In medias res is a well used technique, and for a film like this, which needs to get the heart’s pumping right at the start before moving into the actual meat of the “origin story”, it’s a suitable one. Thor would do much the same when it came to the big screen.
And so “Las Vegas, 36 Hours Earlier”. The scene we open on direct from the titles couldn’t be more different to the desert we were just in. This is a sparkling gala, and with the giant pictures of Tony Stark on either side of the podium, it’s clear we’re in a moment of high triumph for him. People are applauding, toasting, enjoying themselves, and the giant Tony Stark’s are looking down like benevolent deities who made it all happen.
We’ve seen enough of Stark to know that he is someone of importance to the US military, while being a civilian. He’s also obviously rich, the owner of “Stark Industries”, a company that makes weapons. But we don’t know much beyond that. This excellent little sequence is designed to flesh him out and he’s not even present.
The announcer will get us rolling with some gushing praise:
Tony Stark. Visionary. Genius. American patriot.
Wow, OK. That’s a lot of aggrandisement for four words. Iron Man shows off one my favourite things about it here, with a series of faked magazine covers – Wired, Newsweek, Rolling Stones – showing the subjects in all manner of artsy or “cool” poses, a montage for the modern world.
The “Tony Stark is great” train is only briefly interrupted by a mention (and glance) at Howard Stark, Tony’s father, who just from these photos seems like a huge figure of a man. The name invokes thoughts of Howard Hughes, only without the insanity. As an aside, some of the earliest drafts of the film had Howard Stark alive and in a role fairly similar to that of Stane, that is, the villain.
But let’s not get too bogged down. This is the Tony Stark show:
At age four, he built his first circuit board. At age six, his first engine. And at 17, he graduated summa cum laude from MIT.
So, we realise now that apart from being charmer, a braggart and celebrity, Stark is a true prodigy, and with the pictures of a younger version of himself to prove it. Also a brief mention of Stark Industries’ “Ark Reactor” on one of those pages, which will become very important in around 15 minutes.
Then, the passing of a titan…
So, a tragic back story is added to the mix, with Tony’s father dying when he was barely out of his teens (or there and thereabouts). Fun aside: The Winter Soldier heavily implies HYDRA was behind the car “accident”.
Several great images follow. Firstly, the introduction of Obadiah Stane, shown young and beardless, his arms wrapped around the elder Stark in a black and white photo, immediately giving us the sense that this man was more than just a business associate. Then my favourite magazine cover, showing an older, bearded and altogether more impressive looking Stane staring down at a globe that lies at his feet. Perfect for showcasing a man that could be both ambitious, and megalomaniacal behind the surface. Then a Forbes cover showing Stane standing behind a come-of-age Stark, a look in his eye that could be pride or resentment. Another cover follows, showing Stane standing very definitely behind Stark, and very definitely in his shadow.
That’s the great thing about those covers, you can view a lot of them in two ways. One way Stane is the good friend and mentor of Stark, holding the company together. In another he seems power hungry and jealous of the younger Stark’s ability to simply grab the “keys to the kingdom” when he leaves college.
It’s only then, as the covers fade, that we see Stane “in the flesh”, clapping along with the rest of the crowd. But his smile certainly seems rather forced, and it’s not hard to imagine him turning out to be a problem as things move forward.
The presentation ends on a suitably puff piece style note:
Tony ushers in a new era for his father’s legacy. Creating smarter weapons, advanced robotics, satellite targeting. Today, Tony Stark has changed the face of the weapons industry by ensuring freedom and protecting America and her interests around the globe.
And that’s with a Rolling Stones cover proclaiming that Stark “wants to save the world”, as obvious a piece of foreshadwing as you can really get. You’ll notice in a lot of these that Stark isn’t even looking at the camera directly, as if the attention is beneath him, including the last image, where he is flanked Air Force Jets. He is always in the centre though, the man the world revolves around. The very award he’s getting, the “Apogee Award”, signifies someone who has reached the height of their power and success.
The spotlight, literally, falls on Lt Colonel James Rhodes, giving the direct introduction to Tony. At a glance we can see he’s a relatively high ranking USAAF officer, despite his young age, so he must be someone capable in his profession.
As liaison to Stark Industries, I’ve had the unique privilege of serving with a real patriot. He is my friend and he is my great mentor.
So that’s fairly gushing, but in a different way to the robotic voiceover of a just a moment ago. This is real praise, coming right from the heart. You can tell Rhodes really means it and I think that’s a requirement, so we understand that Stark actually does embody some of these buzzwords behind what the stage managed clip show was saying.
Rhodes invites Tony up to collect his award, while a jaunty tune plays in the background (actually a retuned version of an old cartoon Iron Man theme tune). But no one’s coming. A resigned looking Stane shakes his head at Rhodes, who then barely suppresses some annoyance, though it’s important to note that he doesn’t even look surprised.
