Thor: The Dark(er) World (2013)

Posted by Charles Reece, November 10, 2013 11:23am | Post a Comment

If you'll recall, the first Thor film stirred up controversy by casting Idris Elba, a black man, as the character of Heimdall, the door man to Asgard -- not because the first black Asgardian is a door man, but only because Norse Gods are Aryan and thus presumed to be white. (I doubt it would've been the white power advocates objecting had Jarvis been made a black man, rather than A.I., in The Avengers and Iron Man.) The sequel, The Dark World, defiantly expands his role, having a lot more people, gods and various mythical beings enter Asgard, thereby keeping Helmdall busier than if he worked for a hotel in a 30s screwball comedy. The filmmakers also give the racist complainers even more whatfor by casting a lot of the Asgardian warriors as black (and one Japanese). See all those black dudes punching something or other in the background, or kneeling to the greatest of all Asgardians, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth, a white man), after he proves his mettle in battle? I can imagine the decision made at the meeting: "this will really fuck with those white power assholes!" This is post-racial Hollywood, so I guess it doesn't matter that the servant is still black, just like Rochester, and the master who, like Mr. Benny, makes all the major decisions, is still blue-eyed and white. Perhaps simply applying black faces onto white mythology isn't the best approach to solving problems in representation.

The Dark World does actually bring up an interesting problem about representation in fantasy on film (sigh, DCP). One of the main evil dark elves, Akrim (the second in command), is played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, a black man. Keeping with the film's racial sensitivity, he's the first major character to sacrifice himself for the cause. He doesn't exactly die, but instead transforms into a giant mutant elf, Kurse, with the actor subsequently completely covered in prosthetics and, I suspect, often rendered digitally (at least, in the battles). My question is does he still count as black representation? Too bad for the actual actor, but the answer seems to be 'yes,' since (1) in the fictional narrative of a novel, simply assigning a character as black (like Rue in Hunger Games) is enough to make them black, (2) a black character in a cartoon is an example of black representation (Green Lantern in Justice League), so why not this digital creation who clearly starts off as a black man? and, relatedly, (3) if the digital creation Gollum continues to be white, because of who he was as Sméagol, a white hobbit, the same rationale applies to the black elf becoming a mutant. (Not that any of this was probably thought about during pre-production.) 

As for the story, it was created with about as much attention as the solution to racial politics. Take a crucial plot point involving Jane (the human girlfriend to the white god; played by Natalie Portman, a white woman) who for some reason is brought into an alternate dimension where she accidentally discovers the aether, a magical force that was once used by the dark elves in an attempt to destroy all the universes ... or, as King Odin (Anthony Hopkins, white man) puts it, turn them dark.  (Should I point out the parallel with what's being done to Asgard on a metafictional level? I guess I just did.) The aether parasitically invades Jane (with effects borrowed from 1984's Dreamscape) who is then taken to Asgard for some mystical medical attention. I note that this aetheric possession is enough to re-activate the dark elves from their millennia-long slumber, target who has the aether in her body, and bring them all the interdimensional way to Asgard, into the next room over from where Jane is hiding. Yet, the main dark elf, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, unsurprisingly another white man), is fooled by the (white) queen of Asgard, Frigga (Rene Russo), into thinking an image of Jane without the aether is the real thing with the aether. The rest of the film only gets more nonsensical. The film goes through the motions until the dark elves have less success at darkening the multiverse than the filmmakers have with Asgard. Lots of shit blows up until Thor reasserts the status quo, or the status quo reasserts Thor. Maybe a 9 out of 10 for irony lovers, but a 2 for the ideo-morally and/or narratively concerned.


Poster by Doaly.
Movies mentioned available on blu-ray: Iron ManDreamscapeThor & The Avengers.

