Examining the Marvel Supervillains: Ivan Vanko AKA Whiplash

Michael Lee is a writer, script consultant, script reader and judge. He’s worked as a creative executive for a few production companies and as reader and judge for some of the most prestigious screenwriting contests in the country including PAGE and Final Draft Big Break. He’s recently optioned his latest project: a science-fiction comedy entitled How to Conquer the Earth. Follow Michael on Facebook and Twitter:@GoldenAgeofGeek.

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Examining the Marvel Supervillains: Ivan Vanko AKA Whiplash by Michael Lee | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

With the first Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk under their belts, Marvel Studios and their ambitious MCU project were off and running. For the third movie, they returned to the superhero who had kicked things off, Iron Man. It’s here that we really see a lot of foundational work getting thrown into the narrative. Other characters are introduced that will become important to other movies in the series as well as the future Iron Man 3. Tony Stark’s friend Rhodey gets his own set of battle armor and becomes War Machine. Nick Fury who has just a brief moment at the end of the first Iron Man becomes a full fledged character, and we’re introduced to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. And that was just the good guys.

This was a bit of risky move because at the time the prevailing wisdom was that too many super beings in one movie would sink it. This was commonly believed to be the fault of Sam Rami’s Spiderman 3. But putting multiple super powered people in the same movie was one of the reasons Marvel formed its own studio in the first place. They pressed on and the result was another success.

Once again, Marvel took a slightly different approach. Where the first Iron Man was as much a character study as it was an action movie, Iron Man 2 was a character study with some special effects action sequences thrown in. This movie took an even closer look at the main character—this time delving into his complicated relationship with his deceased father. In doing so, this movie added another important character to the Marvel Universe though fans and critics at the time may not of have realized it; Tony’s father—Howard Stark—played by John Slattery. There’s a hint at how important Howard Stark is to this version of the Marvel Universe in what many thought was just an Easter Egg for the fans. In the scene, Tony finds a shield remarkably like the one used by Captain America among his father’s belongings. But that actually turned out to be a vital clue as to who Howard Stark really was and how involved he was with the secret organization SHIELD. Since Iron Man 2, the character Howard Stark has been in almost as many Marvel movies as Tony has. As it turns out, Howard Stark is the surprising connection between Tony and this film’s supervillain.

As last time a warning; SPOILERS AHEAD.

The Movie : Iron Man 2

The Supervillain: Ivan Vanko AKA Whiplash

This time around, the supervillain almost counts as a new creation. He’s a mashup of a 1980s villain named Blacklash and one of Iron Man’s original enemies, Anton Vanko the Crimson Dynamo. The Crimson Dynamo was a product of Iron Man’s Cold War origins. Anton Vanko was a Soviet scientist who created his own battle armor which of course was all in red. Blacklash was a product of the glorious 80s as filmmakers gave his look an update. This time the results were much more successful. The new Whiplash character design was an instant classic and has a unmistakable silhouette. The character’s background doesn’t match up with either the of the comic inspirations, so he’s closer to a film original creation.

Ivan Vanko is the son of a former associate of Howard Stark’s. Vanko blames Howard and for his father’s ruin and has decided Tony should pay for his father’s sins. This ties in with Tony’s own struggles. Throughout the movie, Tony tries to come to terms with his long dead father, a man about whom he has very mixed emotions. Vanko’s accusations seem to confirm the more negative feelings Tony has towards Howard. In many ways, this is a continuation of the arc begun in the first Iron Man. Tony is a very complex character and in these first two movies he is closely tied to the enemies that threaten him. Marvel would push this further in his next three movies. In the subsequent entries, Tony actually helps to create the foes he must later defeat almost like Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein from the Hammer films. But in this film, he’s not quite there yet. He didn’t make Ivan Vanko any more than he made Obadiah Stane. In fact, Howard may not have created Vanko.

The film isn’t perfect. It isn’t as highly regarded as the first Iron Man. That film was groundbreaking and nearly flawless in its execution.  Iron Man 2 had big boots to fill and at times, feels like Tony is on a personal journey of discovery and the super heroics are more of a distraction. It’s also that Tony and Vanko only have one scene together in between battles. It’s a good scene but it’s hardly the Christian Bale/Heath Ledger confrontation from Dark Knight. It’s odd because in this case the villain mirrors what the hero is thinking or feeling. Vanko has a grudge against Howard Stark and at that moment, Tony is feeling pretty ambivalent about his father as well. It’s a great dynamic and one that again shows Marvel’s ambition. But it’s a character dynamic that really needs more than just one scene to make it work.

I should also mention Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer. Hammer is pretty much what he is in the comics, an evil industrialist. He’s also a very minor character. He first appeared in 1979 and while many comics fans have heard of him, he never made much of an impression. The same thing happens here despite a good performance by Rockwell. He does move the plot along and provide a few entertaining moments but that’s about it. At this point Marvel hadn’t quite figured out how to take minor characters from their roster and make them shine. They would do a much better job in later years leading to some of their most acclaimed work.

Iron Man 2 was another critical and commercial success for Marvel. Its MCU project was now gearing up towards its first big milestone. The film may not have reached the heights of its predecessor but it was still a very good and Marvel’s reputation for quality films was beginning to grow. But after three films and three supervillains, they hadn’t quite found one worthy of bringing back for second round.

That would change with their next film.

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