We open on Tony Stark, and he is not as we have seen him before. His clothes are now tattered and filthy looking. There are wires and IV lines attached to him. His previously charming stubble is now messy looking. He has cuts on his face, and a general level of grime is evident. He lies on a simple looking metal cot, shrouded in an oppressive darkness. When he wakes with a start, he seems to breath out a bit of dust and sand, or maybe it’s just cold air.
This opening moment is pretty important for this sequence. This is the fall: Tony Stark has gone from a billionaire playboy hero to a base looking individual, more hobo than Homeric. And more than anything else, when Tony Stark wakes up, he looks like something we haven’t seen from him up to this point: afraid. The shot choice is important for that, as Stark actually seems to be looking directly at the audience, giving us the best glimpse of how he looks now, and what kind of internal feelings are running through his mind. Important also, this sequence is almost entirely without a score of any kind, the silence doing enough to fill us with the required emotions of dread.
There follows a fairly horrific moment, as Stark pulls the IV line out of his nose, the long tube taking a figurative age to finally get out of his system. It’s a simple physical choice to invoke horror, but it works rather spectacularly. This shot also lets us see that the light is artificial, and that Tony is in some kind of dark, dank space.
Tony reaches for some water, but doesn’t seem to have the motor functions to pick it up, knocking it to the floor. This is a simple visual tool that’s been used plenty of times in other stories that feature someone being incapacitated, but it still works really well: Stark is relatively helpless here, a million miles from the man who was confidently selling WMD’s to the US military a few minutes ago.
Tony suddenly spies that he isn’t alone, and we get our first proper glimpse at the man who was operating on Stark earlier. First impressions are simple: he’s dark skinned, wears glasses and a suit, and is shaving using a grimy mirror. So, this is a civilised man, keeping up the air of civility even in this barbaric environment. As with any character you see first wearing a suit and glasses, the aura we get is of intelligence. While not identified for a few minutes yet, this is Yinsen.
Tony, reacting perhaps in a mindless moment of silent panic, reaches for something on the table upon seeing this man. It’s not clear if Tony is reaching for a weapon, but I would imagine he is. It’s one of the first signs that, while brought down to earth in a very hard manner, Stark isn’t entirely without courage at this moment. It might be a little stupid, but when faced with this situation he’s willing to grab something to defend himself with. But he makes a loud noise when he does so, and it’s only then that the most bizarre part of Stark’s imprisonment becomes clear.
I wouldn’t do that if I were you.
His voice is calm, collected, not bothered in the slightest. He’s been expecting this, but there is no sense, yet, of antagonism from him.
But our focus is suddenly back on Tony, who see’s that the wires leading into him are not medical: they are electrical, snaking back to a car battery with what looks like Arabic letters on it. What follows is shot and presented like a scene from a horror film: slowly rising violins, panting from Tony, a panicked feel from the whole situation. Tony grasps at the bandages covering his chest, tears them off with an effort, and gazes slackjawed at the cylindrical contraption that is embedded in the centre of his torso, to which the car battery is hooked up. This is as confusing for us as it is for Tony, but Downey Jr’s reaction – one of absolute terror, only more of the silent stunned variety – is what makes it such a good moment. Not only has Stark fallen from his height, but some kind of warped medical procedure has been done to him. But to what end?
There’s a cut to a slightly different scene. Yinsen is now heating a very unappetising looking pan of gruel over a makeshift fire. He’s whistling a simple tune as he does so. His attitude to this situation is a deliberate contrast to that of Tony. The bespectacled man is acting like nothing is out of the ordinary. He’s used to this. He’s been here longer than Tony has.
Stark is now sitting up, but still looks weak and not himself, especially in those clothes. He only has eyes for the thing in his chest, which he examines through the same mirror the other man was shaving with a moment ago.
What the hell did you do to me?
Tony’s voice is gravelly and low, very different from the last time we heard him speak.
What I did? (Laughs softly) What I did is to save your life.
The man is good naturedly scornful of Tony’s accusatory tone. Stark asks his question like he’s Frankenstein’s monster talking to Frankenstein, but this guy isn’t going to hear it. No, he saved Tony’s life, but doesn’t really seem too bothered by the act.
I removed all the shrapnel I could, but there’s a lot left, and it’s headed into your atrial septum (holds out a small jar). Here, want to see? I have a souvenir. Take a look (Throws the jar to Tony).