Cold Storage: A Hazy Recollection of My Sick Days

Posted by Charles Reece, November 14, 2010 11:55pm | Post a Comment
I've had a horrible cold, and when I'm sick I lie around, sleep through DVDs and aimlessly look about the Web for things to entertain me. Here's some stuff that occupied my time:

"A hero to most," including me, I guess:

Ideological analysis as occasionally practiced on this blog can be tricky. One thing I don't like about so called culture studies (if I can make a blanket statement about a blanket term) is that while it's helped open the possibility of thinking seriously about pop culture, the aesthetic content of its subjects is often lost.  Notions of evaluation are either dismissed or ignored, treated as if they're otiose and old-fashioned. Contrariwise, I'd suggest that even if, in their respective times, both Frank Sinatra and Katy Perry served parallel functions in Ideological State Apparatuses, one shouldn't reduce them to the same level of aesthetic quality. There's something about art, even popular art, that's not reducible to the Culture Industry. Some commodities are constructed better than others. Now, usually I feel like I'm bungling my way through the history of ideas obtained from half-read books which I don't quite understand or explain properly, but when re-reading an old discussion I participated in a few years back, I actually (now from a distance) agree with the thought I was attempting to formulate. So, for posterity, here 'tis: 

Elvis was far more successful at doing rock & roll than his black predecessors. That's in large part because of the cultural context -- racism, in particular -- and how it shaped the music industry's expectations of what would sell and what wouldn't to a "mass" (read: white people with some disposable income) audience. Acknowledging (or analyzing) such reasons as his whiteness and male beauty shouldn't be a substitute for his very real and obvious talent. It wasn't merely because his music came in a readily digestible package (though it did), nor merely because he was more "iconic" or "mythic" than Big Mama Thornton (which is just another way of stating he was more easily commodified than a fat black woman in the 50s). The culture industry was what it was, but Elvis was what he was, too. [...] Lomax could've recorded Elvis on a porch in the hills and that talent would still be there.
-- from a thread on a comic book messboard in 2007

In other words, Chuck D was wrong to reduce Elvis' appeal to racism only. I had a lot of fun reading that discussion again. It's the kind of saltatory debate that could happen only after geeks began forming subcultures on message boards. Maybe it's just me, but with blogs now having taken over, you don't quite get the same level of wild rancor in tête-à-têtes between rival geek ideologues.

Herzog hates hippies:

   Brad: "Hey! Stop meditating, okay; open your eyes! Look, this is the river! This is
reality! We want people to think, come up with a coherent argument."

If I were to list my dream cast of living actors, it would be almost identical to that featured in Werner Herzog's latest, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009): Michael Shannon (Brad above), Udo Kier, Grace Zabriskie, Chloë Sevigny, Willem Dafoe and Brad Dourif. Really, each of them tweaks certain pleasure centers in my brain, making it impossible for me not to love this film. It's the story of an academically inclined actor, Brad, whose grasp on reality begins to dissolve, resulting in a murder and then a hostage situation. Told mostly in flashbacks, it feels like a series of lunatic comedy sketches, done with that really dry style Herzog has. I'm not sure whether he's becoming more like David Lynch or vice versa, but the latter's company "presents" the film, and there's definitely a kindred spirit on display. The scene quoted above is one the best, encapsulating Herzog's coldly Darwinian view of nature that was the basis for Grizzly Man. Rather than being one with nature, either through anthropomorphizing bears or meditating our consciousness into the Oneness, there's always going to be an otherness that demands our respect and fear. 

Youth Is Revoltin': The Valley of the Bees (1968) & Logan's Run (1976)

Posted by Charles Reece, January 17, 2010 06:36pm | Post a Comment

Ondřej begins Frantisek Vlácil and Vladimír Körner's The Valley of the Bees as a teenager jealous of his ogrish father, Lord of Vlkov (Zdeněk Kryzánek), who's just married Lenora. She's Ondřej's age, and he clearly has a crush on her, expressing his anger by giving his stepmother a basket of flowers with a bunch of crippled bats at the bottom. She freaks out, to which the father responds by picking up his son and throwing him against a stone wall. Fearing that his son might die, and to assuage his guilt, the Lord promises his son to God if the Almighty will spare Ondřej. He survives, and is sent to the North to become a warrior monk under the tutelage of Armin (Czech heartthrob Jan Kačer) in the Order of St. Mary of Jerusalem, the local equivalent of the Knights Templar. 

The Order functions for Armin like contemporary Gospel music does for its male performers, as a repressive sublimation of homosexual inclinations. He's a true believer who warns Ondřej (now played by Petr Čepek) to not give in to the materialist temptations of the Pagan world, telling him what became of some of their brothers not properly committed: "Some knights were mercenaries, and did not seek salvation. Instead they sought beautiful women and riches, only to drink their own urine in the desert, cursing God and their mothers." That is, "suffering is the way to God." Or, in a sort of Pascalian wager -- this being the Middle Ages -- you're going to suffer, so it might as well be for a higher purpose. The only joy allowed here is jouissance, taking pleasure in the pain of monastic denial. Ondřej has his doubt, feeling only his balls getting cold in the water in which he lies with Armin.

