NOTE: This article has been amended to correct factual mistakes and clarify arguments.
Iron Man (2008), starring Robert Downey Jnr. and directed by Jon Favreau, is objectively one of the most evil films ever made. Possibly the most evil, actually.
I’ll get around to justifying that opening statement in a bit. But first, I just want to say… ahem… fuck Tony Stark. Seriously, fuck him. The arrogant, smug, privileged, sexist, immature, selfish, capitalist prick. The rich, preening, self-satisfied asshole. The callous, self-involved, vainglorious, narcissistic wanker. This guy isn’t charming or funny or lovable. He’s scum, masquerading as humankind’s best friend. He’s the 1% as saviour of the world, at a time when the 1% are directly and knowing destroying the world. He’s the smiling face of the anthropocene (or rather capitalocene) extinction. He’s genocidal imperialism as (lone) humanitarian intervention. He’s neoliberal capitalism and neoconservative foreign policy as a series of bad-boy quips. He’s private capitalist industry as heroism. He’s mega-wealth as heroism. He’s white male privilege as heroism. He’s militarism, imperialism and American exceptionalism as heroism. He’s the War on Terror as heroism. He’s everything sick and twisted and rotten and filthy and evil and insane and false about our world, presented to us as aspirational role-model. He’s Donald Trump in a Robert Downey Jnr. mask… no, scratch that… Robert Downey Jnr. is a rich, reactionary dick too, isn’t he… so we might as well say that Tony Stark is Robert Downey Jnr. in a Robert Downey Jnr. mask. In any case, Tony Stark is everything we need to tear down, ruthlessly demolish, trample on and bury, presented to us as the best of humanity.
There’s no secret about this, of course. I’m not expecting any awards for searing, original insight. Everybody knows who and what Tony Stark is. He is, quite literally, stark. The films themselves make no secret about any of this. On the contrary, they loudly and proudly boast of it.
This stuff is baked into the character. It’s part of him by design.
I don’t pretend to know much about the Iron Man comics, original or contemporary. Generally speaking, I’m not a comics guy. I intend no disparagement of comics; they’re just not my can of Tizer, on the whole. So I come to these Marvel Cinematic Universe films (as I come to most films adapted from comics) as someone with little knowledge of the source material. But I’m not going to apologize for that, or seek to remedy it, for several reasons:
a) I can’t be bothered,
b) I don’t think it’s necessary, since the comics cannot possibly fundamentally alter the meaning of the films that stem from them, and
c) the vast majority of the audience – target and actual – are, like me, coming to these films without knowledge of the comics.
Having said that, I was told – by Holly B., during Shabcast 9, in which we chat about Iron Man, amongst other things – that Stan Lee’s original goal with Iron Man was to create a hero whom the hippies would hate but also be unable not to love.
I’ve looked this up.
“I think I gave myself a dare,” said Lee in the Iron Man DVD Commentary, “It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military. So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist. I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him … And he became very popular.”
From the first, Iron Man was conceived as an anti-communist character, fighting swarthy Asian agents of the Red Menace. Just as the American empire has had to update its rhetoric and switch enemies to cope with changing times, so has Iron Man. It’s fitting therefore that the Iron Man for the new century, the one in the movie, should be born in Afghanistan, during America’s supposed battle to bring democracy after their invasion in 2001.
Strategically situated on the chessboard of ‘the Great Game’, Afghanistan was always squabbled over the by the great powers around it. In the late seventies, the US started sponsoring mujahideen rebels against the modernizing pro-Soviet government in an attempt to lure the USSR into invading. After the invasion occurred, the US continued recruiting, training, funding and arming the mujahideen. They effectively created the basis of what one day became the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The 2001 US/coalition invasion of Afghanistan – a response to a terrorist atrocity which was largely plotted in US-ally Saudi Arabia – triggered a refugee crisis which became a humanitarian catastrophe. The bombing reduced many parts of the country to rubble, and killed thousands. The US and their allies teamed up with the Taliban’s enemies, a patchwork of brutal warlords known as the Northern Alliance. These people, who hardly differed from the Taliban in terms of ideology, were bribed with huge amounts of money and arms to fight for the invaders. The Northern Alliance set about hijacking the country, committing atrocity upon atrocity, including slavery, mass murder and mass rape. One such warlord, the Uzbek General Dostum, guilty of ordering massacres and torture, was installed as Defence Minister in Hamid Karzai’s puppet cabinet. The war has rumbled on for 13 years, and continues after ‘our’ departure. The ultimate civilian death toll is conservatively estimated at more than 20,000… though it’s probably much higher. Jonathan Steele in the Guardian estimated that this many may have died as a result of US bombing in the first four months of the war alone.
