Hailed as a subversive action flick for its portrayal of weapons industry corruption, Iron Man is a disappointing techno-imperialist fantasy, but its special effects will keep die-hard gadget fetishists on the edge of their seats.
Based on Marvel’s successful Cold War-era comic book, Iron Man tells the story of American überman Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), an arrogant child prodigy who built his first engine at the age of six and would go on to take over his father’s weapons manufacturing outfit not long after. In between feats of engineering, he spends his time cajoling women into bed with him – even a sharp-tongued progressive reporter for Vanity Fair cannot resist the charm behind comments like, “I’d be willing to lose a few hours sleep with you”. He abandons her to his projects the next morning, and she carries the grudge until the end of the film.
on the world stage, Stark does what he wants when he wants with whom he wants because he can. His unmatchable technical know-how and wealth give him a market value so high as to let him wander the world at his leisure, selling his highly desired weapons with a bottomless whiskey on the rocks in hand (not totally unlike Julian from the Trailer Park Boys). America
Stark travels to
Afghanistan to show off his latest weapon to the boys in the field: the , a missile that fractures into countless highly potent mini-bombs that scatter the landscape with total imprecision. When his convoy is attacked by one of those roadside bombs Jericho is so famous for, Stark notices that it’s his own company’s weapons that are being used in the attack. Afghanistan
He finds himself captured by a terrorist organization called The Ten Rings. Though they take their name from the weapon of choice of Orientalist villain The Mandarin (apparently to be Iron Man’s foe in the 2009 sequel), this group turns out to be based faithfully on the principles of CNN-defined terrorism. Genghis Khan-inspired foreign jihadis, they have come to
to kill as many women and children as possible, in a quest to rule the world. For cold-blooded villains, they come off looking quite cool in their green fatigues and kafias and, in a PC inversion of the James Bond trope, they are always seen smoking. This image is reinforced by the presence of rock stars in their ranks – Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello does a cameo as one of the many dispensable guerrilla fighters. Afghanistan
In the bomb attack, Stark is severely injured, with a piece of shrapnel coming dangerously close to entering his heart. Fortunately, he is imprisoned alongside the resourceful scientist Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who has created a shield for his heart using the electromagnet from a car battery. Meanwhile, the terrorists are anxious for Stark to make them a version of his
missile. After a bout of water torture he agrees, but in fact sets out plotting his escape. Cumbersome as car batteries are to lug around, the imaginative Stark replaces his with a device powered on a miniature “arc reactor”, a kind of advanced nuclear energy device he has invented, which simultaneously solves the world’s energy crisis and his cardiac problem. In a feat that had previously eluded trapped POWs, Stark decides to build himself an indestructible flying robot suit to escape with. This makes Raza (Faran Tahir), the good-looking Ten Rings commander, understandably upset, and he sends in his footsoldiers and rock stars to show Stark what’s what. Most of them are mowed down as Stark escapes, including the Good Muslim, Dr. Yinsen, whose death is a model of Oriental subservience: all he ever wanted was to join his family in the afterlife, so if he can help an able-bodied American merchant of death escape in the process, so much the better. Jericho
Equipped with his new cyber-heart, Stark returns to
where he decides to get out of the arms business. Here the film’s criticism of the military-industrial complex is at its strongest: stock shares plummet, provoking a panic among the Board of Directors who try to remove him. But Stark hasn’t turned against the Empire. He has merely changed from egocentric war profiteer to humanitarian warrior. His next task will be to improve his robot costume and use it to fly to America to deal with the terrorists in a Rumsfeldian wet dream of techno-war precision. Afghanistan
Throughout the film, American technical wizardry is contrasted with Afghan primitivism. The Good Muslims secretly aid Iron Man or wait in hope and awe for him to save them from evil. The Bad Muslims are jealous. Since they lack American smarts, the only way for them to keep up is to steal the technology using those tried and true methods of Oriental savagery: kidnapping, torture and blackmail.
As a modern American übermench, Tony Stark is an archetype of a successful American male. Witty, self-aggrandizing, sexually potent, brimming with brains and money, Stark also has a heart. He represents an
reengineering itself away from Kissinger-style what-we-say-goes foreign policy to the more moralistic territory of today’s humanitarian-coated imperialism. America
Unsurprisingly for a comic book, Iron Man is an unabashedly male fantasy. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Pepper, his beautiful assistant whose job it is to “do just about anything Mr. Stark needs me to” (of course even she has a secret, unfulfilled crush on him). Other jobs that women have in the film include worrying about Mr. Stark, sleeping with Mr. Stark and, if they feel used by him, asking spiteful pointed questions during press conferences.
There is no doubt that the special effects and fast-paced action make for an extremely watchable film. Stellar performances by all the main actors, especially Jeff Bridges as bad-guy-on-the-inside Obadiah Stane, help to make this production one of the best made comic book series so far. And Downey Jr.’s deadpan expression and ironic wit makes his character human in a way that, for example, Christian Bale’s all-too-serious Batman wasn’t.
The original Iron Man was part of a wave of 1960s Cold War propaganda comics. The original villain in this film was supposed to be the Mandarin, a crude metaphor for Maoist communism, but director John Favreau felt, rightly, that this would be out of date. But in updating the comic, Favreau has successfully updated his propaganda as well, skilfully bringing to the screen the ideology of military humanitarianism that justifies the War on Terror.
Montreal Serai Volume 21: Issue 2 (July 2008); reprinted in Monthly Review Zine August 2008.