Ondřej's real crisis begins when he sees how the Order deals with an errant knight. Rotgier explains that he's had enough of the monastery and wants to return to his land where he can live as a civilian. Having been forced into this life, Ondřej understands and is willing to let him go. Instead, the Order recaptures Rotgier, breaks his sword and makes him walk out of a window to a canine death. Fearing ideological contamination, Ondřej is put into solitary to fast and ruminate. Too late, he goes on the lam, with Armin tailing him. The Soviets saw too much of a parallel with their own bureaucratic order in the film and banned it after taking over Czechoslovakia later in 1968. Vlácil doesn't leave much doubt where his sympathy lies and which side Ondřej's on:

An order of warriors who are as ruthless and unforgiving to their own brotherhood as they are to anyone else defying God's Law sounds a lot like Michael Anderson and David Goodman's Logan's Run, but with a central computer, Lifeclock, filling in for the deity. The 23rd century is a perverse mirror of Vlácil's medievalism, where "paganism" has won, but nothing much has changed in the operations of ideological power. After some major catastrophe that's reduced most of the former cities and landscapes to the proverbial middle ages, citizens live in vast metropolitan domes, fucking like rabbits and seeking nothing but pleasure (of the non-painful kind). "Do what thou wilt" is almost the whole of the Law, with one catch: they've gotta expire at age 30. The little lifeclocks on the palms of their hands go black to tell them when it's time. The hedonic ratiocination here is that any long-term moral repercussions to a society devoted purely to pleasure are taken care of by giving a time limit to the life of leisure. Should a citizen try to avoid the one commandment, Lifeclock sends its "Sandmen" to enforce the big sleep.

Coincidentally, The Valley of the Bees was released in May of 1968, the month of revolution, with its bellwether taking place in France. The youthful members of the New Left saw it as a time for a potential overthrow of totalizing ideologies of all stripes, including Stalinism, not just capitalism. It was not to be, however, with the majority of Western baby-boomers settling into their role as consumerist citizens. As Christopher Hitchens concluded two years ago:

At the time, I thought 1968 was the beginning of something. Later, I understood that I had instead been part of the end of something: the last gasp of red-flag socialism (which actually persisted until the murder of Salvador Allende in 1973 and the overthrow of Portuguese fascism in 1974). But the antitotalitarian ethos embraced by the best soixante-huitards [the "sixty-eighters"] remains an option, and I believe that it will have further opportunities to declare itself—in Cuba, to take one vivid and imminent example—long after the pseudo-revolutionary silliness has been forgotten.

Ondřej is more in the spirit of the youthful Hitchens, rejecting a totalitarian order, his Brotherhood, to live life as he sees fit, including returning home where he finally reunites with his stepmom, Lenora, who is now a widow. Vlkov is something of a ghost town, where its remaining inhabitants continue to act as if their repressive Lord were still alive. He cursed Lenora, so she spends her days flagellating the impurities from her soul. Ondřej's renunciation of the church begins to free her and the town of this spectral hold the former Lord has over them. At least, until Armin shows up on the couple's wedding day and violently restores the old order.

As one might expect of a futuristic hedonist society, the only people who seem to work are (not unlike Hollywood) in the service industry: cops, hookers and plastic surgeons. Logan 5 (Michael York) is the future's parallel to Ondřej, a Sandman who has a crisis in faith after being sent on an undercover mission by Lifeclock to infiltrate a rebellious group known according to their ideal destination, "Sanctuary." The group's pagan symbol is the ankh, standing for eternal life. The idea of Sanctuary is the reactionary inverse of Ondřej's rejection of his Brotherhood: ultimately, it stands against the continual youthful revolution, and for the reestablishment of a forgotten dead society. It wouldn't take long for the hedonist to figure out that dying at 30 isn't much fun, so faith is necessary (just as it's necessary to give Armin a reason to live his life in denial and suffering). What Lifeclock promises is much the same as Christianity: the potential for renewal, but in this world, not the next. It warns the people that they'll die anyway, but running guarantees a swifter and more permanent annihilation. Thus, the citizens follow the rules and show up for "Carousel" where they're obliterated with the hope of reincarnation.