We don’t see any of this context in the scenes in Iron Man set in Afghanistan. Tony Stark spends a fair bit of time at Bagram airforce base, dicking about with his army buddies. Naturally, we don’t see anything of the nearby Bagram Theater Internment Facility. In 2008 the place is being run by the Americans as a Guantanamo Bay-style prison where people are kept for long periods without trial, subjected to constant solitary confinement, and denied POW status. At least two prisoners are known to have been tortured to death here by US soldiers. By contrast, we do see Tony himself abducted and held by the evil Ten Rings. At a time when prisoners in places like Bagram were being waterboarded by the Americans, the film chooses to show us Tony being tortured with water by captors who adopt the appearance of jihadis. Thus reality is inverted, the victims become the aggressors, and Western crimes are not only absolved but erased.
I’ve written elsewhere about the way in which villains often seem to have the objectively better moral position in stories, about how they are often no worse than heroes whose own behaviour is legitimised by established power structures, about how they are often the only people in a story who are trying to change the world. It’s very hard for me to see, for instance, what’s so evil about kidnapping Western capitalist arms dealers and forcing them to make weapons for you, so that you can fight people who invaded your country and killed your people with weapons that the Western capitalist arms dealers made in the first place! Of course, part of the particular subtlety of Iron Man is that it doesn’t put Tony into the hands of people who could be seen as having legitimate grievances. The Ten Rings are, from the first, warmongers and megalomaniacs, alien to Afghanistan. The people who resist the invaders are without any moral claims, when the invaders are Americans. This needs no justification. It is true by definition. It is a normative assumption. That’s why this is all that is depicted.
Iron Man wisely stays a long way away from the subject of Iraq. The very care with which is skirts this issue is itself evidence of the thought that went into crafting its ideological message. For a movie that set out to push a pro-War on Terror message to a mass audience in 2008, Iraq was untouchable. Afghanistan could still be mentioned as a ‘good war’, a ‘just war’, a ‘well-intentioned war’ in the absence of the kind of context or wider knowledge that the media takes care to curate far away from its mass audience, and in the presence of misinformation about 9/11. Iraq was altogether a thornier topic. Huge numbers of people were against the Afghan adventure, especially after phrases like ‘unwinnable’ started getting thrown around… but Afghanistan remained publically defensible in ways that Iraq did not. (It shouldn’t have done, but it did.) Millions took part in a global opposition to the invasion of Iraq before it had even happened – which was historically unprecedented. Public opposition only grew after WMDs failed to materialise (just the way we in the anti-war movement told you they would), the rise of the Iraqi resistance began to make the adventure look like a bloody quagmire, and Seymour Hersh uncovered photos of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners. There came a point where such a massive number of people all over the world – and crucially in the Western imperialist countries themselves – considered the invasion at best a mistake and at worst a crime, and opposed the continued occupation, that even the mainstream media and liberal elites began to feel obliged to acknowledge the fact. They sometimes even managed to be vaguely shamefaced about their own previous uncritical support for the war. Real democracy is the only thing capable of producing miracles such as glimmers of self-awareness and conscience in the commentariat.
But there was a widespread sense – carefully fostered – that whereas perhaps the Iraq thing deserved to go wrong, maybe the Afghanistan thing didn’t. That’s why Tony is in Afghanistan rather than Iraq (plus, Afghanistan was where the American public tended to imagine Osama hiding out in a cave). Nevertheless, Iron Man can only land in the wider psychological context of its audiences’ associations. And Iraq was always going to be one of those associations. If Afghanistan was a mess, Iraq was a disaster. And a lot of people tended to blame Bush and Blair. Rightly so. They might not like the Iraqi Resistance, but plenty of people thought they were a plague that the warmongers had recklessly brought upon their troops by launching an unnecessary, unprovoked, immoral and illegal war.
So widespread was the feeling of unease that even those normally impregnable to any ideological doubts at all, those safely ensconced within their ivory towers of self-righteousness, the so-called ‘decent Left’, the pro-war liberals, the apostles of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and weaponized compassion, began to feel a range of uncomfortable sensations, ranging from self-doubt and shame (in the best of them) to embattled encirclement (in the worst).
The doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ – a very old manoeuvre given new vitality by NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia in the 90s – had been a handy umbrella for the useful idiots scrambling to find ostensibly humane, liberal or Left-wing reasoning by which they could cravenly support the rampages of US/UK neo-imperialism. ‘Humanitarian intervention’ allowed such people to do just that, while feeling morally superior to anyone who spoke up against incinerating civilians in order to allow Halliburton et al to tear lumps out of their economies. They managed to convince a fair few genuinely decent people of the need to support intervention against tyrants. But Iraq put the mockers on this sweet little set-up. Almost nobody in the political, media, business, intellectual or academic elites were actually dissuaded from their devotion to the idea of war as a compassionate enterprise by which the West selflessly spreads democracy, human rights and free trade to the brown numpties too backward to develop such things for themselves. Such people are never dissuaded. They make themselves ideologically impregnable to piffling things like evidence. But it was a different matter with the public. In the politically active sectors of the global public, ‘humanitarian intervention’ started looking morally tawdry and intellectually bankrupt. Not only that but it started looking obvious to huge numbers of people that the idea was kaput. A new common sense had grown from the bottom up to challenge the top-down ideology. And slowly, reluctantly, in a piecemeal fashion, the capitalist media was forced to reflect this, albeit in heavily muffled, twisty, garbled and disingenuous ways.
This could not be tolerated, not by the hawks and the neoconservative ideologues; the dedicated political, military and ideological warriors of the US imperium. It was the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ all over again.
Just as Tony Stark once did his work infuriating and stealthily reconciling the 60s readership who hated the Vietnam war, so he was brought out of retirement to do it again for the equivalent people in the wake of Iraq, the public now wary of ideologies of the War on Terror and humanitarian intervention.
To be clear: I’m not saying there was a conspiracy. I’m not saying the Joint Chiefs of Staff contacted Kevin Feige and told him what they needed. Such people are not above secretly conferring to further their interests (oh ho no) but, generally, they don’t need to plot and micromanage the ideological responses and reflexes of the media. The media – from Hollywood to the TV News, from the tabloids to the ‘quality’ papers – is usually more than ready, eager, anxious, to fawn to power, and to quickly pick up the slightest hint about what ideas the powerful need propagated. The media in capitalist society is not adjacent to power, or alongside power, or still less opposed to power. The media in capitalist society is another form of power. It’s a hierarchical structure based around private ownership and/or control of capital. The people who own and run it are capitalists, or at least closely allied to capitalist interests. They have a class identity, unity and solidarity with other capitalists, and with structures such as imperialist capitalist states, based on this material relation.
Having said that there was no conspiracy, there certainly seems to have been collaboration. InReel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy, Matthew Alford reports that Iron Man was “Pentagon-assisted” (as indeed are a great many Hollywood films featuring the US military) and that “Air Force Captain Christian Hodge, the Defense Department’s project officer for the production commented that ‘the Air Force is going to come off looking like rock stars’”.
This film directly addresses a global audience who are queasy about war in the Middle East and Central Asia, about the death toll of ‘our’ adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, about the morality of arms dealing, and about ‘humanitarian intervention’ as a rationale. And its message is: don’t worry about it. It hides this message under layers of pretence and concern, as well as under the layers of CGI and bombast and heroism. But that’s the message. It’s a message calculated to inculcate attitudes and opinions which will soothe people on these issues, and make them more likely to support further wars under the impression that world peace is best achieved by technological and military might, if wielded by Americans of sufficient bravado and moral concern. It’s a message calculated to at least make people less likely to protest. A message calculated to brand (by association) any resistance to occupation as an expression of pure evil, and thus to suggest that perhaps the answer to the distressing chaos caused by intervention is… more intervention, but of the right kind next time. This is a message calculated to disorient people. The film has sections where people of good conscience, but perhaps less political awareness, who might’ve opposed the War on Terror from humanitarian concern, can cheer for the American interventionist who goes in blazing to save the poor, oppressed people of Afghanistan. It is, in short, a message calculated to facilitate killing on a mass scale.
(I’m taking for granted the power of texts like this to influence people, their attitudes and behaviour. Maybe I’ll say more about this in a subsequent post.)
