In Detail: Iron Man – The Malibu Mansion (09.04 – 12.24)

We’re nearly ten minutes into Iron Man at this point, and something important has been missing. Tony Stark is supposed to be the hero but he hasn’t been very heroic, relatable or even very likable so far. Even before he gains his power in the form of a suit, it’s important that he is someone we should root for. This section will answer some of those concerns as Tony goes about getting what is dubbed the “Save The Cat” moment.

We open on a shot of a sleeping Christine Everhart. The image is fairly risqué if not completely raunchy: Everhart’s behind is covered and she’s lying on her stomach, so no obvious gratuity, but it’s still a sexy image of a woman in the “morning after” mode.

More notable of course is the fact that Everhart is alone, her left arm out stretched to a side of the bed where there is, literally, nothing, not even a pillow. The only one of those is on her side, indicating that Tony isn’t used to sharing for too long. So, we can infer that Stark isn’t a cuddler, which is hardly surprising.

Everhart is rudely awakened, with a very quick up close shot of her face with eyes darting open, by a PA system with a British accent. This, of course, is JARVIS, Tony Stark’s electronic butler, replacing the “real” Jarvis of the comic books. JARVIS is a character in his own right (and will be throughout the MCU) and he serves mostly as a sort of comedic foil to Stark.

The lights come on and the, seemingly electronic, window shutters are pulled back as Everhart scrambles to cover herself up. We’re not paying too much attention to her though, but to the room itself, our first proper glimpse of the home of Tony Stark.

There is a certain bareness to it. The white floor, the gigantic window showing nearly all blue and white, the lack of pictures or paintings. In one sense, Tony is seemingly a simple guy.

In the other he’s much more sophisticated. The very windows seem to be computer screens, beginning a trend that will last for the rest of the film. They have a clock in the top left hand corner for God’s sakes. To the right of the bed is some champagne on ice, a fancy looking telescope looks outwards, a drinks cabinet with fine mahogany wood is on the opposite of the bed, next to some art deco chairs. Tony might not fill his room with junk, but he has great taste.

JARVIS:
Good morning. It’s 7:00 a.m. The weather in Malibu is 72 degrees with scattered clouds. The surf conditions are fair with waist-to-shoulder high lines. High tide will be at 10:52 a.m.

Wait, Malibu? Malibu, California? So Tony picked up Everhart late last night in Vegas and flew her to the west coast? Talk about affluent. Talk about playboy. Talk about more money than sense.

Anyway, this little snippet of dialogue tells us basically what JARVIS is, which is another Stark servant, this one designed to be the voice in his ear that gives him information. For now he’s lacking the kick in his personality which will actually make him interesting, and serves to tell us that Stark might be a surfer, one so rich that he has a machine that tells him when the conditions are best.

We get a great drawback shot of Tony’s Malibu mansion here, with a nice frantic beat of what might be a xylophone or something similar, backed by the right violin tune, to add a certain exotic/holiday ambiance. I’ve always loved this building, making its destruction in Iron Man 3 all the harder to watch. It’s not a total behemoth of a place, but it’s still Tony Stark in a nutshell: grand, opulent, flawlessly clean and bright, sitting atop a mountain and staring down at creation. What’s even more impressive is that the house, at least in shots like this, is fake: it’s completely CGI, sitting on top of a bluff called Point Dume, which is a national park. The design of the mansion was inspired by real life places of course, and the close up exterior sets are real. But nothing quite lives up to this first breathtaking shot of the place, one of the most visually impressive means of showcasing Tony Stark’s wealth and power that you can get.

I’m not sure why they decided to throw up “Malibu, California” on screen though; JARVIS literally just said they were in Malibu.

Everhart starts wandering through the mansion, dressed only in one of Tony’s shirts (the same one he was wearing in Vegas in fact), this strangely overdone clothing choice for the “morning after” sequence designed to show off a woman’s legs without revealing anything too “18”. We also get a look at another part of the mansion, an impressive sitting room/common area/balcony/whatever. A long curved sofa, distinctive looking table with distinctive looking chairs, a circular skylight, two guitars in a rack at the side, a really weird looking lamp, modern art, a water feature, and yet another gigantic window showing us the vast blue of the Pacific Ocean and the sky above. This is a place of the rich.

And yet Tony isn’t around, imbuing everything with this empty feel, a castle without a King. Everhart calls his name, but we can guess he won’t be answering.

