May 03, 2008

If they”€™re any good, superhero movies speak to something larger than just kicking, flying, punching, and rescuing: Batman strikes a nerve as the vigilante, perhaps motivated by revenge, who is attacked by the very people he protects (a kind anarcho-tyranny story, if you will).

Although Marvel and Warner Bros. ensured that “€œIron Man“€ would be edgy and hip by hiring Robert Downey Jr. to play the lead, the central allegory at the heart of the story seems to be one whose time has past. Man turning himself into Machine”€”thus gaining special powers but then perhaps losing his self”€”is evocative of the anxieties and ambivalences of the industrial age. The nightmare that the Machines or Robots will take over the world”€”articulated in “€œTerminator 2: Judgment Day”€ or the Japanamation classic “€œAkira”€“€”is no longer part of the Zeitgeist. (Although The Onion has just hilariously revived the genre.) Even the nightmares of the not-too distant Computer Age are pretty much curdled milk”€”the famous 2000 cover of Wired, featuring a man turning himself into a computer, now seems hokey and quaint. The postindustrial age is all about soft wares not hard, about man becoming pure digital spirit”€””€œeMan”€ or something like this.

If “€œIron Man”€”€”directed by John Favreau and written by John August and a host of others”€”dispenses with any ambivalent fascinations with transhumanism, then it does try to evoke a few of our ambivalences regarding the post-9/11 world, the war on terror, homeland security, and the military industrial complex. Or perhaps “€œambivalences”€ is the wrong word. “€œIron Man”€ is certainly an enjoyable romp, but in its self-conscious attempt to be something a little more, it mainly tries to throw everyone a bone or two.

Are you critical of capitalists making money off weapons manufacturing? So is, eventually, our hero. Do you support the GWOT? Most everyone’s patriotic, and we”€™ve got properly evil-looking terrorist, even one with a big scare! Are you a liberal interventionist? So is our hero. Are you a principled conservative who wants a strong national defense but doesn”€™t much go in for swooping down from above to intervene in conflicts in foreign lands? …well, I guess “€œIron Man”€ can”€™t please everyone

The movie version of “€œIron Man”€ is actually quite faithful to the spirit of the original comic book as it presents the industrial capitalist as superhero. And “€œTony Stark,”€ in the hands of Downey Jr., is a kind of non-Geeky and hawkish Steve Jobs: a fantastically creative weapons manufacturer, who’s more Silicon Valley than Military Industrial Complex, and who’s seduced all 12 of 12 of last years Maxim covergirls. He’s also an O”€™Reilly type who defines World Peace as “€œhaving a bigger stick than the other guy.”€ In one of the film’s first sequences, an uppity leftist journalist from Vanity Fair, who just happens to be really hot, approaches Stark and criticizes him using some that smarty-pants language she picked up at Brown. Stark offers a brilliant rejoinder and then beds the brawd in a jiffy.    

Downey’s Stark is also a kind of Francisco D”€™Anconia figure, the kid who inherits everything from his old man and then becomes a spoiled playboy and a genius with the Midas touch. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Stark’s special assistant and flirt interest, Miss Pepper Potts. Paltrow seems to be returning to the roles she played in the late “€™90s, before her career peaked: the kind, quirky girl who deserves, but doesn”€™t quite get, the guy.

From the get go, “€œIron Man”€ makes itself timely. Mr. Stark is off to Afghansitan, or some such place, to sell his “€œJericho”€ cluster bomb missile thingamajig in his new “€œfreedom line”€ of superweapons. He’s accompanied by his buddy in the Air Force, Jim Rhodes. Just after making the deal and popping the champagne, his caravan runs into a IED, and Stark is captured by some really mean-looking terrorists.    

The terrorists have apprehended all the weapons materiel and are demanding that Stark build the Jreicho weapon for them”€”or else. Stark hatches a plan: instead of giving the Jericho to the evil doers, he”€™ll pretend to construct the missile but instead create a kick-ass suit of iron with guns and rocket engines that will help him blast his way out of the bad guys”€™ cavernous layer.