Stane lets the applause go on for another moment and then walks up on stage again.
Thanks for the save.
Rhodes says this with his own air of resignation, like it isn’t the first time Stane has had to bail Tony out.
Well, I’m not Tony Stark. But if I were Tony, I would tell you how honoured I feel and what a joy it is to receive this very prestigious award. Tony, you know…the best thing about Tony is also the worst thing. He’s always working.
Stane’s speech is mostly waffle of course, but it’s his demeanour while he gives it that’s important. He smiles and is good natured, but you can’t escape the feeling that there is something simmering there, behind the surface. Stane looks like a confident, accomplished man in his own right, who now has to stand behind a younger upstart, and even collect his awards for him. That opening line there is important: “I’m not Tony Stark”. You can well imagine that Stane might be thinking something along the lines of “Yeah, I’m better and deserve better.”
Crash cut to Tony Stark, amid the same blaring horn music, playing in a casino, wearing fancy shades, a designer shirt, bodyguard just to his right and surrounded by beautiful women. He’s throwing the dice at the camera, almost in the very face of the viewer. Everyone around him is cheering for him. He is the apogee.
But this little moment also starts showing us the darker side of Stark. Up to now his brashness has been enticing, likeable. Here we see him blowing off his friends and a commitment to he made to serve his own gratification. While he still embodies that sort of playboy persona that so many are drawn to, we begin to understand that this comes with some serious negativity as well.
Rhodes interrupts Tony’s revelry, straight faced and annoyed.
…they told me that if I presented you with an award, you’d be deeply honoured.
Of course I’d be deeply honoured. And it’s you, that’s great. So when do we do it?
It’s right here. Here you go.
There it is. That was easy… I’m so sorry.
Tony’s whole attitude is snide, dismissive and uncaring in these words. Upon being handed the award he casually hands it off to one of the women standing next to him, sarcastically commenting:
Wow! Would you look at that? That’s something else. I don’t have any of those floating around.
Then he’s right back to his craps game. So, Tony’s more than a bit of an asshole.
Tony’s winning streak comes to a crashing halt. The beautiful woman next to him blows on the dice for luck, but when Stark jokingly asks Rhodes to do the same, the USAAF man knocks them out of Tony’s hands. Snake eyes. It’s a nice moment to illustrate how the relationship between these two men actually works, with Rhodes absolutely the straight man “Lancer” to Tony’s hero.
It’s also worth nothing that losing the last play, and presumably a lot of money with it, means nothing to Tony at all, he just tells the casino to cash him out. The music, the attitude, this guy really is just a younger, richer Hugh Hefner.
Stark walks out of the casino, saying goodnight to Rhodes who warns Tony not to be late for an unelaborated upon even the following day. The mood between these two now, more friendly, is a contrast with the previous moment, and with the larger scene being shared by them: Tony walks just in front of several burly looking bodyguards. He has time to flippantly hand his award off to a casino staff member before heading outside.
As he reaches his waiting limo (but of course), one of his body guards, whom he was previously involving in his casino exploits, goes up front, signifying his greater importance. This is “Happy” Hogan, played by the film’s director Jon Favreau. When Christine Everhart runs up and asks if she can briefly interview him for Vanity Fair, Hogan, unprodded, whispers to Tony :
This is their dynamic and a SOP for Stark. He’s not even going to turn around unless it’s a beautiful woman, and it’s one of Happy’s jobs to tell him so.
Stark, suddenly all ears, is happy to be interviewed. At first it goes well enough:
You’ve been called the Da Vinci of our time. What do you say to that?
Absolutely ridiculous. I don’t paint.
So, a softball praise question first, allowing another snarky, but charming, response. Stark gives it completely deadpan too, but with no sense that it’s been rehearsed beforehand. But then the “interview” takes a sudden turn:
And what do you say to your other nickname, ”The Merchant of Death”?
That’s not bad.
Everhart actually drops the smile from her face mid-sentence there, which was great, moving into a far more serious tone and visage, the recorder brought up almost like a challenge. This interview is an ambush and Tony’s walked into it, but for the moment he loses nothing of his nonchalantness.
Let me guess. Berkeley?
Well, Ms Brown…
While Stark’s keeping his cool, there is a trance of annoyance in this part of the exchange, as he seeks a weakness (or maybe a stereotype) and tries to exploit it.
It’s an imperfect world, but it’s the only one we’ve got. I guarantee you, the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I’ll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals.
Now this is a rehearsed line, as Everett immediately points out (for which she receives another flippant response). But it does go a bit deeper into who Stark is. He’s not all shallowness and meaningless charm. He sees the use of weapons and doesn’t flinch from providing them. He’s a realist and seems to have no faith in the idea of human nature and peace being inherently connected.
Rehearse that much?
