[Note: spoilers will abound.]
Hey, I’m not trying to hate. I had a fun time at that movie. It ain’t broke (it is in fact quite flush with cash), so why mess with it? And yet, as you already know if you’ve listened to our podcast (or if you saw the movie), there were some story issues. It seems to have two plots going on at once. On the one hand, there’s the “Holy crow, my power armor is slowly killing me!” plot, on the other, there’s the “Holy cats, Mickey Rourke is killing me a good deal quicker!” plot. These don’t really connect in any meaningful way, and neither one of them is tied up very convincingly. The poisoned armor plot gets a deus ex machina, with Nick Fury and Tony Stark the Elder hiding the chemical formula for Vibranium in a forty-year old architectural model (a Da Vinci Code solution to an Iron Man problem), and the Mickey Rourke plot ends with Tony Stark learning the power of friendship or some such malarkey. Honestly, it’s probably not even that: they just fight until the movie’s pretty much over, and then the bad guy blows up. Still, I’m sure that some writer thought it was important that Tony not be able to defeat Whiplash without giving his new pal War Machine a superpowered high five.
Or at least that’s how the plot works – putting it charitably – in the version of the film that we saw. But I am almost sure that that’s not how the plot worked in the first draft of the script. In fact, I am willing to bet you my entire share of this year’s profits from Overthinking It that before the script got focus-grouped to death, the two plots did connect, and as a result the ending felt a lot less tacked on.
How do I know? Because I’ve seen it before. Iron Man 2 is a corrupted version of a very ancient story, that’s been told in one form or another for something like a thousand years. And although this story is almost unrecognizable in the version of the movie made it to the theaters, you can still see traces left behind from an earlier draft. So let’s put on our private eye hats, and do that trick where you take a pencil and lightly shade in the blank sheet of paper left on the top of the memo pad, so you can see the impression left by whatever was written on top of that. Of course, this kind of speculation always runs the risk of being completely off-base: there’s a chance that I’m wrong, that we’ll just wind up uncovering a picture of a giant erection, like Jeff Bridges did in The Big Lebowski. But if I’m right, we will end up with…
The Fisher King. Oh, I’m not actually talking about the Terry Gilliam movie, although that is based on the same story. I’m talking about the Celtic legend that first shows up in the second branch of the Mabinogion, is refined and expanded by Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach, and more or less finalized for the modern age by Richard Wagner in Parsifal. There have been so many versions of this story that trying to explain the plot is a little pointless – instead, I’ll just list some of the important elements and characters.
The Grail. Usually, we’re talking about the same holy grail that’s associated with Monty Python and Indiana Jones (and to a lesser extent with our lord Jesus Christ), but in some cases it’s a different one. In any case, the grail typically has the following properties. 1) It makes crops grow, powering the feudal economy. 2) It can cure the sick and/or return the dead to life. 3) At the start of the story, it is broken and needs to be repaired, which means that the crops have not been growing in a while. Typically the Grail is kept in a castle (the Grail Castle), and guarded by…
The Grail Knights, a family or secret society that has been passing the grail down from generation to generation without ever really unlocking its true power. They either adopt the protagonist at the end, or he takes over for them, or he turns out to be one of them all along. Also, they’re feudal nobility. The old Knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a little weird in that ALL he does is guard the grail. In most versions of the story, they are landowners and members of the military. Most of these guys are just interchangeable extras, but you sometimes meet Titurel, the Fisher King’s father (who is usually also wounded – see below), and a knight named Gurnemanz who kind of functions as the Fisher King’s butler.