As these lines are said, we get a look, another one, at the thing in Stark’s chest. It looks crude and oily, surrounded by diseased flesh. Stark looks badly ill from this brief image. We then see Yinsen fully. His suit is surprisingly immaculate, given the surrounds, which now look even more oppressive: the metal door behind him looks like an imposing barrier, matching the hard rock of the walls. This is starting to look like a prison. He takes out the small jar of shrapnel shards, jingles it and tosses it to Tony like he’s throwing a toy to a small child: Stark remains unmoved by any of this, still with that shocked look on his face, and certainly no sign yet of gratitude for the life saving operation:
I’ve seen many wounds like that in my village. We call them the walking dead, because it takes about a week for the barbs to reach the vital organs.
Some key plot points in these two lines. Firstly, while looking like a well to do educated man, this person is from a village where shrapnel injuries are common, indicating his background might be a violent one. That village will come up again soon enough as well. Secondly, it’s becoming rapidly clear what the thing in Tony’s chest is, even before he actually asks the question.
What is this?
That is an electromagnet, hooked up to a car battery, and it’s keeping the shrapnel from entering your heart.
The tone of Yinsen is suddenly a lot harder, more professional. He’s talking medicine and science briefly, and he takes that seriously, ending his sentence with a curt nod, as if to reinforce that the thing is Tony’s chest should be seen positively. The actual device itself is an extreme solution to a very bad problem, but somewhat ingenious given the surrounds.
On the cot, Tony shifts uncomfortably upon learning this knowledge, as if testing out what his movement now feels like with this thing in his chest, before zipping up his clothing, more out of a sense of embarrassment at his condition than coldness. He glances upwards, and we see a functioning security camera.
That’s right. Smile.
He’s back to the slightly gay tone here, as if the presence of the camera, in this room, is not really a cause for concern. His familiarity with this situation has rapidly become an uncomfortable thing for us.
We met once, you know, at a technical conference in Bern.
I don’t remember.
No, you wouldn’t. lf I had been that drunk, I wouldn’t have been able to stand, much less give a lecture on integrated circuits.
Quite the coincidence, but this exchange does tell us a bit more. First, Yinsen is someone in the same field as Stark, or at least just engineering, but his background has given him some skill in combat medicine. He recalls the meeting with Stark with a smile on his face. It’s another sign of the majesty that was Tony Stark before all of this, when he was capable of such wonders. The memory of this episode barely lights up the surrounds though. It’s from a time and place a long way away and serves to add a greater contrast between the man that Stark was and the man he suddenly is now.
Where are we?
Stark is barely listening to Yinsen’s words, moving on to a new topic as soon as he finished talking. He’s regaining some of his senses now, and immediately wants to know more about the situation he has found himself in. He won’t get a chance though.
A viewing panel on the door gets pulled back and orders in a foreign language are barked. Yinsen is instantly tense, far tenser than he has been at any point in Stark’s interactions with him.
Come on, stand up. Stand up! Just do as I do.
Those are my guns. How did they get my guns?
Do you understand me!? Do as I do.
He’s giving his own orders to Tony here, actually guiding his hands up. He’s clearly scared, and worried that Stark might get him killed. Tony looks more alarmed than terrified, which is noteworthy. He only has a mind for how these men got a hold of his weapons, probably remembering that his own wounds were caused by a rocket with his name on it.
The men who enter the cave are bearded, dark-skinned, wear military clothing and carry assault rifles. I’ve never really been bothered by Iron Man’s choice of Arab terrorists as preliminary bad guys, if only because the right context is set-up before hand. Tony is an American weapons designer, he sells weapons to the United States for their war effort in Afghanistan, he finds himself there and becomes a target for these men. It would be stranger if they kept the modern context and retained the original origin in Vietnam.
The men are all imposing, none more so than the central figure, credited as “Abu Bakaar”. He’s bigger than the others, has a larger belly, but still seems imminently threatening right off the bat. The booming Arabic words he speaks certainly help with that impression too.
Bakaar, a friendly look on his face expertly deflected by the tense score in the background, launches into an extended bit of speech, only the words “Mr Tony Stark” distinguishable to those of us who don’t understand the language. He looks to Yinsen to translate, who does so with a certain nervousness.
He says, ‘Welcome, Tony Stark, the most famous mass murderer in the history of America’. He is honoured.
Ah, so that’s how it is. Bakaar’s friendly smile and inviting hand movements are a charade, a disguise for some rampant sarcasm. I actually think he said far more than Yinsen translates here, but I can’t find a direct translation of his words anywhere.
Bakaar keeps talking and with the Yinsen’s translation we come to the crux of the issue for this section of the film.
He wants you to build the missile. The Jericho missile that you demonstrated (Bakaar hands Yinsen a picture, he holds it up for Stark). This one.
