Midway through Iron Man 2, there’s a scene that works better at humanizing the protagonist than any I’ve seen yet in a superhero film. Tony Stark is in the office of Pepper Potts. He has to tell her terrible news. He sits down, and starts fumbling to tell her, but there’s a tension: one of those perpetual motion machines that people keep on their desk is bobbing back and forth right in front of him, breaking the mood. So he breaks the mood, too, by stopping and acknowledging that he just can’t make this announcement with this little thing wobbling back and forth in front of him.
I had to perform a little mental checklist, and I can confirm that I can’t think of another example of a superhero, even as “an ordinary citizen”, being so self-conscious. The reason is straightforward, I think: they’re usually too busy having conversations about what it means to be responsible and if they’re being responsible enough and whether being responsible is ruining their personal lives. All this responsibility pushes out the goofier moments in most comic-book movies, and their presence here gave the movie a substantially different tone.
On the more technical side, there’s another strong point when Tony Stark has an “ah-ha” moment (making a major realization) that goes down much more smoothly than in the typical episode of House (which has them so regularly at the end of the episode that there’s practically a time window in which you can expect them to appear).
I won’t spoil it, but I think it’s enough to say that the moment I’m talking about plays off something introduced a few minutes earlier so subtly that when Stark makes the realization, it almost feels intuitive, since the audience itself has probably come close to making the same connection. Likewise, the scene with the perpetual motion machine works almost perfectly because we the audience are also bothered by the machine, so it feels perfectly natural that it’s upsetting him. This is perfect sleight of hand: not so obvious that the audience notices anything being introduced, but not so generic in its mise-en-scene that we’re surprised when it takes on significance.
There’s another kind of more dubious sleight of hand, though, because there are times when the plot, moving right along, drops some ideas that seem as though they are going to be developed. In the first act of the movie, Tony Stark talks a lot about his right to be Iron Man and not have the suit taken away by the government. It would seem like this would be the beginning of a moral dilemma – Should we be protected by moral do-gooders or by the law? – a big theme in The Dark Knight that was more or less successfully explored in that movie.
I was pulled along without worrying about it too much, but by the end of the movie I realized they had never really answered the question, or a few others, such as why Justin Hammer is such a dick (other than petty jealousy?) or what kind of person Pepper Potts might be (other than a basic foil to Tony Stark). But, whoops, the plot kept me moving so fast, I didn’t see these shuffled to the bottom of the deck.