Amoeblog


Hegemonic Fantasies Make Me Feel Like an American, Part II: Iron Man

Posted by Charles Reece, May 4, 2008 08:48pm | Post a Comment
Just look at all that merchandising and sequel potential!

I have a special relation to the Iron Man comic; it was my first.  Due to Uncle Skeeter giving me issue 52 as a Christmas present, I developed a lifelong obsession with the graphic narrative form (i.e., it made me a comics nerd, but never this nerdy).  Despite the ablative effects of my high school years, in which I temporarily replaced my adolescent recreational addiction with one of a more illicit kind, I still remember that comic, due to a picture of me clutching it by a Christmas tree.  So, I guess it's a combination of nostalgia, the (more often than not) sobriety of adulthood and the promise of no Ben Affleck that keeps me going back to shitty Hollywood adaptations of superhero comics I rarely read these days.  Thankfully, Iron Man the movie is pretty good.

Even without narcotics, the Iron Man comic is pretty forgettable.  I only remember a few of his villains: The Mandarin, a Fu Manchu ripoff who wore a specially powered ring on each of his fingers; the Unicorn, a technological foe who shot repulsor beams from his forehead; the Viet Cong, dreaded communists who envied his capitalist knowhow and freedom (aka surplus leisure time); and the bottle, which took something like a 120 issues before it became a problem.  Mainstream entertainment isn't allowed to mock other nationalities anymore -- at least not explicitly -- so the Mandarin was out as a villain for the movie.  However, fearing foreign ideologies is still in fashion.  Only problem is that communists make better capitalists than classic liberals do these days, so Red-baiting wouldn't hold much cachet.  Ang Lee's The Hulk demonstrated that most people don't go to see superhero films for an analysis of domestic problems, so alcoholism will have to wait for a subplot in the turgid third installment.  And a guy who shoots beams from his forehead would probably look pretty stupid on the big screen, giving the screenwriters and production designers migraines trying to come up with some phony explanation for why his head doesn't snap back when he fires. 

Back when we were seeing communists in every bush, Iron Man served as a fantasy to supplant our fear of losing dominance in the world.  Not to be outdone by James Bond -- Ian Fleming's nostalgic fantasy for the fading British empire -- Tony Stark did everything better.  He slept with hot foreign girls and then discarded them (or, at least, it was implied to the degree that the Comics Code Authority would allow), played with fancy gadgets and traveled all over the world fighting the villainous Other.  Only, Stark was the gadget, and didn't need Q or the government, since he was an independently wealthy industrialist inventor, too.  His dalliances and battles were with the superpowerful.  And he got to travel throughout the universe, not just the Earth.  Talk about overcompensating for fear that your 13 inches just ain't big enough.  That's why, when Marvel gave the character his own comic in their Hollywood-ready line, the Ultimate Universe, they got sci-fi author and part-time right-wing nut, Orson Scott Card, to write it.  I haven't read Card's Ultimate Iron Man, but I bet his conservative Mormon outlook tends to frown upon the pathetic aspects underlying Stark's personal vices, and not the striding-around-the-gym-locker-room-with-your-dangling-dong metaphor that is the central focus of the character.

Not being one to shy away from America bashing, Scottish writer Mark Millar was more than willing to explore the darker parts of the fantasy with his realistic take on the the Avengers in the Ultimates ('realism' meaning here the updating of former implausibilities in a fantasy so that they seem more plausible to a contemporary audience, only to have them become implausible once again to some future audience -- cf. method acting).  Millar recognized that if Iron Man was to have any sort of realistic relation to our world, he'd have to be a tool of the military industrial complex.  The Ultimate Stark was shown making realpolitik compromises, taking orders from military officials, and establishing plausible deniability when some of the Utlimates' fuck-ups caused collateral damage (such as the Hulk eating people in NY).  Not being able to suppress his own humanist desire to see the best in people (or, rather, people's fantasies), Millar re-establishes Iron Man's essential heroism by having him reject military and government interference.  The Ultimates become independent agents, but only with the aid of Nick Fury's SHIELD.  Individuals serving the military industrial complex might be bad, but democratic values are safe in the hands of an ultra-secretive organization working outside our system of checks and balances.  The implausibility of the fantasy returns earlier than Millar probably intended.

What director John Favreau and his arsenal of screenwriters give us is Millar's paradoxically liberal humanist take on a character who's fundamentally a not-so metaphorical expression of American supremacy via technological force.  All that's left of the Cold War fear embodied in the Mandarin and Viet Cong is Orientalism and the name "Ten Rings" for the Afghan bad guys.  Only grips and corporate copyright holders fear communist countries nowadays (ripping is not a victimless crime), but everyone is afraid of terrorists. The events over the past 8 years supply the film with its realistic gravitas (recall the definition above). Thus, when Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is captured and waterboarded by the Ten Rings in order to get him to build a WMD that will allow them to take over the region, we're supposed to think of multiple you-know-whats, or at least have them resting right below the entertainment module in our brains. 