Logan 5 sees the same ankh symbol on Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter), an employee of the Circuit (which is the 23rd century's brothel), that he and his partner, Francis 7 (Richard Jordan), recovered from a runner earlier in the picture. Unlike Ondřej, who was never completely sold on the Order to begin with, Logan 5 doesn't begin to question the system until being placed among the heretics. Once on the outside of the city, he discovers an inhabitable nature, the remnants of an ancient democracy (the U.S.), and an elderly man (Peter Ustinov) with a knowledge of historical tradition -- all of which puts the big lie to the Lifeclock's ageist suicide doctrine and myth-spinning. And he finds old-fashioned "true love," rather than the transitory "hooking up" with Jessica 6. More concretely, Logan 5's palm lifeclock goes clear -- he's "renewed" as Francis 7 puts it -- on the outside, while beginning to sympathize with the rebellion. 

Leisure instead of suffering, sex-on-demand instead of asceticism, torture for beauty instead of bodily abjection, mandated suicide instead of a mandated lasting as long as God sees fit, and a worship of the pagan material world instead of the Christian's afterworld -- yet faith in ideology functions the same in the future as it does in the past: living for the Other, rather than taking responsibility for oneself. Both The Valley of Bees and Logan's Run seem to be getting at Jean-Paul Sartre's libertarian ethic: "you can always make something out of what you've been made into." (It's been too long since I've read any Sartre, so I took a crash course.) We're free, because as consciousness ("being for-itself") we can negate/transcend the mere facticity of our bodies ("being in-itself") and the internal constraints placed upon us through the interaction with ideology, society, etc. ("being for-others"). Whether we go with the ontological flow or resist it, we are ultimately responsible for that individual choice. (Both films make for a good contrast with the very anti-Sartrean Knowing.)


spoilers ahead!

With that in mind, both Francis 7 and Armin make for psychologically interesting cases of the faithful, or in Sartre's term, bad faith. During a fight to the death where he comes up losing, Francis 7 goes out believing that Logan 5's clear lifeclock got that way because that's what Sandmen are promised, renewal for their service. All that he experiences on his path (similar to Logan 5 and Jessica 6's) doesn't make him waver in his service to the Lifeclock. As such, he abdicates any responsibility for his choices, simply assuming the course that's been programmed. Armin, on the other hand, is a man searching for questions to fit his answers. He resists the way he is -- i.e., homosexual -- by suppressing life around him that doesn't conform to the ideology that keeps his latent desires in check. His only bodily contact with another that he initiates is the aforementioned arm-locking with Ondřej in erection-defying, icy cold water. When a blind Bohemian girl he meets asks to touch him in order to "see" his face, he threatens to cut off her arm. This has nothing to do with his being potentially tempted, but rather a disgust for femininity signifying the pagan contamination of his friend (and repressed love object). That he wants Ondřej to share in his repression (as close to sex as Armin will allow himself) is made clear when his solution to his friend's wedding is to slit the bride's throat. Since Ondřej won't conform to his worldview, Armin remakes his friend's world so that he'll have no choice ... or, at least, feel as if he has no choice.

Armin is thrown to the dogs for the murder, but accomplishes his mission: Ondřej is seen returning to the flock in the end, giving into the inauthentic existence he had attempted to escape, while making Armin a martyr to the cause. The antitotalitarian ethos to which Hitchens refers is crushed. Bringing the old man along as evidence, Logan 5 returns to his brotherhood, too, but with the intention to destroy the ideology he no longer believes in. When the Lifeclock scans his mind, it discovers that there never was any physical place called Sanctuary and self-destructs, blowing holes in the city's dome, and releasing the citizens. Whether or not they're freed is another matter. 

As a priest says at Ondřej's wedding banquet: "Bees are like people. They fear and sense disaster. You can destroy their homes, but they begin building a new one right away." As pure ideology or belief, the Lifeclock can't compute Sanctuary as an opposing ideational construct, so it terminates itself. Logan 5 has caused the revolution, but what the citizenry does with it is up to each individual. The ending is made to seem triumphant, but is it? Such freedom requires responsibility. It seems more likely that an irresponsible people, accustomed to living for the Other won't find freedom any more computable than Lifeclock did Sanctuary. That is, much like Ondřej's returning to the Order, they'll opt for another totalizing ideology "right away" to fill in the hole, perhaps that of the old man's tradition.

