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Iron Deficiency: Iron Man 3 (2013)

Posted by Charles Reece, May 21, 2013 10:06am | Post a Comment
Iron Man 11 cover mandarin

I decided not to see Iron Man 3 because it seems a return to old way of adapting superheroes to the screen: focus on the star, not the costume (e.g., Stallone's Judge Dredd); throw away most everything ever established in the comics about the character and/or his villains (e.g., just about any TV adaptation from the 70s on, such as Spider-Man); and those behind the adaptation are more interested in making the superhero more "believable," which is another way of saying they're not particularly interested in the character but in "telling their own story" (e.g., Ang Lee's exploring what went into Bruce Banner's rage in Hulk, or Superman giving up his powers in Superman II to live a boring bourgeois life with Lois for 30 minutes of screen time). That is, we get a Tony Stark pondering what makes him Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., is tired of wearing the suit, basically), a funny kid sidekick for him while he's hanging out in Tennessee, and the Mandarin becomes just another white guy in a business suit. It's not that I'm some purist about the comics, which are often quite terrible, but these alterations tend to come from people who are less imaginative than the comics creators, believing they can improve upon the original by throwing out the more outrageous and fantastic qualities that served to make the comics distinct.

Before the influence of movie studios, the comics industry used to practice the Jack Kirby Rule: a ridiculous premise is always better if realized with a cosmic roundhouse from some brute in a colorful costume. There's nothing particularly interesting about Tony Stark questioning his status as a superhero. It would, at least, be weird if he were doing this in a soliloquy while wearing his armor in the middle of a space battle, though. Otherwise, it's just some normal looking dude worrying about a problem that has no relevance to anything in life. So why would anyone want to sit through that?

As for what was done to the Mandarin:

[Director and co-writer Shane] Black and co-writer Drew Pearce proposed this argument in favor of The Mandarin twist: “What if he’s sort of this all-things-to-all-people uber-terrorist? What if he is the myth, and in the end that is what we’re dealing with, a created myth that [a research group] has perpetuated and cobbled together using elements from popular consciousness,” Black says.

Instead of possibly making a terrorist of Chinese origin who has a point to his terrorism and who could've been played by a Chinese man in a non-racist manner, we get a media creation that is about nothing in particular, cobbled together from revolutionary and religious fundamentalist stereotypes to mask a mistake made by a Western for-profit scientific organization (the plot if needed). I guess this is a big metaphor for the type of conspiracy theory where wars are used by the US to mask a hidden agenda. Terrorists aren't really opposed to a liberal ideology -- who could be? -- but are just a state-driven media creation to distract us from the real threat ... whatever that might be, but it's internal. So the battle of wills takes place against the same ideological backdrop: a good scientist businessman versus an evil one. Questioning the backdrop would've been a worthwhile alteration to the simple-minded comic book. But leaving aside ideology in adapting one of the most ideological of all superheroes makes it easier to sympathize with Tony Stark, who is a fantasy of what Slavoj Zizek calls the liberal communist:

According to liberal communist ethics, the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: charity is part of the game, a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation. Developed countries are constantly ‘helping’ undeveloped ones (with aid, credits etc), and so avoiding the key issue: their complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World. As for the opposition between ‘smart’ and ‘non-smart’, outsourcing is the key notion. You export the (necessary) dark side of production – disciplined, hierarchical labour, ecological pollution – to ‘non-smart’ Third World locations (or invisible ones in the First World). The ultimate liberal communist dream is to export the entire working class to invisible Third World sweat shops.

That Tony built his arms dealing empire with a sociopathic disregard for its consequences, which was a feature of the first film, has been replaced by the question of whether he's really a superhero or not -- obviously he's heroic, but just how heroic is he really? The same question surely haunted Andrew Carnegie. A contrast here with a revolutionary, really Chinese Mandarin might've proven interesting. His terrorism could've equally served the opposition against capitalism and the way communism is being used to make tools of his people in the service of cheaper products for the global marketplace. Now, that would be an interesting topic for soul searching in Tony, the liberal communists, and the communists themselves. But it would've been critical of the Chinese regime, not passed their censors, thusly hurting the economic chances of the film there (which is an important market that Hollywood tries desperately to not offend). It's best to change Chinese characters to white occidentals. Like so much much crap culture, it's why this movie sounds so whitewashed that makes it worth thinking about at all.

Relevant Tags

Iron Man (4), Capitalism (5), Slavoj Zizek (3), Communism (3)