We left as Tony Stark was walking away from Pepper Potts in his garage. Even at that moment the electric guitar was swelling, and now it erupts, thumping, screeching as the scene cuts to a beautiful white sports car racing down an asphalt road, being closely pursued by a darker, but no less fancy looking, black car (the music being from the OST: “Merchant of Death“). We can guess that it’s Tony in the first vehicle, driving very fast and, from the way the shot has framed, looking as if he has just come down from the clear blue sky itself, cutting a path through the Californian rock on either side of the road. The darker car is also going just as fast, indicating a race of some kind. But who is in the darker car?
The vehicles pull into a water soaked parking lot, allowing the fancier sports car – an Audi R8 from what I read – to pull up in suitably sudden style, wheels spinning in that faux-reverse fashion that is the oft used visual hallmark for such a high performance vehicle. Of course it was Tony inside it.
We pan out to take in more of the surrounding area. Welcome to “Stark Industries Aviation Division”, a slick looking modern facility, with curved buildings, green lawns and a suitably imposing monolith that proclaims the title. A jet plane dominates the left side of the screen, also embossed with the Stark label, with a still Colonel Rhodes waiting at the height of the stairs. It’s around now we remember that Tony is several hours late for this meeting, even as the black car pulls up alongside the Audi, screeching to a halt in a slightly more clumsy fashion, but with a nice sense of symmetry between the two cars. Stark, among all his other skills, is apparently a better driver than many.
A more up close look at Rhodes now and, as we might well imagine, he doesn’t look too happy. This is our second encounter with Rhodes, and again he’s wearing his full military uniform, only this time with the appropriate head ware and with slightly less appropriate sunglasses. He also has a ring on his middle finger we can see. It’s not a wedding ring then, but might be a class ring of some kind, indicating a good education. Rhodes has a very grumpy look on his face, but is nodding slightly as it shows, as if his character is saying, without saying, “Yes, this is exactly what I expected”.
The black car, upon closer expectation, turns out to be a Rolls-Royce. The driver is Happy Hogan. He and Stark share a brief exchange, as Hogan scrambles to get Stark’s bag out of the trunk of his car:
I thought I lost you back there.
You did, Sir. I had to cut across Mulholland.
Ah, I got you. I got you.
Stark’s whole tone and demeanour is joking, nonplussed, utterly casual. He’s just had a road race with his main bodyguard/chauffeur and its nothing to him, something he can joke about. Hogan is similarly nonplussed, responding to Stark is a professional tone, very much as if he is well used to this kind of situation. But even as he responds, smiling like Stark, he’s grabbing his boss’s bags and heading to the plane, a model of efficiency. I suppose it is also worth nothing that way Hogan addresses Stark here, as “Sir”, which might indicate that their relationship is not quite as close as that which exists between Tony and Pepper.
Tony and Hogan approach the plane. We now see it in full, a private jet, an awesome looking aircraft that completely matches everything that we have come to expect from Tony Stark thus far in Iron Man. Hogan trails behind, very much the servant. Rhodes finally lets out some annoyance verbally.
What’s wrong with you?
I got caught doing a piece for Vanity Fair.
Typical Tony. A non-admittance that he has done anything wrong first of, and then a flippant exclamation that doubles as a sexual double entendre. We’ve gained a pretty clear picture of the kind of man Tony Stark is by this point, so these moments seem to exist more for the sake of levity, which will be in short supply in just a few minutes.
Tony walks by a stone-like Rhodes:
For three hours. For three hours you got me standing here.
Waiting on you now. Let’s go. Come on. Wheels up! Rock and roll!
Rhodes can only stand there as Tony gives his reply, not the slightest shred of remorse evident for his exceptionally rude behaviour. The rock music swells again for the last words, even as Hogan jogs into the plane with Tony’s bags. A small thing I noticed this time round: Tony walks casually into the plane. Hogan, his size more evident here, has to duck to get inside, contrasting him with Tony. Rhodes pauses for a moment, disgusted, whips off his hat from a sense of trained military manners, and steps inside a bit more reluctantly.
Then we’re in the air and the music fades away, the point about Tony’s playboy lifestyle made, at least with the audio. The interior of the jet is plush and rich, a contrast between spotless white walls and mahogany coloured tables and features, not least around the large computer screen at the back. There’s an elegance to it all as well of course, not least with the single yellow flower on the table between Rhodes and Stark, or the collection of white ones in the background. There’s a half-circle sofa in the back too, not unlike the one in the mansion. This is an opulent surrounding for an opulent man. An attractive blonde stewardess puts some cutlery down on the table for the two, but she only has eyes (and a smile) for Stark: Rhodes is flat-out ignored, and he almost looks out of place in these surrounds.