The plan comes off, but when Start returns to civilization, he’s a changed man. In the Afghan desert, he apparently found a social conscience, and in a major press conference, he claims that he’s given up his hawkishness, all to the exasperation of the second in command of Stark industries, Obadiah Stane, played wonderfully by Jeff Daniels as a “€œslap ya”€™ on the back”€ bearded version of Jack Welch.  

But don”€™t worry, old Tony won”€™t become a pacifist”€”boooring“€”he wants to further explore the potential of the supersuite he developed in the Afghan cave, as well as the superbattery Stark installed into his chest (I”€™ll refrain from going into this). As you already know from the previews, he gives his new titanium gold-alloy costume a hotrod paint job, develops its flying capacity, and adds on sonic blasters.

The really interesting part of the film comes when that enterprising hot journalist Stark bagged earlier on returns with some intel revealing that someone at Stark Industries has been selling the Jericho missiles to the bad guys, who are using them to do really bad things. The blonde bleeding heart says something about Stark’s “€œaccountability,”€ a leitmotif that returns throughout the film and never really makes sense.

Tony paces to and fro in his apartment as he watches a CNN report on some kind of atrocity in some far off land, all perpetuated by his products. Finally, he simply can”€™t take it any more, and straps on his suite and becomes”€”Intervention Man! He flies off to said arid clime and saves the day, a superhero surgical strike.

I”€™m sure that Samantha Power and Bill Kristol have had similar wetdreams while sitting on the couch watching some maudlin cablenews reporting”€”why can”€™t we just do something! Iron Man is truly the first superhero of the Interventionist Class.  

Sonny Bunch over at Kirstol’s Weekly Standard is thus only half right when he writes:

This is not a “conservative” movie, per se, but it is the film equivalent of a Rorschach test. If you go into “€œIron Man”€ seeking right-wing imagery, you’ll find it: Tony Stark is a patriot, pro-military, and likes unilateral intervention. If you go into “€œIron Man”€ looking for left-wing imagery, you’ll find that, too: The true villain here is Stane, representing an out-of-control military-industrial complex. Still, it’s refreshing to go to the multiplex and find a universe where terrorists are despicable and Americans are heroic.

Yes, there are some critiques of the Military Industrial Complex to please subscribers to The Nation; however, “€œIron Man”€ is “€œheroic”€ and pleasing to all because the superhero fights enemies that are very different than anything we”€™re facing in Iraq. When “€œIron Man”€ arrives, the bad guys are using the Jericho missiles to ethnically cleanse a town and create a refugee crisis. There are scenes of the separation of men from women and children that seem to be out of “€œSchindler’s List.”€ These are “€œterrorists”€ who are recognizable as Nazis or evil Serbs. Absent are any dilemmas over democratizing them, when to leave, how an American presence might inspire an insurgency, etc. The audience is left to root on the superhero as humanitarian interventionist in a situation with no consequences or mess to clean up. 

The big bad Military Industrial Complex isn”€™t so much criticized as redeemed“€”(without giving the plot away) the crazy guy who made the MIC evil is destroyed and the well-intentioned Stark can go on doing his thing and saving the world. 

Stark’s descent into the war zone is actually inter-spliced with footage of Jim Rhodes and his Air Force buddies in Strategic Command waiting, just waiting to intervene but being prevented by the presence of human shields (or perhaps some liberal naysayers in Washington). Only Iron Man can do the job!

At the end of the film, Iron Man and the lovely Miss Potts team up with a shadowy figure from the government’s Strategic Homeland Intervention Emergency Logistic Division (figure out the cute acronym for yourself.) It’s tacitly understood that the double secret office of government will collaborate with the Man of Iron to do good works around the world.

As “€œLions and Lambs”€ and “€œStop-Loss”€ made clear, American moviegoers aren”€™t much interested in attending antiwar films, or ones that detail the sorrow of hardship of soldiers and their families. But then why should they? We all like to go to theater to escape. What is a sure-fire box-office formula is a film that personifies American foreign policy as a cool superhero do-gooder flying around the world saving the day”€”throw in a few barbs against evil capitalists, all the better.  


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!