She keeps snooping, like only a reporter would I suppose, making sure to show off a few glimpses of her underwear along the way. I’ve never been one for unnecessary bra and panty shots, but Favreau at least resists the urge to have them fully on display (J.J. Abrams, I’m looking at you). And it sort of fits for this character, who was oh so eager to have a night of passion with one of her journalistic targets a few hours ago.

She keep snooping, obviously looking for a story of some kind, and comes across a strange looking contraption attached to the wall. She bites her thumb, considering what to do, but with a half smile on her face that shows she decided the minute she saw the thing.

She touches and JARVIS flares up with an alarm. She stumbles back, stunned and behind her is Pepper Potts, the last of the really important characters in Iron Man. She looks like the complete opposite of Everhart: she’s wears a nice jacket, a skirt to the knees, high heel shoes, immaculately kept hair, nice earrings, fancy watch on her left wrist. There is an elegance to her, from the correct posture to the top buttons being left open on her shirt, that reveals nothing but still adds something. In her right hand are some dry-cleaned clothes. The first impression is of someone very professional looking, but with the laundry she might be a maid for all we know.

POTTS:
That’s JARVIS. He runs the house.

Interesting first lines. No “Hello” or “Good morning” or even an introduction. No previous sign that she was waiting there, Dracula-like. Her tone is that of someone explaining something to an idiot. She’s addressing someone beneath her, someone she watched poke around without giving any sign that she was watching, waiting for the target to be at a weak moment before engaging. Moreover, she states very plainly that it is JARVIS who “runs the house” and not her. Despite the immediate appearance, she is not a butler or a maid like the very first glance might have misinformed. Initially, Everhart can only gawk at her in an uncoordinated manner, caught between surprise at seeing Potts creep up on her, guilt at being spotted snooping around and embarrassment at her own appearance.

POTTS:
I’ve got your clothes here. They’ve been dry-cleaned and pressed, and there’s a car waiting for you outside that will take you anywhere you’d like to go.

This is where the real bitchiness starts in earnest. Pepper is very dismissive here, almost casual in how she goes about telling Everhart that she’s about to leave…oh, and maybe she should put on some clothes. But there are no raised voices, no exasperated sigh, just a polite smile and a medium tone. Also, more about Tony here: his dalliances are so routinely brief that there’s a set procedure for how to get rid of them the morning after.

Everhart recovers herself and walks towards Potts, now swaying the hips a bit in an intentionally alluring way. Now she’s challenging Potts directly. A nasty exchange follows:

CHRISTINE:
You must be the famous Pepper Potts.

POTTS:
Indeed I am.

CHRISTINE:
After all these years, Tony still has you picking up the dry-cleaning.

Pepper sees this, initially, with this look of bemusement tin her eyes, as Everhart actually has the gall to try and act tough around her. Standing next to each other now, the difference between the two is even more obvious, not least in height. Everhart’s last line, delivered as she hangs her clothes behind her back, is very, well, “catty” but Potts, after taking the briefest moment to consider, lands the knockout blow.

POTTS:
I do anything and everything that Mr Stark requires. Including, occasionally, taking out the trash. Will that be all?

Wow. It’s deadpan, full eye contact, with a change in tone to a bit softer. The only time her head moves is when she sort of nods at the door, just so Everhart will get the message. It’s the perfect putdown and Everhart won’t even get to respond.

There is this thing in film frequently, where if a movie has two female characters of any note, they have to dislike each other, and Marvel runs with that idea. There’s plenty to dislike in that, but at least there seems to be a bit of a legitimate underlie to all of it here. This exchange is very bitchy, but it comes from an accomplished professional looking woman having to lower herself to trade words with a person who has turned up at this home only hours ago and is acting like she has greater importance than she really does. You get the feeling – from the fact that Potts is apparently well known enough that Everhart can guess who she is and her own words that she does a lot of stuff for “Mr Stark” – that picking up dry cleaning and showing Tony’s conquests to the door are chores that Potts would rather not do. Hence the bitterness.

There’s only room for one really important female character in this film, something that Marvel would repeat again in the MCU (Betty in The Incredible Hulk, Peggy Carter in The First Avenger, Black Widow in Avengers and The Winter Soldier. No female led movie yet either. And no, Mariah Hill is not a “really important female character” before your start), and so this is our introduction to her. Powerful, biting and confident, that’s what we can take from this scene.