What you reading, Platypus?
Come on, sour patch. Don’t be mad.
I told you, I’m not mad. I’m indifferent, okay?
I said I was sorry.
Rhodes is obviously sulking a bit, refusing to meet Tony’s eye for the first part of this conversation. The framing here is interesting, because while Rhodes is in the centre of the shot, he still seems as if he is not the main point of attention. He’s at the end of the table, he’s briefly behind the stewardess, and Stark, while off to the right and only partially in shot, is still dominating the conversation. He does so by being condescending and rude, but you can’t help but think that this must simply be the dynamic of their relationship, otherwise Rhodes would not have been earlier describing Tony as his friend and “great mentor”. Tony, for his part, reaffirms an unseen apology in the most blasé and tone-neutral way possible, the only emotion perhaps being a brief hint of irritation that Rhodes has even dared to act affronted.
Even then, as the shot changes to take in Stark, it’s clear he doesn’t care that much. He wants to smile and be charming with the, all-female as we have suddenly come to realise, flight attendant staff. This shot also shows us that Stark is still wearing his stylish red sunglasses, indoors, almost as if he wants to draw the attention to him. A Stark family coat of arms adorns the wall of the plane to his right, a twin headed bird of some kind. The whole scene seems set up to make the place look like the castle-in-transit that Stark is the King of, his table, his attractive waiting staff, his hot towels.
Rhodes finally lets loose in a bit more substantial manner now:
You don’t respect yourself, so I know you don’t respect me.
I respect you.
I’m just your babysitter. So, when you need your diaper changed, let me know and I’ll get you a bottle, okay?
Rhodes is speaking very lowly here, but his eyes are locked on Tony and there’s no mistaking the annoyance in his voice at Tony’s attitude towards him. The “You don’t respect yourself” line is really interesting in a way, indicating that Stark maybe has some problems that we haven’t really seen too much of yet, unless Rhodes is just talking about his general lifestyle (which we have seen few signs Stark does not enjoy). Stark just ignores him, not even looking at Rhodes, continuing to pander to the stewardess. There is a definite feeling that this is the kind of conversation that these two have had before.
(to attendant) Hey! Heat up the sake, will you? (to Rhodes) Thanks for reminding me.
No, I’m not talking… We’re not drinking. We’re working right now.
You can’t have sashimi without sake.
I really like this exchange. Stark’s already moving on from the unpleasantness, Rhodes’ words about his lack of respect washing over him without leaving any kind of a mark. Rhodes is aghast at the suggestion of having alcohol, and with no chance of getting Stark to see sense actually looks to the stewardesses for help, but they continue ignoring him, answering only to the whims of their lord and master.
We actually pan out more here, to take in the whole of the cabin. It has a bar to the right, and loads of space, as if we needed any more visual indications that we were in a rich man’s plaything, a mood heightened by the continuing moving back and forth of the stewardess, all dressed in the same fashion, same amount of leg being shown, same heels, same hairstyles.
You are constitutionally incapable of being responsible.
It’s would be irresponsible not to drink. I’m just talking about a nightcap.
Yes, two, please.
No. I’m not drinking. I don’t want any.
Rhodes continues being aghast at Stark’s intention to start drinking, but it’s far too late for that anyway. Tony has finally whipped off the sunglasses and looks at Rhodes directly, but it’s only because there is something that he needs Rhodes to do for him: he needs Rhodes to go along with the idea of imbibing alcohol despite the nature of their trip, and so he finally decides to engage with Rhodes properly. Rhodes is insistent that he doesn’t want any, always keeping that same low, consistent tone of firmness and annoyance in his voice.
But then a sudden cut and things have changed in a rather extreme way. Rhodes, missing his jacket and now with a bottle of sake in his hands, leans over Stark as the two sit on the aforementioned coach. Tony, a slightly dazed look on his face, has now moved onto to what looks like champagne. There are flashing lights and a hip-hop video playing in the background. The song itself is a rather dreadful offering from Ghostface Killah, apparently written for the film but kept off the OST. Some select lyrics:
Yo, when they kidnapped your boy, and forced me to do evil
I created an iron suit, to protect my people
Escaped, bound to be Ironman the great
The billionaire Tony Starks’ll renew your fate
Built Stark Towers, throw the biggest events
Got liquid, armor, I can paint all dents
Keep a few bad chicks, I ain’t your average hero
Movie premieres, catch me with the zam enginero
Six six eleven gold, playboy industrialist
Face of a ghost, mind of a technologist
Specialist, modern day speech slang therapist
Specialize in weapons, I can blow off terrorists
So, so don’t sleep big homey
Real recognize and I can see you phoneys
My weak heart can’t take it, got a life long sentence
Boy genius grown up, and I fight with a vengeance
Anyway, Rhodes is still pontificating to Stark, only now in a more intimate, slightly unhinged manner.
