Taste-testing Burger King's Iron Man 2-themed Whiplash Whopper.

What to eat. What not to eat.
June 1 2010 3:37 PM

The Whiplash Whopper

Taste-testing Burger King's Iron Man 2-themed sandwich.

Burger King.

Burger King launched a promotional campaign for Iron Man 2 in April featuring an array of limited-time-only children's toys, a flash game at ClubBK.com called "Iron Man 2 Zoom Space," and a commercial in which their hideous mascot dons the Iron Man suit and terrorizes a trade show. It also debuted the Whiplash Whopper: a pepper-laden, Iron Man 2-themed sandwich that, theoretically, is as hot as the movie itself.

Burger King has lately made a practice of offering Whopper variations as direct tie-ins with blockbusters. In 2008, the chain introduced the Indy Whopper (bacon, spicy mayo, and pepper jack cheese) alongside Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. That same year, Burger Kings in the United Kingdom sold the Dark Whopper (pepper-jack cheese, black-pepper ketchup, and "a darkly delicious sauce") to commemorate the release of The Dark Knight. And it's not just movies that get the Whopper treatment—last year, Japanese Burger Kings sold the Windows 7 Whopper, a seven-patty monstrosity inspired by Microsoft's latest operating system.

I enjoy both burgers and movies, and am drawn to the idea of eating a burger inspired by a movie, unless that movie is Soylent Green. Having unaccountably missed out on Burger King's previous stunts, I hurried to their closest outlet and tried the Whiplash on two separate occasions, both before and after I saw Iron Man 2. My objectives: to see how the sandwich tasted, how accurately it captured the spirit of the film, and whether it played well with Burger King's target demographic of young, hungry males.

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This young, hungry male started off confused by the burger's name. To me, "Whiplash Whopper" connotes a horrible car crash, not a light-hearted superhero movie starring Robert Downey Jr. as a magical robot. Apparently the movie's villain—a laconic Russian who wields a pair of electrified whips—is named Whiplash, although you wouldn't know it from watching the movie, because no one ever calls him that. He's called "Ivan."

The Whiplash Whopper retails for $4.78 with tax at the Burger King across the street from Manhattan's Port Authority Bus Terminal, and it features the Whopper's standard "flame-grilled" patty topped with lettuce, tomato, ketchup, pepper jack cheese, spiced mayonnaise, and fried red peppers. My burger was cruddy-looking—the cheese barely melted, the lettuce a feeble green, the peppers resembling nothing so much as onion-ring droppings—but, then again, it was also a cruddy looking Burger King, the customers at least 40 percent more haggard than your typical fast-food patrons.

As is often the case with fast food, however, the burger tasted better than it looked. The pepper-jack cheese was a nice addition, and the fried peppers gave further evidence for my long-held belief that crunchiness invariably makes sandwiches better. Most fast-food burgers live or die on their toppings, since the patty itself always tastes like a bland, spongy meat composite. Here, the toppings combined nicely, offering a robust and relatively balanced cross-section of flavors. While I can't agree with one Twitter user's contention that the Whiplash Whopper would be a fine choice for a condemned man's last meal, I could certainly see myself eating this sandwich at a pre-trial hearing, or while watching Court TV.

That said, the first sandwich was over-sauced to the point that it lingered in my mouth, like regret, long after the meal was over. The second Whiplash Whopper, which I ate one week later, boasted much more competent mayo work, but it was topped with American cheese instead of pepper jack and had been drowned in ketchup. There was a paucity of peppers on the first burger and a surplus on the second. Obviously, the BK kitchen staff was confused about the proper construction of this burger.

A marketing venture like this would seem to have two main goals: to get Burger King patrons excited to see Iron Man 2, and to get Iron Man 2 fans into a Burger King. In my view, the promotion fails on both counts. I had the Whiplash Whopper both before and after I saw the movie, and at neither point was I geared up to watch Iron Man 2 or to wear electrified whips and menace the good citizens of Monaco. Conversely, Iron Man 2 didn't instill in me any great desire to eat an Iron Man-themed sandwich. This is mostly because it was a terrible movie featuring a minor Marvel character of little real interest to anyone except comic-book fans. I have no residual childhood nostalgia for Iron Man, and the movie wasn't good enough to make me want to see how it tasted in burger form. An Indiana Jones Whopper makes some sort of sense, because Jones is a truly beloved character from a classic movie series that remains tremendously popular almost 30 years after it first screened. Thirty years from now, nobody will be watching Iron Man 2, except perhaps in the course of aversion therapy.

Of course, the marketers also simply want to raise awareness of both brands, under the assumption that just hearing the names Iron Man 2 and Burger King could subliminally influence consumers to patronize one or the other. Divorced from its accompanying promotional material, however, the phrase "Whiplash Whopper" means nothing. As I mentioned, no one ever calls the villain "Whiplash," and Iron Man 2, while an unpleasant experience, has nothing to do with neck injuries (although there is a long sequence where Robert Downey Jr. enters a Grand Prix auto race). The sandwich could have just as easily been called the Caliente Burger, set to premiere on Cinco de Mayo, or the Summer Whopper ("The weather's heating up … and so is the Whopper!") or something like that. It's a forced and unnatural association, and one that seems unlikely to stick.

Perhaps the concept would work better if the movie had more to do with food. For something like Big Night, with its long and orgiastic dinner scenes, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where candy mushrooms grow on the banks of a chocolate river, a food tie-in might directly remind consumers of the movie. Iron Man 2 features few dining scenes and no burgers at all. The characters eat donuts, and strawberries, and omelettes, and organic Italian ice cream, and they drink a surprising amount of Dr. Pepper. Mickey Rourke is often shown chewing a toothpick. The only character who looks like he's ever eaten a Whopper is an overweight manservant played by Jon Favreau—and he gets beaten up by a girl.

The promotion just wound down, and Burger King executives will soon be able to gauge its success. Obviously, the sales numbers will be important, but Blair Chancey of the industry magazine QSRsuggests that the Burger King people will also pay close attention to how the burger was received on social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and on sites such as YouTube. The best Whiplash Whopper-themed YouTube video I found was a grainy, 17-second clip of a mush-mouthed youth pretending that the burger actually gave him whiplash, which as of Tuesday afternoon had been viewed exactly 154 times. Perhaps not the social-media triumph that BK may have been expecting. But, hey, I still liked it better than Iron Man 2.

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Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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