Due to his impending death, he gives Stark Industries to Pepper Potts and arranges for James Rhodes to acquire an armoured suit. This works to show that these are the two people that he trusts most in the world: he leaves his civilian legacy to one of them, and his heroic legacy to the other. This also works to establish their relationships going forward: Tony and Pepper share their first kiss in this movie, and Rhodes (as War Machine) will become Stark’s staunchest ally.
But perhaps the greatest contribution to the franchise is the introduction of Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow). Romanoff was the most significant female character for most of the MCU (many would say that she still is!) and, whilst it is undeniably unfortunate that it has taken until 2021 for the character to receive a solo movie, it’s good that she has been around since almost the beginning. She is the archetypical superspy — intelligent and dangerous — but I find this appropriate for a character who isn’t proud of her past and wants to keep people at arm’s length. It’s a decent introduction for the character and, considering it’s a minor role, she still gets to shine.
We also get appearances from our other established S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Fury and Coulson. Fury’s role in this movie is quite bizarre and seems very out-of-character. He turns up, gives Stark a pep talk and an unnecessarily cryptic clue about how Stark can resolve his life-or-death conflict, and then disappears again. There are elements of this that support the relationship between Stark and his father, but for the usually straight-talking Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., it seems a strange choice by the writers. Coulson gets even less to do; turning up to babysit Stark briefly, and then vanishing to go and appear in Thor instead. It’s almost as if the writers wanted to remind us of who he is but couldn’t think of anything useful for him to do.
Thematically, Iron Man 2 continues from the earlier two movies with the idea that the military are seen as, if not villains, at least untrustworthy. This is personified in Senator Stern, who will later be revealed to be a member of Hydra in the franchise. One of the two antagonists is also connected to this theme: Justin Hammer is Stark at his worst, fully war-profiteering and completely unashamed about it. He’s Stark without the wake-up call, morals — or charisma.
The other antagonist, Vanko, brings the focus back on the theme of legacy. He wants to kill Iron Man because of what happened to his father, Anton — itself a result of the actions of Howard. Anton and Howard created the first arc reactor together, which leads to Ivan and Tony each making their own, and coming into conflict.
It’s interesting that Hammer and Vanko mirror the two halves of Stark’s life — one attacking his civilian life and the other his heroic one — who are most effective when they come together. This effectively mirrors Tony’s internal conflict and emphasises that he needs to bring the two halves of his life into balance in order to be victorious — which, of course, he does.
Thinking back to 2011, when Thor was released, there was a certain trepidation about how well it could work. The two Iron Man movies (and arguably The Incredible Hulk) had very firmly established a scientific setting for the MCU; how exactly was a Norse god of thunder going to fit into that? It turned out that they took Clarke’s third law literally: that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
MCU Asgardians are a highly technological people, and the ‘bifrost’, one of the most magical-seeming things in the setting, is created by a machine. Later entries in the franchise will reveal that magic is a real force in the world as well, but for the moment we are invited to understand it all the way Thor does: to the Asgardians, magic and science may as well be the same thing.
This movie begins the stories of two of the most popular characters in the franchise, the brothers Thor and Loki. However, in some ways I found it was the setting of Asgard itself that is the greatest contribution to the MCU. Until now, the stories had been reasonably grounded; obviously the science and technology were of the super variety, but the wonder of seeing Asgard and Jotunheim in Thor takes us beyond Earth to look at the larger universe behind it.
Thor has the most growth within this first movie of this series. Starting as an arrogant pseudo-teenager, his story is about worthiness. From the early sequence in which Odin proclaims Thor as a worthy heir, and Thor’s belligerent actions in the aftermath of the frost giant attack, we see somebody who is irresponsible and very much not ready for Odin’s mantle. Loki is easily able to take advantage of his brother’s flaws and manipulate him, and when Thor takes the fight to Jotunheim, Odin’s punishment sets Thor’s journey. He strips his son of his power and declares that only those who are worthy shall wield that power again.
To the Asgardians, magic and science may as well be the same thing.
It is that journey — to be worthy — that drives Thor through this movie. Not being able to lift Mjolnir really hits him where it hurts: his sense of self. When Loki appears and tells Thor that his actions cost Odin his life, Thor hits his lowest point and begins to truly understand consequences — and responsibility. Only when Thor willingly risks himself against a foe he knows he lacks the capacity to defeat does he regain his power. He is the defender, placing the safety of others above himself; and that is what makes him worthy, and a good king. Looking at the character’s greater arc, this movie is his whole story in microcosm — and it’s excellently done.
Loki, on the other hand, moves very much in the other direction. As the movie’s antagonist, he believes that everybody sees him as less than Thor; though Thor’s friends are clearly also his friends, and Odin seems to value him just as greatly. Loki’s nature has clearly gotten the group of friends into trouble over the years, but Thor is almost endlessly tolerant of Loki’s “mischief”. This movie shows Loki very much on a downward spiral: from his initial attempts to show that he is just as great as his brother, through the trauma of discovering his true heritage, and discovering that the ultimate trickster has been lied to by those he cared most about for his entire life. Everything that happens makes him go to greater lengths to get what he wants, and it isn’t clear how much was initially planned.
Loki is clearly a charismatic and skilled manipulator and planner, using alliances to achieve his goals whilst never revealing his hand, and revisiting this early movie shows a stark character contrast to later depictions. Unlike Thor, Loki’s arc revolves around acceptance: both of himself, and learning to believe that others can accept him in spite of who he is and what he has done. However, burdened as he is with glorious purpose, this growth — and the realisations that it requires — will be a long time coming.
Jane Foster is the love interest this time round. She is clearly very accomplished in her own right and contributes more to the story than simply being a romantic subplot. Not only does she enable Thor’s attempts to retrieve Mjolnir, but for me it is through Jane that Thor learns to appreciate those that he had previously considered beneath him. Also introduced are Selvig and Darcy, with the latter largely used for comedy. The former is a useful touchpoint; as a character of Scandinavian origin, he is familiar with the legends of the Norse gods and Asgard and is used to good effect to show just how fantastical this all is. A surprise appearance is Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye), albeit largely just so that viewers will recognise him in Avengers Assemble.
We also see more of Coulson than in any previous story. He’s still not much of a character, beyond a calm and dry S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, but Clark Gregg plays the character with wonderful, understated charisma, and it’s clear why he became so popular. This movie portrays a darker, more authoritarian S.H.I.E.L.D. than seen previously. In many ways the organisation takes on the thematic role that the military have filled in the three earlier movies: as evinced when it confiscates Jane’s lab without any demonstration of authority.
Finally, this movie gives us our first glimpse of the Tesseract in the end credits teaser, which will eventually be revealed as the first Infinity Stone. In hindsight, it’s impressive how much planning went into the MCU so early in the franchise (or at least how effectively it was rationalised post-creatively!)
Thor does an admirable job of introducing the wider cosmos and demonstrating Thor’s story (which will be repeated). The franchise is clearly getting ready for Avengers Assemble, the (then) highly-anticipated first team-up movie. The chessboard doesn’t quite have all its pieces yet, but the last one is coming soon.