The liberal progressive critique is in having all the weapons used by the Ten Rings labeled 'Stark Industries.'  After Stark's capture, the film flashes back to a couple days before, when his playboy insouciance is still intact.  (Proving casting must be a real difficult profession: "We need someone to play a flippant, alcoholic rich guy." "How about a flippant, formerly drunk, rich actor?")  He deals with opprobrious questions from a journalist by sleeping with her.  On his way to Afghanistan to sell a new missile system to the military, he gets drunk with his pal and chaperon, Rhodie (Terrence Howard), while the stewardesses do some pole-dancing.  (Progressivism begins to strain: even though the writers make Rhodie a high-ranking military officer, he's still little more than Rochester to Stark's Jack Benny.)  Stark's drinking and cracking wise with the military brass after demonstrating how his missile can raze a mountain range.  And he's using charm and bravado on the grunts, who are in awe of his celebrity as they escort him back to the plane.  All the privileged arrogance brought on by class and celebrity drops, however, as the Ten Rings slaughter his escorts.  He barely manages to escape thanks to the sacrifice of the soldiers, before catching a chestful of shrapnel.  The last thing he sees is his name on the exploding bomb.

For a summer blockbuster featuring a superhero, that's some pretty potent social critique.  The liberal humanist fantasy comes in when Stark develops a conscience and returns to destroy all of his technology that's fallen into the hands of the Ten Rings.  This is an inherent problem with trying to proffer social critique, with its concerns of systemic problems, by way of the superhero genre, where moral resolution is personal.  Superman can beat the tar out of Darkseid, but he can't punch out poverty.  Thus, the allegory fails, not because -- as suggested by J. R. Jones -- Favreau fails to recognize the irony of having Stark battle his own weapons (what, the weapon labels are too subtle a clue?), but because cultural problems are irreducible to the individuals involved.  If everyone were a billionaire, no one would be rich.  Power requires the powerless; in a world where everyone possessed the same power, no one would have superpowers.  (Probably the best superheroic allegory for power is Mike Baron and Steve Rude's Nexus, an intergalactic hero who extinguishes a star every time he fires a blast from his hands.)  The problem isn't with Favreau's supposed ignorance, but with the genre itself.

Superheroic fantasies depend on the inherent goodness of the hero, which will transcend any structural (e.g., class, cultural, biological) limitations placed on him before acquiring the power.  Even superheroes empowered by the dark arts (e.g., the Demon and Ghost Rider) are so inherently good that they can overcome the influence of Satan.  Stark becomes a hero, because he rejects the rules of the military-industrial game in which he grew up and achieved success.  That game is what allowed him to become a superhero in the first place.  This is why Iron Man makes for a better conservative fantasy than progressive.  Conservatives tend to believe in the unerring goodness of the American system itself, rather than the people within the system.  His heroism is as an expression (I would say tool) of the system.  When he flies off to save a poor Afghan village from being terrorized by the Ten Rings against our military doing nothing, the film's allegory falls into cognitive dissonance.  In the real world, you neither gain power nor keep it by opposing the systemic differential whence it's derived, but by making the differential work for you, playing by the rules.  That's why politicians become more candid and generals more critical only after they retire.

Iron Man sidesteps this aporia of the genre in the third act by having Stark do battle with the film's stand-in for realworld power, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).  I don't think I'm giving too much away to reveal Stane as the central villain, since he's bald and has a beard.  In one last allegorical nod to reality, Stane kills the Ten Ring terrorists in order to steal the Iron Man designs that Stark had left behind in his hasty escape.  Terrorists are propped up for crass pragmatic reasons, and they're taken down for the same reasons -- our inherent goodness having little to do with it.  Thus, the final battle between Stark and the armored Stane can be seen as a battle between the Imaginary and the Real.  This being the summer movie season, the Real is repressed once again.

Putting ideological quibbles aside (I am a proud American, after all), the writing is smarter than most summer spectacles, the CGI is about as seamless as I've seen and, with the exception of the last one, the battles are excellent.  This is the best of all the superhero films.


Method preparation for Iron Man 3

Relevant Tags

Mark Millar (2), Conservatism (2), Humanism (1), Liberalism (3), Military Industrial Complex (1), Uncle Skeeter (1), Reality (3), Addiction (1), Robert Downey Jr. (1), Comic Book Criticism (10), Cinema Criticism (32), Iron Man (4), Ideology (7), Summer Movies (9)