Amfortas, the Fisher King, the current keeper of the grail, has utterly cocked things up and is therefore no longer worthy to possess it. The name “Fisher” is kind of interesting… in some versions of the story, the King is so crippled (see The Wound, below), that all he can do is sit on the river bank and fish. But it seems to me that there’s a pretty good chance that it’s a scribal error: the oldest version of the story where he appears with that name is in French, and there’s hardly any difference between Le Roi Pêcheur (the Fisher King, or possibly the king who picks a lot of peaches) and Le Roi Pécheur (the Sinner King, which seems more relevant). In any case, his most important attribute is –
The Wound. The Fisher King is constantly bleeding from a wound that will never heal, somewhere in the region of his thighs or his groin. Sometimes, the wound is passed down through the family of the Grail Guardians: when Amfortas’ father Titurel shows up, he’s usually so badly wounded that he can’t even walk. (I like to imagine an extreme version of this, where you’ve got a whole castle full of wounded Kings, princes, second cousins, and so forth.) The Wound serves as a constant reminder of the King’s unfitness to possess the grail, and it’s linked in a sympathetic magic kind of way with the barren countryside: as the king suffers, so does his nation.
Parsifal, a.k.a. the Holy Fool, a.k.a. the Protagonist – a strapping young lad of pure and noble heart whose job it is to fix it all. At the end, he gets the Grail, cures the Wound, restores life to the countryside, and becomes the new king, and declares a national holiday with free beer and potato salad for all. What he has to do to accomplish this varies wildly from telling to telling — sometimes it’s literally a matter of just showing up.
And how does this play out in Iron Man 2?
The Grail: The Arc Reactor. This is a theoretically limitless source of free electricity, which is as important to the information economy as crops were to the feudal economy. While it doesn’t heal the sick in general, it’s certainly keeping Tony alive. And at the start of the story, it is a deeply flawed piece of technology.
The Grail Knights: Stark Industries, or more specifically the Stark family itself. We’re told in no uncertain terms that Tony’s father, bizarro Walt Disney, had the idea for both the Arc Reactor and The Avengers back in the day. Sure, he couldn’t actually create either one, but the Grail Guardians never do anything more than lay in groundwork. As for being a landowner and a member of the military… the Stark family basically is the military industrial complex. So yeah. Oh, and lest we forget, Tony starts off estranged from his father, and ends up reconciled with him. Titurel is Stark’s father, H. Anthony, and Gurnemanz is Happy, or possibly the computer voice Jarvis.
The Fisher King: Tony Stark. This is kind of a tricky one, because he’s definitely the protagonist, which makes him the Holy Fool as well. The two roles are kind of collapsed onto each other here, which has some implications we’ll get to in a bit. In story terms, though, there’s not a whole heck of a lot of difference between “unworthy king replaced by worthy king” and “unworthy king becomes worthy.” And he certainly has the grail/arc reactor, and he certainly is afflicted with the Wound. Speaking of which –
The Wound: Palladium Poisoning. Pretty straightforward, right? But do note that Tony’s sickness is preventing him from running Stark Industries. As the king suffers, so too does the country suffer.
The Holy Fool: Tony Stark again. This one is even trickier. The defining characteristics of the Parsifal character are that he’s kind of dumb, but really sweet-natured, and the defining characteristic of Tony Stark is that he’s really smart, but kind of a dick. But while Tony Stark isn’t an innocent, he is kind of infantile. He has no control over his basic drives, and he has no concept of how to behave in polite society.
Coming up next: Wagnerian Opera, Penis Jokes.
Now let’s talk about Wagner’s opera version. Because the original legend is light on conflict, Wagner added some villains to the piece: an evil wizard named Klingsor, and a femme fatale named Kundry. (These guys do show up in some of the older versions, but pretty much just as names.) Wagner’s Klingsor is an interesting character. At first, he wanted to become a Grail Knight, but they turned him down because he wasn’t pure enough. Then he cut off his own genitals to curb temptation… only to learn that functional genitalia are a prerequisite of membership. (You’d think he would have read that in the brochure.) Understandably peeved, he created a twisted shadow-version of the Grail castle a couple of valleys over, and dedicated his life to destroying the knighthood. This is a pretty unique character, right? Doesn’t seem like something one would duplicate by accident? Okay, now think of the Sam Rockwell character in Iron Man 2. Desperately wants to be like The Fisher King/Tony Stark? Check. Creates a shadow version of The Grail Knights/Stark Industries? Check. Emasculated? Well, you saw how well that missile he built for War Machine worked out.