That’s what I’m talking about. When I get up in the morning and I’m putting on my uniform, you know what I recognise? I see in that mirror that every person that’s got this uniform on got my back!
Its standard US military fare of course, just a little sentimentalised by Rhodes’ slurred tone. Stark is barley paying attention and as the camera slowly pans back we see why:
The stewardesses, some of them now dressed even more scantily, with drinks in hand, dancing around the cabin. Wow. This is a sort of stranger symbol of the kind of power Tony Stark has. It’s portrayed for laughs here, but it is more than a little disturbing, how he can apparently get his airplane staff to essentially become nightclub dancers for him, something they seem happy to go along with.
As well, we should note that there have only been so many women on screen so far in Iron Man, and outside of Pepper Potts and the humvee driver, all of them have either been hanging off of Tony, sleeping with him straight after meeting him, or dancing around for his enjoyment. A feminist film, so far, this is not. Rhodes, in vain, keeps trying to get to Stark, though I suppose the framing of the scene means the audiences isn’t really paying too much attention anyway:
Hey, you know what? I’m not like you. I’m not cut out…
No, no. You don’t have to be like me! But you’re more than what you are.
Can you excuse me if I’m a bit distracted here!
No! You can’t be distracted right now! Listen to me!
Rhodes seems to be trying to instil some measure of self-reflection in Stark, but his tone is one of exasperation and continued annoyance. Tony isn’t listening, he doesn’t care and Rhodes knows it. Tony just wants to live his life, with its cars, planes, drinks and dancing girls for him to ogle. His cabin even has a stripper poll that comes out of the floor.
But the time for levity, of this kind anyway, is over. The scene switches to the familiar vista of Afghanistan, and Bagram Air Force Base. This is very much like the opening shots, with distant mountains under blue skies and above brown desert, but it’s much more active in the majority of the frame: a busy military installation, with large transport planes, many humvees and uniformed personnel scurrying like ants. Jets streak by in the distance. This base means business, and Stark’s personal aircraft looks alarmingly small and out of place.
Stark emerges from his plane. Now he’s in the suit and sunglasses from the opening scene, looking far more professional but not giving up that sense of playboy-mystique for one second. At the end of the stairs he is to be greeted by a regimented mixture of military officers from the United States and Afghanistan. They are waiting on him, and he descends from on high like a returning hero.
He shakes hands with US General. He only has eyes for that officer, exchanging bland pleasantries. But I noticed in this viewing that Stark looks uncomfortably to the Afghan officer standing next to him, awkwardly waiting a moment before greeting him in the same manner. I suppose there is an attempt here to put Stark out of his comfort zone by the director, albeit in a very small way, showing the billionaire playboy as just a little unused to dealing directly with people from places like Afghanistan. He does greet him in his own language, but it still seems forced.
From there it’s straight into one of the great set-pieces of Iron Man, featured in every trailer and promotional spot. Tony stands, his upper body in shot and centred. The backdrop is the beauty of wild Afghanistan (ironically, it’s actually the Alabama Hills region of California, a well used location for film shootings). White capped mountains turn into rocky desert leading all the way up to his immediate rear. For much of the following we’re going to stay locked on Stark in this pose, with this backdrop, just occasionally cutting away to his military audience.
Is it better to be feared or respected? I say, is it too much to ask for both?
This is another great set of lines to sum Tony Stark, or at least his approach to weaponry and business. There’s a call-out here to the works of Machiavelli, namely his treatise on political leadership The Prince:
Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.
Stark, in his typically brash fashion, steamrolls over Machiavelli’s assertion: why not have both (“love” here corresponding to “respect”)? It’s the classic American response to the question, something Stark will allude to in just a moment.
With that in mind, I humbly present the crown jewel of Stark Industries Freedom Line. It’s the first missile system to incorporate our proprietary Repulsor technology.
“Freedom Line” is a very American title for the weapon that Stark is about to unleash, but this line is more important for the brief namedrop of “Repulsor technology” that will soon become very important.
They say the best weapon is one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That’s how dad did it. That’s how America does it. And it’s worked out pretty well so far.