So, Tony’s reputation has preceded him. He hasn’t just been grabbed for ransoming or propaganda purposes. No, these guys, whoever they are, have a plan for Tony Stark. The world has continually trumpeted that he is a genius, the “Da Vinci of our times”, in the opening sections. The bad guys, here anyway, want to use his power for bad ends, or so it seems. We’ve seen what the Jericho can do in a test environment, and the thought of these guys getting one doesn’t bear thinking about (for a western audience anyway).
It’s a super tense moment. Tony’s stares intently at the picture and back at Bakaar. The soldiers are all just staring, without any emotion on their faces. The low but ringing soundtrack builds to a crescendo as Stark makes a very important decision.
He’s quick and forceful. He’s barely thought about it for a more than a few seconds, but he won’t do it. He’s been laid low and broken, but he has a lot of fight in him, to make such a bold declaration in these circumstances, completely at the mercy of these armed men.
Bakaar doesn’t need a translation to understand Tony’s refusal, immediately looking surprised and angry. He’s not a man used to hearing “no”.
There’s an immediate cut to a torture staple – getting your head dunked under water by force, a trope so well used that James Bond once made an opening title sequence out of it. I think filmmakers like using this because it’s horrific while not straying outside of PG bounds. No blood, no extended screaming, just a quick shot of a face underwater and some gasping. Still, the effect is to demonstrate a feeling of violence and desperation: Favreau cuts quickly between another shot of Tony’s chest magnet, a bald and sinister looking man standing behind Tony and then another circular, unidentified, object. A woman’s voice shouts Starks name – possibly Pepper Potts– and we’re moving on.
An interesting moment. I suppose the implication is that, under such immense physical strain, Tony’s mind goes into overdrive and he starts thinking about how to get out of his immediate predicament with the chest magnet – and where that might lead. Why its Pepper’s voice leading him on that path is another question entirely.
Stark is dragged, bound and hooded, out of the cave structure, though a narrow passageway marked by glaring artificial lights and more armed men. Bakaar, not even looking at the prisoner, leads him out into the blazing sunshine, which blinds Tony as much as it does the audience when he is revealed to it. We’ve gotten used to the darkness of the previous few minutes, so it’s almost a shock to the system to be in an area with so much non-artificial light.
We see through Tony’s eyeline directly as the images refocus from the shining light. What we see is an immense military encampment: not quite as large and impressive as Bagram, but one big enough to make us realise that this is not some two-bit operation in a cave somewhere in the mountains. These men are numerous, heavily armed, well supplied with military equipment like camouflage nets and bombs, confident in everything they’re doing. The place is a hive of activity.
Tony we see in the light for the first time since the ambush. Fingerless gloves, dishevelled hair and carrying a car battery around, Tony certainly looks rather grungy and homeless, easily pushed around by the scary and angry looking men around him.
But he’s still focused. He only has eyes for the stockpiles of arms underneath one of the camouflage nets, various guns, crates of ammunition and missiles, every last one of them proclaiming the name “Stark Industries”.
Tony looks disgusted and angered for a moment, his entire world upside down. He’s supposed to build weapons that take out the bad guys for America. Now the same things he has created are being used by the enemies of his country. It must be an awful feeling for him, and the beginning of his turn against the weapons industry. He’s seeing the other side of the coin now, how the dissemination of weapons is something that he cannot ever control tightly. Moreover, he must now realise that the soldiers he saw killed earlier were killed by these weapons, guns and ammunition that he created.
Bakaar, having treated Tony like some kind of tourist he disdains having to show around, says something to Yinsen, short and clipped.
He wants to know what you think.
Tony looks at once both furious and devastated. He’s being mocked by this guy, shown the horrible fruits of his labours. The following delivery is just perfect, as Tony’s voice cracks and the words come out weighed down with an emotion of barely restrained grief.
I think you got a lot of my weapons.
Bakaar goes back to shouting, walking around Stark. He’s not even looking at him as he shouts, and the impression given out is that these words are less about Stark – an insect under his power – and more about putting on a show for his men.
He says they have everything you need to build the Jericho Missile. He wants you to make the list of materials. He says for you to start working immediately, and when you’re done, he will set you free.
Yinsen’s much quieter now, a man unused to such company, clearly not liking the loud tone or the surroundings. He just wants to get this part of his job over with.
Bakaar tilts his head as he finishes talking, like he’s explaining something to a particularly stupid animal. He puts his hand out.
After one last lingering look of slight disgust, Tony takes his hand and smiles, leading to another of the films brilliant but understated exchanges.
No he won’t.
No, he won’t.
Yinsen’s smiling too, but with the same sad, resigned tone in his voice. He’s no purveyor of false hope. He knows, just as Tony knows, that they are unlikely to ever leave this place alive, and now the audience knows it too. As well as that though, this moment also helps to demonstrate some of the superiority Tony and Yinsen have over Bakaar, who is too ignorant to understand what they are saying, and that his lies are having no effect on them. He just smiles, deludedly.