Cut to a very close up shot of Tony Stark. He’s locked in concentration, but that’s not the first thing we notice about this scene. The first thing is the blaring music in the background, the punk song “Institutionalised” by Suicidal Tendencies. As Tony works, we plainly hear the following lyrics from that song, which are sort of spoken word:

Sometimes I try to do things and it just doesn’t work out the way I wanted to.
I get real frustrated and I try hard to do it and I take my time and it doesn’t work out the way I wanted to.
It’s like I concentrate real hard and it doesn’t work out.

The song is about a young teenager and verbal conflicts with his friends and parents. The singer feels moody and misunderstood and just wants to be left alone to figure things out, but his overly-protective mother and father put him in an institution instead. Is there a connection with Iron Man, or was it just picked for the riff? Stark doesn’t seem like the kind of guy for whom things don’t work out the way he wants, but the song could easily speak to Stark’s own refusal to conform to “normal” societal standards in his own behaviour, and his own distaste for authority (well, not to a crazy extent, but you know what I mean).

Stark’s working on an engine. Not just any engine, but a fancy souped up thing, the kind that sticks out of the car its driving, a car that has flames painted down the side. We saw pictures of Stark doing such things in the last sequence, but it’s something else to see him actually doing it on film. He’s working with his hands. He’s being a grease monkey (without the grease) and without the slightest look of real pleasure on his face.

He still has his toys of course, and JARVIS is helping with this construction/deconstruction, the 3D imaging software seen for the first time here, although not on a hologram like it will later. The camera pans out a bit to show us more of Tony. This is actually our first glimpse of him without a suit or similar on, and it looks like just a normal top and jeans, rather low key for someone like him. We also see that he appears to be a basement level, from the stairs that Pepper Potts is walking down in the background. There’s a big TV on the wall behind, and a few more conventional looking shelves. Where are we? A garage, a lab, an engineering sub-section?

Wherever it is, it has a fancy plain glass door that slides open upon tapping a few holographic buttons, an act that also shuts off the music when Pepper does it. Now she looks a little more stressed, though not haggard: she’s on the phone with someone but plainly looks like she needs to talk to Tony about something important. But Tony doesn’t even turn around, too engrossed in his work. But he does have something to say:

TONY:
Please don’t turn down my music.

Tony Stark is still the centre of the universe. Other people need to conform to his needs, even if it inconveniences them hugely. But Pepper doesn’t even skip a beat, which is interesting:

POTTS:
You are supposed to be halfway around the world right now.

Said with her eyes on a clipboard, not on Tony. This is someone who is used to Stark’s behaviour, and knows that the best way to deal with it is not to get too caught up in it. Her line here also reminds us that we’re still in “36 Hours Earlier” mode: Tony is going to be in Afghanistan very soon, where he’ll come close to being killed.

TONY:
How’d she take it?

POTTS:
…Like a champ.

Tony asks his question with all the casualness that we’ve come to expect, still not taking his eyes off the engine. Pepper pauses briefly before replying, looking up at the back of Stark’s head. Her reply is short and dismissive: she doesn’t really care and she knows Tony doesn’t really care either. Potts has more important things to talk about.

There’s a great wide shot now, showing the conversation and the room from a different angle, and there’s a lot to take in. Firstly, there’s the car fully shown, a 1932 Ford Flathead Roadster, a “hotrod”, a beautiful looking antique vehicle. Then there’s the larger garage, which this place apparently is, packed full of stuff, compartments, shelves, pipes, a bike just to the left, but does not feel in anyway messy or all over the place: it’s neat and relatively tidy.

Then there are the smaller details, most notably a picture of Howard Stark in a white shirt, working on what might be the same car that Tony is working on now. The picture is only partially in shot: I believe the implication is that the car is something that Tony and his father restored together when he was young, and this picture is of one of the few happy moments they shared together (as Iron Man 2 will make clear, they did not have a close bond). The bike to the left might also be the same one a young Stark is sitting on in a picture with his father earlier on during the Vegas presentation. It’s an interesting minor detail. The car itself belongs to director Jon Favreau apparently.

TONY:
Why are you trying to hustle me out of here?

POTTS:
Your flight was scheduled to leave an hour and a half ago.

TONY
That’s funny, I thought with it being my plane and all, that it would just wait for me to get there.

POTTS:
Tony, I need to speak to you about a couple things before I get you out of the door.