Another great sequence of lines made so largely by Downey Jr’s immense delivery. The bolded sections are when his voice becomes loud and hard, returning to a slightly more neutral tone for the rest. “They”, who go unnamed but presumably fill the same space in Tony’s mind as “Miss Brown” from earlier, are implied to be the weaklings, the pacifists, those without ambition. “They” are the enemies of Tony Stark, and we know that just from the way he says that word. He “respectfully disagrees” with their assessment, but we know from the way he says those words that he probably has less respect for them than he says.
For Stark, and the weapons that he designs, it’s all about firepower. Scratch that, it’s just power, in destruction and in image. His perfect gun or missile or bomb is the kind that leaves the target so destroyed or awestruck that it never has to be fired again, a nuclear effect. His father, his great hero (or so he says) that he has already mentioned to Everhart as someone to idolise earlier, gets namedropped again, tying a very direct link between what Stark is doing and what his father did during the Second World War. This is how “America does it”. They go in and go in hard, and to hell with what “they” think. It’s a militant patriotic sales pitch, to a military audience seeking a weapon of immense power and Stark brings his forceful personality to the very forefront of how he goes about promoting it. You’re left in no doubt as to the belief of this man, the power of his words or the depth of his commitment.
The last line sees Stark trail off a bit, becoming quieter, saying it almost dismissively as if it should be beneath his attention to even mention that the way America does things actually works. Of course, it would take a brave person to claim that the American effort in Afghanistan, by 2008, was a success, but this is still just a sales pitch at heart. Stark knows his audience.
The camera angle moves back briefly now, to take in the larger part of the scene, with the desert taking in nearly the entire frame. A lot of armed soldiers around, SAW’s on the table in a row. And a missile system just to the right. This is a demonstration of military prowess, but it’s also being protected to a large degree.
Find an excuse to let one of these off the chain, and I personally guarantee you the bad guys won’t even want to come out of their caves.
A great word there for Tony’s attitude towards his weapons: “excuse”. Don’t find a legitimate reason, don’t find a worthwhile target. Find an excuse. Find any reason, find any target, just to “let one of these off the chain” as if you’re letting a rabid dog loose on the “bad guys”. There’s clear derogatory language here towards the insurgents that American forces face/faced in Afghanistan, those who live in caves, just ripe for the pounding. The problem America faced in Afghanistan and Iraq was a low-intensity enemy that confounded their technological superiority. Stark’s answer is more complicated, more advanced technology, to create a bigger bang.
With a flourish, he accedes to the weapon being launched. The military drumbeat commences, soon matched by nervous military horn calls. The missile system points to the sky with camera support, operating with apparent independence, before one of the missiles firs off into the sky. The CGI effect of the smoke and launch isn’t great, possibly due to the lack of reaction to the apparently huge noise and vibration from the onlookers, but it’s a minor oversight.
The missile arcs towards one of the mountain ranges, before splitting apart, multiple smaller projectiles springing free of the main casing and flying towards earth with a sharp whistle. Cut back to Tony Stark, nonplussed, neutral expression.
For your consideration: the Jericho.
This is the apex of the performance, timed to absolute perfection by the master showman. The impressive name of the weapon is stated like a full stop, just as its tools of destruction near the ground. The distant ridgeline erupts in orange explosions and grey clouds of debris, explosions that get larger just behind Tony. His raises his arms, like a Biblical prophet remaking the earth to his own liking, making it seem as if he is directly responsible for the cataclysmic geological change in the background environment. I keep saying it, but these early minutes of Iron Man really do just keep coming back to the idea that Tony Stark is God. That idea is also reaffirmed with the name of the missile, an obvious allusion to the Biblical story of Jericho, the ancient city that was levelled by the power of the Almighty and his chosen prophet, Joshua:
When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city (Joshua 6.20).
The shockwave of his immense weapon overtakes the watching group with a reverberating whump, knocking back hats and making even Tony Stark stumble forward a few steps. But he just calmly adjusts his tie. The point has been made (and how).
But then it’s back to being the playboy, with his pre-arranged mobile drink cabinet whirring into life.
I’ll be throwing one of these in with every purchase of 500 million or more. To peace!
Stark takes a scotch – in fact, the scotch he was holding at the beginning, making this a clear visual cue to the audience to brace themselves – and makes his sardonic toast, one he will do again in just a few moments in the humvee. He’s as snarky here as he will be then, already with his back turned to his potential customers, satisfied that he has landed the catch.
Then his phone buzzes, the same one we’ll see him try and make a call on at the end of the ambush, a fancy looking model with a video screen that turns horizontal (and some nice product placement for LG). An undressed Obadiah Stane, seemingly in bed, is on the end of the line.
