Iron Man and “Nothing Happens”

I realized something today. I mean, a lot of this is going to sound obvious, but there’s something that’s been nagging at the back of my mind, and it finally crystalized into a real idea.

Iron Man 2 wasn’t a great movie. It was good, I mean, okay anyway. But not great. And when I think about it, Iron Man 1 kinda sucked near the end.

So what did the first half of the first movie have that the rest of the series didn’t? The most obvious answer is the origin story, but I don’t think that’s it. We’ve all seen origin stories, and everybody knew he was going to turn into Iron Man anyway, so there wasn’t a whole lot of mystery there.

Come to think of it, there wasn’t a whole lot of plot. Don’t get me wrong, I know the plot was there, but just look at how it starts out. Weapons builder billionaire, and I don’t care what you think of the 1%, this guy was charming. He’s hit by mortar fire in the most realistic war footage I’ve seen since Black Hawk Down. Then it’s half an hour of him just… surviving.

He’s tied to a car battery. That’s not plot, but it’s interesting. He’s got an interpreter who is also a slave. Again, it doesn’t push the story forward, but it’s compelling. Bad guys are watching him all the time. Engrossing, but not plot. In fact, the only part that can be called plot is “he has to build a bomb or die”.

We all figure out pretty quickly that he’s building the first Iron Man suit, so it’s not too surprising there. But think about that. The engrossing parts had nothing to do with the plot. “Tell me about your family” Tony Stark says to his interpreter. We watch them build the suit, we see his plans taking shape. This isn’t about the suit, it’s about two guys working, hiding, plotting, and trying to stay alive.

Once Stark breaks out, the movie is still engrossing, because we watch his development into the Mark 1 and Mark 2. We see a scientist doing science-y things. Again, it’s not plot that’s interesting, it’s watching people living and striving to do something. It’s not about the goal, it’s about the journey.

So think about the rest of the movie. Obadiah Stain is such an obvious villain that he may as well have been accepting the award for “Most transparent bad guy since Time Bandits”. That he wants to steal the technology is a given. That he sells arms to our enemies is no surprise. There was one brief part that was kinda cool, where he rips Tony’s heart out, but that’s about it. Everything else is basic Hollywood plot. Bad guy is a traitor to good guy, good guy goes after bad guy, bad guy threatens love interest, bad guy gets big weapon, good guy is nearly pummeled, but comes back in a big (blah blah blah). The second movie was the same way. It even opens with “Bad guy has big weapon…” Very formulaic.

Okay, but if it’s formulaic, that’s because the formula works, right? I mean, that’s how it got to be a formula. The plot computer punched out when each point should happen, the writers massaged them together with as much continuity and one-liners as possible, and everybody was happy with their mass market appeal.

So why did I like the first part of the first movie so much better? I think it’s because of Nathan Lowell, Deborah Geary, and a little thing I like to call “Nothing happens.”

If you know those two names, you know that they are massively successful mid list authors who are famous for the criticism, “Nothing happens.” Sure, the hero is living in space, but he’s just living. He’s not… you know… doing anything. He’s taking tests, cleaning things, helping people do their maintenance work. You’ve got a coven of witches who have their own chat room, but they just sit around talking about guys and eating ice cream. How is that a cool story?

But this is the same undefinable thing that makes the first part of Iron Man so compelling. You hear this all the time from the big name writers, but it always sounds like sentimental bullshit – “It’s not about the plot, it’s about the characters.”

In Iron Man, you know he’s doing something, but that’s not why you’re watching him. You want to watch him because he’s just a good guy, and you want to hang with good guys. You want to see him succeed, not to save the world, but because it’s cool to succeed.

You want to watch that space janitor pass his tests, not because it means he’ll captain his own ship into dangers untold, but just because it’s cool to see your friends do well. You want to hear about what the coven of witches is doing, because some of them have personal issues, and you want to see your friends overcome those problems.

The key thing here is, it doesn’t matter how big or small the problem is. It doesn’t matter how immediate or far out the goal is. If you have a good character, readers will follow along, and beg for more, just to see them do well.

It’s the ultimate form of escapism. I want to watch a life that is so normal I can almost believe it, but is still succeeding and advancing. It’s a type of story that I want to write, and one that I hope I’ve written in my latest book.

I took a big chance on Invito Rex, because in this story, I’m letting the characters drive everything. I’m too steeped in action to have a story with no assassinations or explosions, chase scenes or bear polo. But at the same time, I’m giving the characters time to just be themselves, explain themselves, work out problems themselves. I’m getting dangerously close to “Nothing Happens” in some places.

Now that I think about it, I want to change that name. I don’t want to write a “Nothing Happens” book. I want to write a “Helping my friends” book.

Maybe that’s too touchy-feely. But then again, with all the murder and gunfire and superhero action in the other books, maybe it’s just touchy-feely enough.

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  1. As a writer, those books are the most frustrating, the most work, and the most rewarding. The first time I tried for one of those was Down From Ten. I’ve done a couple since, and the general approach has seeped deep into even my thrillers. It’s deeply satisfying, and SO much fun. Congrats on crawling out on this limb. I can’t wait to read the result 🙂


    • I gotta admit, I’m really afraid that I’m going to try to do what they did, but I won’t have that “X” factor that makes their stories work. Or worse, my action-oriented normal writing style will completely ruin it.

      So yeah, it’s either gonna be great, or horrible. No halfway measures here.

  2. Ha! We’ve got you now…

  3. I couldn’t agree any better about that thing of the part 2 of the film not as bad-ass as it seems. I wish they could have just given the sequel to Thor.