Iron Man and Imperialism: Serious Ideas in Pop Art Form

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on May 22, 2013.

Aside from Robert Downey Jr.’s terrific performance as Tony Stark, what makes the Iron Manseries so compelling? Here’s why I keep showing up to watch Stark’s escapades: The Iron Manmovies offer a critique of U.S. imperialism and the military-industrial-political complex.Beneath the surface-level narrative of superheroes, the Iron Man movies have serious things to say.

Consider the original Iron Man. Tony Stark starts off as a brash, loudmouthed, and unquestioning devotee of the military-industrial complex who never considers the consequences of his actions. In other words, he is U.S. imperialism in human form. Not surprisingly, Stark is viewed with some degree of scorn by much of the world. But then he changes. When he is nearly killed by his own weaponry, which has been sold to Afghan terrorists, Stark develops a conscience and stops making offensive weapons. Instead, he creates technology, particularly the Iron Man armor, for defensive purposes and takes up international peacekeeping. Stark’s move toward peacekeeping produces conflict with Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), his war profiteer partner, who sells weapons both to our military and to terrorists. However, Stark defeats Stane, and Stark Industries becomes a global leader for peace.

Iron Man therefore presents a critique of Bush-era imperialism and aggressive militarism. Stark isn’t a nation builder; he’s a nation fixer. He doesn’t start fights, but he will end them, for the sake of protecting innocent civilians. Iron Man doesn’t deny the threat posed by terrorists, but does warn against letting corrupt men run the War on Terror. Through the use of Obadiah Stane, the film shows the potential for corruption within corporate America and government contractors. This movie melds its critique of foreign policy with a critique of big business. For a superhero flick, these themes – that the U.S. should cease being an offensive power, the military-industrial complex is corrupt, and that imperialism is wrong – are pretty radical. Robert Downey Jr. might wear a metal suit, but his character challenges the War on Terror’s status quo.

As shown in Iron Man 2, though, the American empire can’t change course overnight. Like the U.S. in foreign affairs, Stark has a tendency to go it alone. But as he struggles with terminal illness, Stark realizes that he can’t be Iron Man forever and that aggressive militarists may surpass his peaceful technology. (And since this is a comic book movie, it takes a scenery-chewing Mickey Rourke as the Russian mad scientist, Ivan Vanko, to surpass the Iron Man tech.) Tony therefore hands over a copy of his armor to Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and by the end of the film, he grudgingly works alongside Rhodes to save the day. Iron Man 2 therefore suggests that, in addition to abandoning overt imperialism, America’s leaders must become more willing to collaborate with others.

Iron Man 2 also presents a profoundly optimistic take on technology. Whereas Vanko sees technology simply as an outlet for profit or for his vendettas, Stark sees technology as a tool to create a utopia. In scenes detailing Stark Industries’ version of the World’s Fair, we realize that Stark wants his greatest legacy not to be a power suit, but rather a more harmonious planet. Iron Man 2 reflects the paradigm of optimistic futurism that was begun in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek. (The future will be swell, with lens flares.)

Meanwhile, Iron Man 2 continues the critique of big business, but with a new angle. The jingoistic Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) wants to build his own armored soldier suits, but not for peacekeeping. Rather, Hammer and his government & military collaborators see the Iron Man suit as a tool to reinforce American militarism. So instead of Obadiah Stane, the war profiteer, we have villains who want to weaponize all technology. Of course, Hammer gets his comeuppance in grand fashion: By hiring the insane Ivan Vanko to build Iron Man-inspired drones, Hammer unleashes a force he cannot control. Iron Man 2 thereby suggests that unrestrained militarism will ultimately cause our own undoing. (Thankfully, the newly multilateral Stark and Col. Rhodes fly in to save the day.)

The moral of Iron Man 2 is convoluted – America should be multilateral and use military tech for ethical, non-offensive, utopian purposes – but it’s intriguing.

Last year, we got The Avengers, which united Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk onscreen in one rollicking adventure. To a great degree, The Avengers is a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, and thank goodness for that. It’s a terrific escapist fantasy, presenting an ode to the power of teamwork (i.e., multilateralism) and the iconic cinematic opportunity for a team of superheroes. Still, beneath the thrilling adventure, the themes from the first two Iron Manmovies continue to develop.