TONY:
Doesn’t it kind of defeat the whole purpose of having your own plane if it departs before you arrive?

Tony and Pepper keep their exchange going. This is classic Tony really: he’s late (for a date with the US military remember) and doesn’t seem to care. When reminded of this fact, he just offers another flippant remark that backs up the previous thought: Tony Stark is God and the world will wait for him. Finally, Stark turns around and addresses Potts directly, sitting nonchalantly on one of the hotrod’s tires.

Potts actually starts speaking again before Tony’s even finished his last line, another interesting development for her. So, she’s confident enough in her position to talk over Stark, indicating a degree of familiarity between them: no one else has done this in the film so far. Also, when Pepper said she needed to talk to Tony about some things, Stark actually gives her his attention. Remember that Everhart said a moment ago “After all these years Tony still has you picking up the dry cleaning?” Tony and Pepper have been around each other for a while.

POTTS:
Larry called. He’s got another buyer for the Jackson Pollock in the wings. Do you want it? Yes or no.

TONY:
Is it a good representation of his spring period?

POTTS:
No. The Springs was actually the neighbourhood in East Hampton where he lived and worked, not ”spring” like the season.

TONY:
So?

We’re back to the flipping upper body shots now, as we had between Tony and Everhart at the end of the last sequence. The exchange is quick fire: Tony’s question about the “spring period” is said with a certain genuineness, but Pepper’s response might indicate that Tony is, intentionally, talking out of his ass just to annoy her. Of course, the larger message of this exchange is about Tony’s wealth, where he can casually discuss whether or not to buy a Jackson Pollock painting (for reference, Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 was allegedly sold for 140 million US dollars in 2006, the second most expensive painting sale in history).

As Pepper says her lines here, there’s also a brief moment where she flicks some of her hair off her forehead and back into place. Maybe she’s just being tidy, but it could also speak towards a desire to look her best in front of Tony.

POTTS:
I think it’s a fair example. I think it’s incredibly overpriced.

TONY:
I need it. (walks away) Buy it. Store it.

Tony’s attention is suddenly focused very much on Pepper’s words here, but I loved how he just turns and walks off when he hears the painting is overpriced, his mind instantly made up. Potts smiles at this, in a nice way, amused by Stark’s childish greed. It’s not even for display in his home apparently, just for storage. Just to have it so no one else will have it. And Tony doesn’t just want this painting because it costs a lot. He “needs” it.

He walks off towards the camera, a different shot that now encompasses more of the room we’re in, revealing it to be a lot bigger than we thought. It goes back for ages, and fills out into a well lit area that houses sports cars, with a ramped road (presumably) leading outside. Tony’s mansion has some hidden greatness too, and this place is one of them.

POTTS:
Okay. The MIT commencement speech…

TONY:
Is in June. Please, don’t harangue me about stuff that’s way, way, down…

POTTS:
They’re haranguing me, so I’m gonna say yes.

TONY:
Deflect it and absorb it. Don’t transmit it back to me.

They continue talking over each other here, the familiarity becoming very obvious. We already know Tony was a MIT graduate at a very young age and is now quite famous, so it’s no surprise he might be asked to give a commencement speech there. What’s odd is that Tony is so blasé about what he should view as a very high honour (it’s the kind of job that’s usually offered to Fortune 500 CEO’s, American Presidents and Secretary-Generals of the UN) not even wanting to give a yes or no answer to his alma mater.

Potts’ job becomes clearer throughout this scene of course, she’s clearly a high functioning PA of some kind, but Tony’s last line sums it up better. Her role is to sort out the crap in Tony’s life, “deflect” the stuff he doesn’t want to know about, “absorb” the stuff he does, to make sure that he gets what he needs to know at the right moments. She has to follow around after Tony, but she’s no secretary: she’s sorting out the buying of Jackson Pollock paintings and MIT commencement speeches.

Tony grabs an espresso cup, looking absurdly small but elegant in his hand, as he continues talking with Pepper, their conversation becoming a bit more personal.

TONY:
What are you trying to get rid of me for? What, you got plans?

POTTS:
As a matter of fact, I do.

TONY:
I don’t like it when you have plans.

Stark maintains the deadpan look and tone here, even as Potts tries to get him to sign a few documents. It’s not overtly flirtatious just yet, but we can see where this is headed. It doesn’t seem to faze Pepper at all.

POTTS:
I’m allowed to have plans on my birthday.

TONY:
It’s’ your birthday?