Anyway, Klingsor and Kundry plot to steal the Fisher King’s magic spear, the Lance of Longinus. This artifact doesn’t show up in the older versions either, to my knowledge, but it is traditionally associated with the Grail so it kind of fits. It also makes the already intense sexual subtext of the legend re-ding-dang-diddly-donkulous. Observe:
Kundry: Heeeey handsome!
Amfortas: How you doin’?
[Amfortas drops his spear, he and Kundry embrace]
Klingsor [popping out of the bushes]: Yyyyyoink!
[Grabs spear, pierces Amfortas through the groin, departs]
Amfortas: Noooo! My two favorite long pointy things!
[Scene change: twenty years later. Enter Amfortas, carrying the Grail, and bleeding.]
Amfortas: Well ain’t this a bitch. Sure I’ve got this concave fount of boundless fertility [he gestures to grail], but somehow without my rigid staff of manliness, the thrill is gone.
Gurnemanz: … You’re talking about the Spear, right?
Amfortas: Does it even matter?
Gurnemanz: Well, whatever it is, I hope you find someone to fix it soon. Because we’re all hella starving.
Amfortas: You think you’ve got it bad, at least you don’t spend a week out of every month bleeding from your groin.
Gurnemanz: … You’re talking about the Wound, right?
Amfortas: Does it even matter?
Now here’s where it gets really interesting. When Parsifal shows up, he obviously has to defeat Klingsor and get the spear back before he can fix the grail. But this doesn’t mean he has to beat Klingsor in an arm wrestling match, or anything. Instead, he has to let Kundry try to seduce him. Maybe less impressive, considering it’s twenty years later, but presumably she’s a cougar. And Parsifal has some serious mommy issues. Kundry’s pickup line, no joke, is “She who gave you body and life/ And before whom death and folly must flinch/ She offers you today, as the last greeting of / A mother’s blessing, the first kiss of love!” And this almost works. But not quite, and once Percival turns her down, Klingsor basically just explodes.
Most later versions of the Fisher King myth take a big cue from Wagner here. Not the incest thing – the idea of a hereditary test, passed down through the ages along with the grail and the wound. Parsifal can’t heal Amfortas until he prove his purity by passing the very test that Amfortas failed (i.e. not getting it on with Kundry). For a modern version of this, see Star Wars, where Luke has to pass the “strike him down, and we can rule the galaxy together!” test that Anakin failed when he beheaded Count Dooku. Lucas bungled this badly, of course, since the moment where Vader killed Dooku should have been the climax of the first trilogy, not throwaway shock gag. But you get the idea.
Now back to Iron Man Two.
Here’s the Whiplash Plot as it appeared in the film:
1) Arc reactor technology was created by Tony Stark’s father, with some minor assistance from a jerk named Ivan Vanko. (Btw, I love it when Nick Fury is like, “Oh, Vanko was bad. He wanted to use the reactor to make money,” while he and Tony are sitting in a luxurious mansion on the Stark family’s private freaking island.)
2) For totally valid reasons, Stark kicks Vanko out of the country.
3) Vanko’s son comes back looking for revenge, even though he’s got no legitimate reason to be mad.
4) Tony tries fighting Whiplash and seems to defeat him, but this defeat cannot be final/satisfying because it’s only 1/3 of the way through the movie.
5) Tony must learn the true meaning of friendship before he can truly defeat Whiplash. Sort of.
Now let’s see the version with intact Wagnerian Fisher King symbolism:
1) Arc reactor technology was created by Tony Stark’s father and Ivan Vanko, working together.
2) Tony’s father sins, stealing the technology from Vanko and kicking him out of the country.
