Iron Man’s Villain Problem

Like so many others, I am beyond excited for Avengers: Endgame. However, I am not a traditional superhero fan. I became interested in the genre only recently and I haven’t seen all the movies in the MCU. As a result, I don’t know everything I there is to know about the Avengers. I plan to remedy that before the release of Avengers: Endgame. Between now and then, I am going to watch and review every movie in the MCU. If anyone wants to gush about the Avengers, I am available in the comments! So here goes, the first movie of MCU Phase 1 – Iron Man

Iron Man (2008) is largely a very fun movie. It is exciting to see a man build a suit out of the limited materials he has at hand in a cave to make an escape from his kidnappers. The action sequences with Iron Man are genuinely enjoyable. I did find the character of Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) insufferable, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t overlook (with the occasional eye roll, of course). Overall Iron Man is a great movie to start us off. It is well-written story with good action sequences and a decent plot – a weapons’ manufacturer trying to undo his legacy of war and destruction by becoming a superhero. The problem with Iron Man, is that this genius hero doesn’t have a comparable villain to go up against.

So that makes the principal antagonist of the film, Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger (played by Jeff Bridges), a poor villain? First, at the very outset, Stark is portrayed to be superior than Stane. In the second scene of the film, we see that at 21, Stark becomes the CEO of Stark Industries brushing Stane aside. Right away, Stark is better than his antagonist. Second, the villain isn’t able to develop his own powers. Stane steals scraps of Iron Man’s initial suit to make his own. He can’t even develop the Miniaturised Arc Reactor by himself; he steals it from the protagonist. This further perpetuates the idea that the Stane is no match for Iron Man. This is before the any direct fighting between Iron Man and Iron Monger. When the action begins, it fails to create the tension required to engage the viewer in the film. As the viewer, I already know that Iron Man can defeat Iron Monger because the film has told me so.

In addition to being perceived as less formidable, Iron Man has almost no comparable opponent for more than half the movie. At the beginning of the movie, Stark’s main opponent is his kidnapper, Raza. The playing field here is levelled because although Stark is very capable, he is trying to create something amazing in a cave in rural Afghanistan with whatever materials are available to him there. He is also in captivity making him vulnerable to his opponent. This makes the film interesting and makes Iron Man’s escape all the more impressive.

But Raza isn’t the principle antagonist of the film. He is being used by Stane in the latter’s quest for dominance. But rather than building up the character of the villain along with the hero so that the viewer doesn’t take Iron Man for granted and becomes invested in the conflict in the movie, the director Jon Fraveau only allows the viewer to see the already formidable Tony Stark transform into an almost indomitable Iron Man. At the point the viewer’s perceptions about the hero have already been developed, and the film doesn’t make an effort to subvert them. This reduces the impact of the antagonist.

About one hour into the movie, long after Iron Man’s character has been established, the movie finally reveals that the antagonist will use the scraps from Iron Man’s suit as the basis for his/her armour. The armour of the antagonist is not discussed again until 2/3rds of the movie is over. Furthermore, Stane isn’t revealed to be the bad guy until more than halfway through the movie. Even then, he is shown to be opposing Tony Stark in business, not as a supervillain. It is only in the last 25 minutes of the film (including 10 minutes of credits) that the main conflict of the movie emerges, and the antagonist challenges the protagonist. Couple that with his perception as an inferior fighter and you have the villain problem in the film.

Despite a major problem, Iron Man is a fun watch because his powers are super cool. They are tested in multiple situations throughout the film (his big escape from captivity, his encounter with militants in Gulmira, getting chased by the US government, and his final battle with Iron Monger). As a viewer this made me want to root for Iron Man. That being said, I hope Iron Man 2 offers our hero more of a challenge.

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