POTTS:
Yes.

TONY:
I knew that. Already?

Pepper’s expression for this part of the exchange is a bit more faux-mocking. She looks away, has a half-smile. She’s well aware that Tony is toying with her, even if he’s putting on a bit of an act himself, with a slight head cock for the last line. We see why with the following:

POTTS:
Yeah. Isn’t that strange? It’s the same day as last year.

TONY:
Get yourself something nice from me.

POTTS:
I already did.

TONY:
And?

POTTS:
It’s was very nice.

TONY:
Yeah?

POTTS:
Very tasteful. Thank you, Mr Stark.

TONY:
You’re welcome, Miss Potts.

This is an important moment. It’s the first time we see Tony doing something (or hearing about it at any rate) really nice and unselfish. So far, Stark seems like the kind of guy who would easily forget his assistant’s birthday and try and buy his way out of it, but he hasn’t. He’s not only remembered, he’s gotten something for her, something she evidently liked, that we won’t actually see for a while yet. When he asks “And?” there’s an eagerness in his face: he actually wants to know, genuinely, if she liked the gift or not, even if it’s obvious that he pretty much can guess she did.

This is the “Save The Cat” moment, a phrase popularly attached to screenwriter Blake Snyder and his series of books on the art of writing movies. He advocates that every movie with a clear protagonist needs an early scene where the “hero” does something undeniably good. It should be something relatively small in the larger plot of the film, but which shows the hero being nice, someone whom we can rally behind and sympathise with. Like, for example, saving a cat which is stuck in a tree. Or, in this case, buying his beleaguered assistant something nice for her birthday. It’s still not the very best “Save The Cat” moment – you could argue that remembering a birthday like this should be normal, not exceptional, behaviour – but with what we have seen of Stark so far, something like this fits the bill pretty much perfectly. Stark is arrogant, a show-off, a womaniser, but he does have a nicer side.

The last exchange is also telling. There’s a slight mockery in it, how they address each other so formally having been so informal a moment ago, but it also says something about Tony’s opinion of Pepper. Christine Everhart was “honey”. Pepper Potts is “Miss Potts”.

Of course, he’s still Tony Stark. He downs his espresso in one gulp (after a non-verbal urging from Pepper) hands her the cup without looking at her and walks away. He’s still the boss.

For The Film

This is only a few minutes and its mostly just more scene setting and quick characterisation. We introduce the last of the main characters and essentially say goodbye to a minor one. We learn more about the negatives and positives of Tony Stark. We explore his living space, his hobbies and his relationship with the only significant female presence in his life. We don’t advance the overall plot of the film a great deal, but we’re still in the mode of learning a bit about the cast of characters.

Characterisation

Christine Everhart

Everhart is, from this section, a little full of herself and nosy to boot. She sees the presence of Pepper Potts as a challenge to her self-assumed position as dominant female in Tony’s life, little realising that such a title was one she was only going to keep for a few night time hours. Now she’s largely expendable to the plot, and is shown the door.

JARVIS

Not much yet, for the moment he’s just the automated voice of the mansion computer systems.

Pepper Potts

Potts is a powerful woman, who knows her job and tasks well, and carries out even the more unpleasant ones with firmness and resolve. She doesn’t brook any nastiness or rivals. She gets on well with Tony, perhaps because she doesn’t seem in any way nervous around him: she’ll turn off his music, talk over him, push his buttons, press him on things he doesn’t want to talk about. She also might just have a slight attraction to Tony, and seems inordinately pleased that he got her a birthday present. Such things are important for the film to point out, because we won’t see Pepper again for over a half hour.

Tony Stark

Tony is still largely the man we’ve come to know in the first ten minutes. He’s dismissive of Everhart after their one night stand, not even showing her out himself, more interested in his vintage car collection. He hums and haws about something as monumental as owning a Jackson Pollock painting, or giving a commencement speech at MIT. He’s still very much not into taking too much responsibility for some things, and when he does it’s often in a very childish manner. But he has a respect for Pepper Potts that comes out eventually in this sequence, which goes beyond just a productive working relationship: she might just be a friend, someone whose approval he actively looks for.

Next time, we’re off to Afghanistan for a date with an ambush.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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2 Responses to In Detail: Iron Man – The Malibu Mansion (09.04 – 12.24)

  1. Pingback: In Detail: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: NFB’s Top Ten For The Year (2014) | Never Felt Better

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