S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency formed by the government to deal with superhumans, gets into trouble by pursuing offensive imperialism (much like Hammer in Iron Man 2). Under the direction of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his shadowy overseers, S.H.I.E.L.D. plans to use the Tesseract, an alien power source, to create new weaponry. Unfortunately, by switching on such a dangerous artifact, S.H.I.E.L.D. attracts the attention of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and various other creepy people from another dimension. Yes, the plot is ludicrous. But once again, we see an arms buildup causing more problems for the American government, rather than making life easier. In the end, the Tesseract and better weapons don’t save America from alien invaders. Rather, the defensive team of the Avengers, acting for altruistic reasons, saves the day.

In the film’s climax, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s directors opt to nuke Manhattan, thinking the Avengers can’t stop the alien invasion. The directors are shown to be aloof and out of touch, and we get the shocking sight of Nick Fury shooting down American planes to prevent this offensive nuclear strike. Ultimately, Tony Stark, who has truly embraced multilateralism, saves the day by redirecting the missile’s path. This selfless act, done even though he may die in the process, reveals a newfound humility in Mr. Stark. The symbol of America has become ethically responsible.

Finally, this brings us to Iron Man 3. Beware – beyond this point lie spoilers aplenty, so if you haven’t seen (and still want to see) Iron Man 3, skip to the end.

 

Still here? OK, let’s resume.

Two weeks ago, I went to the midnight premiere of Iron Man 3, expecting that it wouldn’t rival the pure exhilaration of The Avengers. To my surprise, the movie was tremendously engaging, both emotionally and intellectually – it’s a fine (and brainier) successor to The Avengers. Iron Man 3 is a popcorn flick, with the plot holes and implausible physics to be expected from comic book movies, but it is gripping filmmaking nonetheless, and possibly the best film in the entire Iron Man series.

Iron Man 3 shows a thoroughly reformed Stark. He struggles with PTSD in the wake of the Battle of New York, but this symbol of America is otherwise pretty well off. He thrives on teamwork (read: multilateralism), he has a variety of Iron Man suits for different types of rescue work, and even his ideas are catching on – the U.S. government, which now deploys Col. Rhodes as the “Iron Patriot,” uses the armor only for defensive purposes. The radical reform of U.S. foreign policy is underway. Then, of course, everything goes haywire when a terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) appears.

The Mandarin unleashes a wave of bombings, each accompanied by a Bin Laden-style video message. The videos’ mash-up of violent images from Marvel’s alternate War on Terror, combined with the Mandarin’s constant references to U.S imperialism’s sins, is cringe inducing. Like Stane or Vanko, the Mandarin is another monster produced by the modern military-industrial complex, but the Mandarin is particularly intimidating because he seemingly wants to exact Old Testament-style punishment on America. His apocalyptic rambling hits a nerve certainly relevant in our society – the fear that our institutions are about to collapse, and that the empire is in decline.

But then, in one of the best cinema twists I’ve seen in years, we learn that the Mandarin is just an actor – a pawn in the greater plan of government contractor Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Killian combines elements of Ivan Vanko, Justin Hammer, and Obadiah Stane in one particularly nasty package. He’s the toughest opponent Stark has ever faced, making Iron Man 3 feel like the genuine culmination of a trilogy. Here’s why:

(1) Killian becomes a villain after a younger, still arrogant Tony Stark rebuffs him. Essentially, Tony’s initial inability to consider the consequences of his actions comes back to haunt him. In broad allegorical terms, this calls to mind the U.S.’s habit of arming despots or radical groups, who then turn on the U.S. in later years.

(2) Like Ivan Vanko, Killian sees technology as a way to make money or exact revenge – to create a dystopia, rather than a utopia. Killian’s creation, a virus called Extremis that grows replacement limbs, also can transform humans into living bombs. Instead of discontinuing production, Killian keeps developing Extremis, using desperate war veterans and others as guinea pigs. If they explode, then he claims that it’s due to another bombing by “the Mandarin,” who’s a fake terrorist. Eventually, though, Killian starts staging bombings just for kicks, a rather Orwellian twist.