Obie, what are you doing up?
I couldn’t sleep till I found out how it went. How’d it go?
It went great. Looks like it’s gonna be an early Christmas.
Hey! Way to go, my boy, I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?
Why aren’t you wearing those pyjamas I got you?
Good night, Tony.
A noteworthy exchange. The conversation is pleasant and intimate between the two: Stane is “Obie” to Stark, Stark is “my boy” to Stane, increasing the sense that there is a key familiarity between the two, important to show since they haven’t actually shared a scene yet – this is the first time they’ve even talked to each other in Iron Man. This is a celebratory phone call, as the two slap each other on the backs for what looks like another successful sell to the US military.
But given what’s about to happen – and what we will find out later – this phone call is also a bit more shadowy. Its likely Stane is calling just to confirm that Stark is where he thinks he is. Remember, in Stane’s mind, this will likely be the last time he ever see’s Tony Stark alive, making that slightly irritated last line all the more creepy. Stane believes that Tony’s pyjama quip might be the very last joke he has to put up with.
It’s also likely that the person Stark was trying to call at the end of the ambush was Stane, given that he was the last person he talked to on the device, which is sad for a whole load of reasons. But that’s a long way away.
There’s time for one last exchange between Rhodes and Tony as the billionaire climbs into the ill-fated humvee:
I’m sorry, this is the ”fun-vee.” The ”hum-drum-vee” is back there.
See you back at base.
Things are more relaxed and friendly between the two now, enough that Rhodes doesn’t even seem that bothered by Stark’s now normal seeming barbs towards him. This is a sad moment for the audience of course, since it isn’t even clear if Rhodes will survive what’s coming. But at least the two are parting on better terms.
“Back In Black” rears up again briefly as we see the convoy drive, before coming to a warped and fading halt as the attack comes. The ambush is not covered again in detail – we’ve seen all that we need to see of it really – and Favreau prefers to delve a bit more into the time between Tony’s capture and his appearance in front of a camera just before the titles went up.
The explosion that destroyed one humvee morphs into Tony undergoing some kind of surgery. The frame is muddled, warped, blurry, with rapid cuts, speed-ups and slow downs, indicating a large passage of time where Tony was not of the right mind, almost hallucinating, in no way completely aware of his surroundings. He’s clearly getting medical attention for his wounds of course, with bits of metal being pulled out of his chest. Tony screams, the wail distorted as if coming from a great distance. A bespectacled figure places a round metal object on his chest, an ominous sign. The entire scene is marked by dirt, blood and darkness. Its horror film-esque, but done quickly.
But then peace comes: Stark drifts into unconsciousness, probably involuntarily, before a black out.
For The Film
These few minutes serve to once again reinforce the kind of man Tony Stark is before his traumatic experience in Afghanistan. He’s rude towards friends, misogynistic, single-minded and also a consummate salesman, just on a grand scale. We show again Stark at the height of his power, with numerous visual references making it seem like he’s greater than just a man. We’re also giving Rhodes a bit more time for characterisation, and to shine a light on the kind of unequal relationship he has with Stark. In Afghanistan we see a big set-piece moment, which also introduces one of the key MacGuffins of the next 20 minutes, showcasing how powerful the missile Stark will be asked to build is.
This is the playboy in action. He races with his bodyguard, he leaves friends waiting then tries to get them drunk, he acts like an almighty power in front of his prospective customers. Iron Man, in the last few minutes, places its main character on a height that few else in this world can even dare to contemplate, a mountain top of wealth, power, women and adulation. The fall will be immense.
Hogan is a cheerful servant of Stark’s, more than happy to go along with his eccentricity. He’s used to the kind of behaviour that Stark exhibits, and it all just rolls off him. But the fact that he is in a position to joke around with Stark does indicate they might be a bit closer than initial appearances.
Poor Colonel Rhodes is a bug before the majesty of Tony Stark. All he can do when Stark treats him so badly is to sulk and whine, with the indications being that it isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last. It’s the second time Stark has let him down so far, and his pleas that Tony can be greater than he is seem to be going mostly unheeded. There is a closeness, at moments, between them though.
His brief appearance shows a man who seems friendly and father-like to Stark, checking on how his performance went. Everything sees fine really – until you read between the lines.
We only get a very brief look at the man who’ll be a much more important character in the next entry. We see a non-threatening looking, bespectacled face, that does not look too much like a dangerous terrorist.
Next time, we get into the real core of the origin story.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.