Every night in front of the mirror before bedtime.
I can see that.
I’d like to show you first-hand.
Amazingly, Tony is able to keep his growing annoyance in balance with is now outward flirting with this woman.
My old man had a philosophy, ”Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.”
That’s a great line coming from the guy selling the sticks.
My father helped defeat the Nazis. He worked on the Manhattan Project. A lot of people, including your professors at Brown, would call that being a hero.
And a lot of people would also call that war profiteering.
It’s a full blown argument now, and Stark’s getting more and more irritated by the rapid-fire nature of their conversation. It’s interesting that he goes back to his father as an example of someone to look to, and that “bigger stick” line perfectly sums up the current attitude of Stark Industries. But Everett’s barbs are pointed and valid: Stark is “selling the sticks” and accusations of war profiteering, in the modern age at least, are worthwhile territory to explore.
But that last line, directed at Stark’s father, really sets him off. The sunglasses come off, like they did in the Humvee in the first sequence, almost a given sign that Stark is ready to be more serious.
Tell me, do you plan to report on the millions we’ve saved by advancing medical technology or kept from starvation with our intellicrops? All those breakthroughs, military funding, honey.
This is angry as we’ve see Stark get, and even then he’s still quite restrained. But this is a company mantra he’s reciting, making them sound like the aggrieved victims of a media witch hunt that isn’t interested in their more positive projects. As he says these lines he’s moving his head around like he’s trying to communicate with a lesser being and the last line, with the patronising “honey” at the end, is delivered like a very final say on the matter, with Stark jutting his head closer to her.
Wow. You ever lose an hour of sleep your whole life?
I’d be prepared to lose a few with you.
Tony’s suddenly drops any shred of annoyance or anger, and says his last line in the most casual way, like he’s talking about picking up some groceries together. Everhart’s face is great here as well, as her previously tough exterior melts into a depiction of both surprise and questioning. She suddenly realises that Stark is serious.
This whole exchange is wonderful of course, with just the two camera set-up for the back and forth. The barbs, the rising tension and Stark’s ulterior motive of getting Everett into bed are all dealt with very quickly, and this exchange also allows for Stark to be just a bit more serious, albeit briefly, when discussing the grander goals and methods of the company his name is attached to.
All that’s left is for a quick cut to, presumably, Tony’s home where the two are going at it very aggressively in the bedroom, Everhart’s pants already off. They tumble off the bed, a very tired trope, while Tony laughs like a hyena. Her jumping into bed with him after the interview certainly paints her as rather weak willed and unprofessional, but that’s basically the point of this character: Iron Man only has room for one actual woman who isn’t just a stock character, with Everhart being little more than the reporter willing to do anything to “get the story”.
For The Film
Having gotten the required action beat out of the way, this Vegas section serves to slow things down, to a required degree (it can’t all be action, the film isn’t that brainless). We explore Tony Stark a bit more, on the surface and beneath, seeing him at the height of his fame, power and general amazingness, whether it’s technology or women. It’s all preparation for the inevitable fall: You can’t create a hero without giving him a height to be pushed off. Apart from him most of the main characters, bar one, have been introduced and given a little bit of characterisation, most notably Stane, who is actually going to be largely absent from the screen for the next half hour or so.
We mostly just continue on from the man we saw in the opening few minutes, but we go a bit further. Stark’s genius is made very clear, and his playboy appearance and lifestyle are as well. He’s an arrogant smart guy, who sees nothing wrong with ditching an award ceremony being done for him or seducing a reporter giving him an interview. But he has some dearly held values, ones he is more than willing to espouse when the moment calls for them. Still, the Stark of this sequence is a bit more negative than the one of the opening, lacking any really positive attributes thus far beyond his God-given intelligence. The next sequence will try to change that.
“Rhodey” is a friend of Stark’s, but largely subordinate to him it would seem. He’s quite genuine in his praise of Tony, but doesn’t really seem that stunned when Stark shows him up by not attending the award ceremony. Later, he’s annoyed with his “great mentor” but gets over it quickly enough. Certainly seems like one way traffic.
The real characterisation of Stane in this sequence is in everything he doesn’t say. He appears moody at certain precise moments, and we can easily imagine it’s to do with the fact that he is being forced to take a back seat to Stark, something the magazine covers portray brilliantly. But this powerful looking individual looks like the kind of man who won’t tolerate this kind of situation for long.
Hogan is clearly someone of some importance to Stark given the visual cues of his superiority to the other body guards, and indulges his bosses whims when it comes to evaluating women. So, a loyal servant essentially.
A reporter who at first seems to be after a serious story, but falls all too easily – wilfully really – into Stark’s bed. She’s beautiful and biting in her questioning, but also unprofessional and weak-willed.
Next up, the introduction of the last few main characters and Tony’s “Save the cat” moment.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.