Iron Man: Sympathy for the Devil
If you've perused my site or listened to my podcast, you might be aware that I like superheroes and superhero movies. And for almost 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated the superhero genre in film. Since these movies are easily the most successful comic book adaptations to come out of Hollywood, every other week I am going to examine one of the films in the series (in order, naturally) and figure out what we as writers can learn from each movie.
This week, we start with the film that kicked everything off: Iron Man.
Iron Man does a lot of things especially well - it's got an exceptional cast playing wonderful characters, a lot of humor and heart, and some really fun montages where Tony figures out his suit. But I'm most interested in how the audience is made to sympathize with a man who is A) a billionaire, B) a playboy, and C) a weapons manufacturer.
We start in Afghanistan, as a row of humvees carrying US soldiers roll down the street. And then AC/DC starts playing, and we meet Tony Stark, wearing a suit and holding a drink. And once Tony Stark starts speaking, he begins to hold court.
He tells the soldiers (and the audience) to lighten up ("Come on, it's okay, laugh" is one of the many ways the audience is told to relax, so the incoming explosions are all the more startling).
We find out he slept with twelve Victoria's Secret models last year, including a set of twins - and as he does, even the female airman smirks at this (a way to tell the audience, "It's okay, he's a pig but the woman finds him entertaining, so we give you permission to laugh as well").
He's disarming - and disorienting. When the airman holds up the peace sign in a photo and he asks him to take it down, he clarifies he's joking. We can read this two ways: One, not everybody gets his jokes. Or two, Tony Stark uses his fast-talking style to disorient other people, so they won't know what he's about to say at any given moment.
Tony Stark also rambles a bit in the scene, especially at the beginning. We can probably intuit that Stark rarely has a thought he doesn't share, because god forbid any of his brilliant ideas or insights might not be shared with others.
We learn all of this in the course of 1 minute and 3 seconds.
At this point, we have an entertaining character, but not somebody we're emotionally invested in. And then the caravan comes under fire, and all three airmen are killed. Tony runs and hides, whips out his phone and texts someone (I'm not sure why this is funny, but it always gets a laugh when I show the film to new people), and then a missile lands next to him... with his name on it.
The missile goes off, and we see he had a bulletproof vest underneath - so we are once again reminded that he's smart and he knew he might be in danger - but blood begins to soak through the vest. And then we cut to Tony tied up in front of a group of terrorists, being held for ransom on videotape.
And now we feel bad for Tony. We're emotionally invested. So let's learn a bit more about him.
Listen, you have to get your exposition out somehow. And while this an awfully heavy-handed way to do it, the audience learns a lot of relevant information. We begin to like how capable he is (built a circuitboard at four years old!) and gain another little bit of sympathy (lost his father before the age of 21). We also see exactly what kind of weapons he makes, and we're reminded that one of those missiles is coming for him in 36 hours...
When Obadiah Stane accepts the award on his behalf, we learn that Stane is used to cleaning up after Tony, and that his friend Rhodey isn't especially surprised that Tony's missing. Stane says Stark is "always working," and then we cut to Tony gambling and flirting. And thanks to the language of Stane's line, we subconsciously associate this behavior with the word "always." This is who Stark is. This is what he does. All the time.
But now that we have a better sense of his personality, the audience is more at ease with this behavior. We understand that we're watching the set-up for a tragic trajectory that ends with the missile hitting - while that certainly won't mark the end of his story, it will certainly bring all of his other behavior into sharp relief.
Also, Tony quotes the Bible and hands his award to the Caesar's Palace mascot. I've just always liked that moment a great deal. It's wonderful shorthand to reinforce that Tony simply does not care about awards. He's certainly a narcissist who enjoys praise, but he's also still a little kid - receiving an award from a bunch of stuffy old men doesn't interest him.
But what does interest him? And what makes him tick? Let's literally interrogate our hero with the introduction of a journalist.
We see here that Tony has a lot of practiced lines about justifying his behavior ("Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy"), but he can't seem to imagine a world where he doesn't make weapons. He jokes about it: "The day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I'll make bricks and beams for baby hospitals." But that's a joke. Because he can't imagine that day ever coming.
Anyway, then he hooks up with the reporter, and it's the only time in a Marvel movie that a character has ever had sex. That's kind of weird. Other characters talk about sex, all the time, but they almost never get into bed together - the only other time that happens is in The Incredible Hulk, and they don't get any further than kissing. I just think that's kind of funny.
The next day we meet JARVIS and Pepper Potts, and we see more of Tony's daily life. And here we get probably the most endearing aspect of Tony Stark - his relationship with Pepper. She's able to match his energy and anticipate his needs, and also keeps his house in order (literally and figuratively). And we see their playful, borderline-flirtatious energy. And this tells us something else as well. Every other woman in the film so far, Tony has casually flirted with - even the doomed female airman got complimented on her bone structure. But Pepper and Tony have a very different dynamic. There's mutual respect, and something unrequited between both of them.
Then Tony gets his friend drunk on sake and reveals the stripper poles on his private plane. Because of course he has stripper poles on his private plane.
And I joke, but actually? That's what this scene does so well. It gives us something outlandish, extravagant and sexist, and the audience goes, "Well, of course he has that, this makes perfect sense." We are 14 minutes and 9 seconds into the film, and we as an audience have bought in to Tony Stark's outrageous behavior. And we actually kind of like him.
But the missile is still coming.
The Jericho missile scene does the same thing. On its face, it's a ridiculous display of hubris and recklessness and the military industrial complex. It's also completely unsurprising. It's an important moment of levity, the last one in the film for a little while... and we need it, because the missile is about to hit and turn his life upside down.
The Jericho missile is also a mini-MacGuffin for the first half of the film, and this demonstration is an essential way to show how dangerous it is. That will be very important to the "terrorist captivity" sequence that follows.
As writers, we can probably think of some bad examples where other films have tried to do the same thing as Iron Man, introducing unlikeable characters and then hoping you'll feel sympathy for them as the story goes on. (Suicide Squad is a particularly egregious example.) But if you're going to make a jerk into your main character, you need to be very careful how they are introduced, especially if you want them to be a Likable Jerk.
Stories like A Christmas Carol or Groundhog Day start with characters who need to learn a lesson, but they're not likable or fun - they're bitter or cynical, and we get some enjoyment out of seeing them punished by the story. We empathize as the story goes on, but when they first get pulled into the story, we're entertained because they were a jerk who needed to learn a lesson.
But for Iron Man, it's essential that we empathize with him by the 15 minute mark. It can't simply feel like a cosmic punishment that he needs to endure - we need to care about him and see him grow as a person in order to escape. We need to be on his side, despite the fact that he's a jerk who needed to learn a lesson.