The Case for Ivan Vanko

or "If I Had a Hammer"
Tony Stark interrogates his past
This is a response to this YouTube video from Nando V Movies. If you haven't watched that video... I mean... you can if you want to. But here's a summary of his argument:
  • Iron Man 2 has too many villains
  • Removing a villain allows for better character development and story continuity
  • The only villain should be Justin Hammer
  • Ivan should be a random non-character scientist if he's named in the movie at all

So, to his credit, the guy makes some good points, from a purely entertainment-oriented perspective. Removing Ivan allows for Justin Hammer's character to get more development, more screen time, and he does provide an excellent opponent to the new Tony Stark ex Iron Man 1. (Nando uses the term "foil" but I'm not quite sure that's an accurate description of Justin in the film as we have it, which you'll see as you keep reading.) And yes, the character is excellently portrayed by Sam Rockwell and he can dance! So yeah, removing Ivan and focusing on Justin Hammer as the villain would make for an exciting and dramatic adventure film.


Nando is wrong. Why? There are a number of narrative reasons:

  • Iron Man 2 mirrors Iron Man 1
  • It inverts Iron Man 1
  • The story isn't about external conflicts

And that last one is the big one. Because Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko aren't villains. They're set pieces.

The villain of Iron Man 2 is Tony Stark.

So Iron Man 2 mirrors Iron Man 1 in several ways. Tony starts out in the film as a happy-go-lucky nonchalant philanderer and he ends as a mature, realized super hero in a (semi)stable relationship. We're introduced to an opponent in the form of a "low life seeking revenge" cliché, and another opponent in the form of a sophisticated merchant of death; Ivan Vanko is to Raza as Justin Hammer is to Obadiah Stane. But Iron Man 2 also inverts Iron Man 1. In Iron Man 1 we see the sophisticated arms dealer outsmart and defeat the low-life to become the Warmonger, while in Iron Man 2 the low-life outsmarts and defeats the arms dealer to become Whiplash.

These are both stylistic and artistic renderings that build on the successful structure of Iron Man 1 while providing a unique and fresh experience. This is the "entertainment" side of the narrative that gives us the dramatic explosions and Iron Man "suit-up" sequences that we adrenaline junky audiences crave. But this is all more or less extraneous to the main narrative. Hammer Drones and the Whiplash armor exist solely to supply background, color, and context to the real conflict of the story.

The real conflict is Tony vs Tony. After making the decision to build the Iron Man suit and become Iron Man, he has to make a choice - as all superheroes do - between his old self (thematically represented by Justin Hammer) and his new self (thematically represented by Whiplash). He has to face the death and destruction his old self caused, but also recognize the destruction and chaos that his new Iron Man persona brings (which is why both Justin and Whiplash are represented as violent, chaotic, destructive characters, though Justin also represents Tony's old "carelessness", which is why Justin also plays the punchline with weapons that don't work). Tony still wrestles with the bad habits and poor choices of his past (thematically represented by Christine Everhart's reappearance and by the way Tony treats his new personal assistant, Natalie Rushman) and he must accept the consequences of his father's legacy (bad legacy represented by Ivan Vanko, good legacy represented by the new arc reactor chest piece). Amidst all of this chaos that his choice to become Iron Man has brought upon him, Tony faces a new decision: What kind of a man does he want to be? A decision that becomes more and more meaningless (and yet more pressing), while Tony becomes more and more nihilistic, as that choice to become Iron Man slowly kills him.

I could go on and on supporting this argument with more detailed descriptions of the metaphors and discussing the blocking of scenes like the one in the title image, but I trust that you get the point and can fill in those blanks on your own.

All of these characters and objects and events in the film serve as metaphorical representations of the inner demons that Tony now faces, the dark side of being a superhero. The real story is about Tony overcoming Tony to become not just a man in an "iron" suit, but to be Iron Man. If we remove one of these set pieces, like Ivan Vanko, we remove that entire portion of Tony's internal struggle and character arc. Without Whiplash, there is no metaphor for the chaos and destruction that super heroes invite by their very existence (a theme explored more thoroughly in Civil War) and which Tony must face and accept as part of the mantle of heroism (and that acceptance also gets more treatment in Civil War). While Nando's take may have given us an entertaining blockbuster film, it would have failed to give us the character growth that Tony Stark needed to become the Iron Man that he is in Avengers Endgame. 

tl;dr: Ivan Vanko is necessary as a metaphor for Tony's inner demons and Iron Man 2 is not just an action adventure blockbuster movie, but it's a poetic story about a man struggling against his own nature to become something more.

In all fairness, I think Nando's version of the film would have been very entertaining and I would have enjoyed seeing Justin Hammer's character given more development. Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 both seem to hold a lower tier of popularity in the MCU and an argument could be made that the MCU could exist entirely without them and not suffer at all. I won't make that argument, but someone could. And I think this is because these movies are character studies and character studies are inherently less interesting to general audiences. Sure, both movies could be rewritten to make one or more other characters into more compelling villains, but that detracts from the purpose they serve to develop Tony's character. I think removing either movie, or retelling either movie in a more "popular" format, would make Tony's sacrifice in Endgame less believable and less compelling. 



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