3) Vanko’s son comes back looking for wholly justified revenge; a nemesis straight out of Greek tragedy.
4) Tony tries fighting Whiplash, and seems to defeat him, but this defeat cannot be final/satisfying, because his father’s sin has not been expiated.
5) Tony must make restitution for his father’s sin before he can truly defeat Whiplash.
To my taste, this is already streets ahead of the Mickey Rourke plot we saw in theaters. Let’s check in with the Vibranium plot. Here’s the way it went down in the film we saw:
1) Arc reactor technology was created by Tony Stark’s father.
2) Technology is killing Tony — because Tony doesn’t believe in himself? Because he doesn’t realize how much his father loved him? Or something. No compelling reason, that’s for sure.
3) Tony must fix the technology by inventing Vibranium
Yucksville. Now let’s do the Fisher King version:
1) Arc reactor technology was stolen by Tony Stark’s father.
2) Technology is killing Tony — because of his father’s sin
3) In order to fix technology, Tony must first make restitution.
See how much better that works now? And it’s easy as hell to write it, too. The secret key for making Vibranium should not come from Stark’s father’s ripoff of Epcot Center, but from Whiplash
Had Stark’s father not double-crossed his old partner (we would learn), the arc reactor would have been perfected back in the 70s, and Stark would not be dying of Palladium poisoning. (Think about Rourke’s parting line in the prison sequence: “Palladium in the chest — painful way to die!” Doesn’t that work so much better if the taunt is not “Haw haw, you’re dying,” but rather “I know something you don’t know?” This is one of those places where I honestly believe an earlier, more Wagnerian draft of the script is shining through.) The whole middle section of the movie needs to be about Stark coming to terms with this: first refusing to believe his old man was a bad guy, then admitting it, and then uniting with Vanko to finish what their parents started. And sure, if you want to, have Vanko go back to being bad at the end… maybe Hammer approaches him and makes an offer he can’t refuse, maybe he realizes that all the money and recognition in the world won’t bring his father back and just flips out. Maybe he thinks that a world with only one superpower is tyranny, and wants to distribute power armor to every government in the world free of charge. Hell, to really unite ALL the movie’s themes, maybe he takes the U.S. government’s side and tries to turn over the suit to Senator Gary Shandling (who would need to be even more conspicuously dickish, in this version of the narrative). Whiplash gets blown up, and then in the last scene, we see Tony unveiling the new and improved Arc Reactor at the closing ceremonies of the Stark Expo. We cut to a close up as he takes a deep breath, and starts off with something like “The miracle you’re going to witness today would not have been possible without the efforts of two men, Ivan and Anton Venko…” and possibly even talking some trash about his own father along the way. (Think back again to the opening of the movie, where Tony says something like “The Stark Expo was my father’s dream and his gift to the world, because he was a prince among men who farts rainbows and sneezes gumdrops!” Doesn’t that make more sense if it’s setting up a fifth act reversal, where Tony gets up on stage to let everyone know what a so-and-so his old man really was?)
It’s pretty easy to see why they couldn’t do this plot, though. For one thing, there’s no room in it for Nick Fury and the Agents of M.A.R.K.E.T.I.N.G. S.Y.N.E.R.G.Y. And therefore no room for Scarlet Johansson’s catsuit. For another, America may not be ready is demonstrably not ready for a big-budget action movie where the main character’s father really does turn out to be an irredeemable asshole. Most of all, this version makes you sympathize with terrorists. Make no mistake, when Whiplash jumps out on the track and starts chopping up racecars, that’s a terrorist act – to then turn around and say “you know what, he had his reasons for doing that, and while he may still be a bad guy he was probably right to feel as angry as he did,” would be a pretty radical move.
Even in the version that made it to theaters, mind you, the terrorist Whiplash is more sympathetic than the corrupt American businessman Hammer. And THAT’S interesting. But it’s a topic for another post.