(3) Here we see big business – Killian’s firm – and the military-industrial complex undermining our own society. Killian is so devoted to creating a product that he invents a terrorist to cover for his product line’s failures. This is capitalism run amok, and now turning on America. In this way, Killian becomes a far more dangerous villain than Stane or Hammer, who basically just wanted to get rich and maintain the security state’s status quo. When Killian tries to enslave Stark in his laboratory, the action has larger implications – big business is enslaving America. This is seriously radical material for a comic book movie, whether you deem it a libertarian or a socialist warning.

(4) Killian develops Extremis on a government contract, which (it is hinted) is supported by the Vice President, in exchange for the virus being given to his paralyzed granddaughter. Like Hammer’s rogue Iron Man drones, Extremis is another militarized weapon gone amok. That Extremis is initially meant for medicinal purposes makes the virus especially unsettling – we see peaceful technology perverted for dystopian reasons.

(5) U.S. militarism and the military-industrial complex may undermine democracy. After another fake Mandarin attack and some subterfuge, Killian steals the Iron Patriot suit, so that he can kidnap the President, kill him on TV, and put his business partner, the Vice President, in power. Why? Well, it’s a bit vague – at one point, Killian rants something about absolute control of the War on Terror – but basically, he thinks he can play God and terrorize America at will. The hubris of Killian stands in opposition to the reformed Tony Stark, who no longer believes that he can, or should, impose his ego on others. Stark’s final battle with Killian is not only a thrilling cinematic set piece, but also a kind of narrative therapy, as Stark defeats a darker version of himself.

If there’s a flaw to Iron Man 3, it’s that the screenwriters could have spelled out Killian’s grand scheme in more detail. After all, who doesn’t love a good hammy supervillain monologue laying out every nuance of his plan? Still, the filmmakers do a pretty skillful job of implying Killian’s various motivations and quirks. Killian is a cipher, his actions rippling through the film even when he’s not onscreen. While not as memorable as, say, Heath Ledger’s psychologically complex Joker (the king of comic book villains), Guy Pearce is suitably arrogant and snide in the role, and he rises to the level of a good Bond villain. There is something gleefully manic in Pearce’s performance as he stages terrorist attacks that will have maximum impact on television.

As an audience member, I remember feeling utterly indignant at the audacity of Killian’s scheme, culminating in the attempted coup. As with the past Iron Man movies, the absurd elements of the plot take on greater resonances for the real-life War on Terror. The apocalyptic imagery, particularly the kidnapping of the President and the destruction of Air Force One, is deeply unpleasant, surprisingly so for a Marvel superhero film, since Marvel usually lacks the sturm und drang of D.C. Comics. Certainly, this material was much smarter and harder hitting than I ever expected, and it’s taken two weeks of reflection on the film to process all of the film’s implications. Granted, there are some plot holes, and I think the filmmakers took on a bit too much material at once. Still, I’m happy to see an ambitious movie that shoots for the moon and mostly succeeds.

In the end, Stark does save the day – Extremis is ended, the President is saved, the Vice President goes to jail, and there will be no more Extremis-fueled bombings. The cycle begun inIron Man 1 feels more or less complete. Stark’s brand of utopian, optimistic futurism stands triumphant over the excesses of U.S. militarism and imperialism, and Stark has put forward a new model of moral American leadership for the future. Can the real-life U.S. empire cease its aggressive stance toward the rest of the world and make Tony Stark’s shift? I hope so – I do not think that the post-9/11 security state, unregulated neoliberal capitalism, and our government’s constant attempts at nation building are doing anything for the long-term good of America.

THERE ARE NO MORE SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT.

Tony Stark has gone on an incredible journey of self-discovery and redemption over the last five years. The Iron Man movies are not blow-for-blow allegories to the War on Terror, but they do present intriguing themes that resonate with modern audiences. Most recently, and in some ways most effectively, Iron Man 3 presents challenging and unsettling messages about the American empire. I think Stark is near the end of his journey – he’s almost a polar opposite now of what he was in 2008 – but I’ll gladly show up for one or two more installments, if the films remain as thought-provoking and well-acted as Iron Man 3.

The cover photo is archived from the original web layout. Source: 

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