America Gets a Post-Racial: The Legacy of Lee Atwater

Posted by Charles Reece, August 30, 2009 10:03am | Post a Comment
The latest issue of The London Review of Books has an excellent essay, "What Matters," by Walter Benn Michaels (author of The Trouble with Diversity). In analyzing the recent arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Michaels answers my fellow blogger Eric's question of "who's black?" with another, more telling question: "who's poor?." To wit:

Gates, as one of his Harvard colleagues said, is ‘a famous, wealthy and important black man’, a point Gates himself tried to make to the arresting officer – the way he put it was: ‘You don’t know who you’re messing with.’ But, despite the helpful hint, the cop failed to recognise an essential truth about neoliberal America: it’s no longer enough to kowtow to rich white people; now you have to kowtow to rich black people too.


In the US, one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucial and entirely specious fellowship with rich white people; one of the great uses of anti-racism is to make poor black people feel a crucial and equally specious fellowship with rich black people. Furthermore, in the form of the celebration of ‘identity’ and ‘ethnic diversity’, it seeks to create a bond between poor black people and rich white ones. So the African-American woman who cleans my office is supposed to feel not so bad about the fact that I make almost ten times as much money as she does because she can be confident that I’m not racist or sexist and that I respect her culture. And she’s also supposed to feel pride because the dean of our college, who makes much more than ten times what she does, is African-American, like her. And since the chancellor of our university, who makes more than 15 times what she does, is not only African-American but a woman too (the fruits of both anti-racism and anti-sexism!), she can feel doubly good about her.

In the words of our first "post-racial" president's speechwriters, it's the economy, stupid (or, rather, the racially stupid economy -- even its staunchest proponents this side of Ayn Rand will tell you that capitalism is amoral). As the harbinger of racial peace through commercial success, a prescient Arsenio Hall managed to signify our current climate through one particular performance that bridged the old racial divide in popular culture, that of the poor black's blues and the poor white's country:

Randy Travis is what the corporate media like to call an "independent thinker," that is, neither strictly Republican, nor Democrat. Why, back in 1991, when Linda Accurso complained to the Federal Election Commission that Travis' televised performance of "Point of Light" was an unfair advertisement for George Bush, Sr., the FEC essentially ruled that, nope, the singer was operating on his own. This was despite the song being written at Bush's request, its sharing a poetic phrase with a popular speech of Bush's, and its video being produced by Bush's media consultant, Roger Eugene Ailes (now the American president of Fox News Channel). Surely, the song was just about promoting the everyman (and -woman) in our armed services. "If that ain't country ...."

And just like any good capitalist would recommend, B.B. King has always been more concerned with promoting the blues than any particular ideology. As told in Charles Sawyer's apologia, back in 1968, King responded to the question "What do you think of Ronald Reagan and what do you think of the Black Panthers?" with, "Well, I hear the Panthers feed breakfast to poor children and anyone who does that can't be as bad as they are made out to be [and] I think that Reagan was a pretty good movie actor." It was this sort of ideological independence that would result in King's celebration of his friend, the recently deceased Lee Atwater, aka the Boogie Man, at the Republican convention in 1991 (coincidentally the same year as the Travis fracas).

Atwater was the campaign adviser for Bush's 1988 successful bid for the presidency and he knew something about the kind of abstraction that could make anyone a fan of the blues (or country). Divorce it from its context, thereby making it an appealing product to anyone, regardless of ideology. Consider his take on the Southern Strategy:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger” -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “nigger, nigger.” -- from here

But never mind that, nor his use of the Willie Horton scandal, nor his help in devising the Revolving Door ad, Atwater was a big fan and promoter of the blues and black music in general and, most importantly, in abstracto (to which the above album with whom could be called "some of his best friends" attested). One might say he was our first post-racial politico, his racist campaign strategies having little effect on his aesthetics or the friends he kept. Is it cynical to suggest King (as well as Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes and the others lending their talents and credibility to Atwater's album) had more in common through his wealth and success with Atwater than with the people affected by the man's propaganda? Back in the early part of the 20th century, in the openly racist South, Hank Williams learned guitar from Tee Tot, a poor bluesman who played on the street. Then, at the beginning of our post-racial era, the blues and country came back together to appear on The Arsenio Hall Show, only this time represented by wealthy proponents of both genres. Since Atwater, even the Republicans have become more diverse, but along with Michaels, I ask, what does this progress really m

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
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