In the distance, as more ominous horns start up, Tony spies the same man we saw previously, bald and clean shaven, surrounded by armed men. Someone important it would seem, and perhaps the head honcho of this entire operation. On his middle finger he fiddles with a large ring, a subtle sign to the more hardcore fan base that he might have something to do with Tony Stark’s most famous villain.
We cut back to the cave, as dark and oppressive as it was a few minutes ago, though maybe it’s even more so. I’m harping on this point a lot, but I’m certain it’s deliberate: Tony huddles before a fire, fingerless gloves, the beanie hat, the tattered clothes, the grime. He’s meant to look like a homeless person because it’s the direct opposite of the smartly dressed powerful individual he was before the ambush. This is his fall, to be reduced to this level, both as a character and in his appearance. I mean, look at Yinsen in the same scene:
The suit, the old timey hat that is still somewhat fancy. He’s a prisoner just like Stark is, but he looks good, prim and proper. Tony looks like he’s about to ask for change. His expression is one of lingering anger at his situation, which doesn’t change even as Yinsen tries to buoy him up.
I’m sure they’re looking for you, Stark. But they will never find you in these mountains.
Well, I suppose he’s not off to a great start, but he’s just reinforcing the fact that Tony isn’t going to get rescued. Rhodes isn’t going to come here, guns blazing, with the cavalry (if he’s even alive). Tony is on his own. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope.
Look, what you just saw, that is your legacy, Stark. Your life’s work, in the hands of those murderers. Is that how you want to go out? Is this the last act of defiance of the great Tony Stark? Or are you going to do something about it?
This is an important speech. Yinsen is acting both as his own character and as a surrogate for the call to destiny that every superhero must hear at some point in their story. He see’s Tony and his unique genius as a way to either get the hell out of here or at least to fight back against “those murderers” a term he spits out with a hither to unheard menace. Yinsen has something against these people, more than just being kidnapped by them. He needs Tony to not be catatonic for any plan to work.
And then he is the plot telling Tony to be more than he is. This is “the great Tony Stark” after all. He needs to be that person, and to struggle through this adversity. Or maybe he’ll just fade out within a week, which is certainly what Tony seems to think at that moment:
Why should I do anything? They’re going to kill me, you, either way. And if they don’t, I’ll probably be dead in a week.
This is the lowest of the low moments, Tony falling into a pit of self pity and despair. But Yinsen’s having none of it:
Well then, this is a very important week for you, isn’t it?
Yes. Yes it is.
For The Film
This section is the true origin story beginning. Tony Stark has been built up to heights unimaginable to most, now he is amongst the lowest of the low. These few minutes serve to show that in great detail, before offering the possibility that Tony can find a way out. He’ll need to do that through his own ingenuity and guile, but he also has to start changing internally as well, becoming more than the playboy he used to be. We are introduced to the last of the really important characters, and a few of the minor bad guys. In terms of the superhero angle, we also establish one of Tony’s future weaknesses, his need to constantly be hooked up to some form of powered magnetic source.
We open on Tony looking dishevelled, having undergone live saving surgery, and now permanently attached to a car battery (or so it seems). He’s been brought low, as low as he can get, abused and forced to live up to the fact that his weapons sales business has some unforeseen consequences. He reacts as strongly as possible, maintaining his resistance to outside forces, and building up the courage he’s going to need to try and get out of this situation. This low point passes quickly for Tony Stark, but is still a vitally important part of his growth as a character – everything else will stem from this period of true weakness and vulnerability.
Yinsen is a friend and ally. He’s here against his will, but has managed to retain much of his dignity, a direct contrast to Stark. He’s good natured and has more than a bit of sarcasm to him, keeping up his spirits as best he can in these dank surroundings. He has skills in medicine, science and languages, so he’s certainly got a fine education. He despises his captors deeply and see’s Tony as a possible escape route. In this, he does as much as he can to get Tony motivated for the days ahead, even while refusing to peddle false hope.
Bakaar is a thug, pure and simple. His only qualities on display here are anger, brutality, deception and mockery. He has Stark and Yinsen under his thumb, and knows it. He delights in torturing Stark physically and mentally, before demonstrating an over-inflated sense of his own intelligence, clearly believing he has Stark fooled with his promises of freedom.
A mysterious presence in the background for now. Clearly a man of some importance to this “organisation”.
We briefly hear her voice when Tony is being half-drowned, something Stark latches on to in a moment of great physical danger, indicating a deeper relationship than Stark was previously willing to acknowledge.
Next time, Tony and Yinsen begin fighting back in their own way.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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