They could’ve done it differently. Everything in the film is the product of choices they made. They didn’t need to whitewash the military, the invasions and occupations. They didn’t need to erase the vast death tolls of humanitarian intervention. They didn’t need to leave out any suggestion that US/UK involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia has devastated economies, looted resources and wealth, and killed almost certainly millions. They chose to do so.
The issue of the death toll of the US/UK-led invasion and occupation of Iraq is controversial, but even the most ludicrously conservative estimates put the figure at around 100,000 people. The better estimates seem to show that at least half a million people – very probably more than twice that – lost their lives because of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. Polls of British public opinion have indicated that most people think the figure is 20,000 or lower. A ComRes poll in 2013 found that 44% thought the figure was 5,000 or under, with 59% putting is at 10,000 or under. We allowed our political elites to take us into a war that most of us knew was unjustified and unjustifiable, and then we can’t even be bothered to keep track of how many people they are complicit in murdering. This alone should make any British person of conscience want to gouge their soul out with a claw hammer made of shame. I have no doubt that the ideological influence of Iron Man and stuff like it (with Iron Man being only the most significant example) has played a huge part in this smothering of our awareness, this mass forgetting of the piled corpses of the unpeople. And the persuasiveness of the humanitarian intervention paradigm depends fundamentally on this kind of amnesia.
Bad Capitalists, Good Capitalists, and Fake Moral Journeys
Look, let’s digress a bit… here’s a pitch for an Iron Man comic made by the British fantasy writer China Miéville. Basically, it posits a rag-tag band of the downsized and disaffected, united across gender and race divisions, living amidst the rubble of neoliberalism, teaming up to make their own Iron Man out of salvaged rubbish, and collectively declaring war on Tony Stark. Delicious. You’ll be unastonished to learn that it was rejected.
While only addressing certain aspects of what makes the Iron Man franchise so repellent, Miéville’s pitch anticipates much of what I could say about its ideological relation to capital. Iron Man presents us with a rosy view of capitalism, in which there’s no poverty except in little villages in Afghanistan, which is obviously the proper place for it. The wreckage wrought by neoliberalism on working class and/or poor communities in America is erased totally. Capitalism is all gleaming corporate spires, cocktail parties and industrious Randian Atlases. Iron Man doesn’t even have the limited scope achieved by the Nolan Batman films with their vague sense that not every bit of every American city is made of night clubs, and that sometimes there are unhappy people to be seen, and that this could just possibly have something to do with poverty. On the other hand, as in the Nolan Batman films, the Randian Atlas at the heart of Iron Man is essentially a lone wolf, and all the better for it. Okay he has help from various people (notably a woman and a couple of men of colour), but basically he’s the hero and he’s all that is needed. Not only is he not depicted as causing any of society’s ills, either individually or as part of the system atop of which he sits, but he is actually the solution to all the ills of society. Just him. One (iron) man.
I could elaborate on this kind of stuff at great length. Tony Stark inherited his company but also deserves it because he’s a genius… so the film isn’t even trying to go along with the widely held delusion that capitalism is a meritocracy; it’s saying that meritocracy, nepotism and inherited wealth are all essentially the same thing. You don’t need the oft-alleged power of capitalism to allow the cream to rise to the top. The cream is already there. It starts there. Stark may be a libertarian’s wet dream but he himself has no need of libertarianism. He was born meriting his position. Nevertheless, Tony is a tortured and tormented soul. His Daddy was distant (oh god how sick I am of dramatic material about white guys and their daddy issues). The manfeels and manpain are extensive, though admittedly not as bad as in the sequels. I won’t dwell on the issue of sexism and gender politics here, not because I don’t think these issues are important but simply because they’re outside the scope of my present discussion. I will just point out that the change in Tony’s attitude to sex and relationships (he goes from using women as disposable toys to trying to establish a monogamous romance with Pepper) is just one aspect of his supposed moral journey during the film, and just as unconvincing as the others. We’re meant to be charmed by this flirtation, and to read it as a sign of a growing seriousness. This is all part of the film’s strategy to get us to empathise with the guy because of his own struggle against his own immaturity (as if it were inspiring to watch a grown man slowly struggling to not be an adolescent douchebag).
Of course, ostensibly the film is about Tony realising that his wealth is built upon an immoral foundation, confronting this fact, doing something about it, changing things, putting his wealth and genius to work aiding helping people, maturing (at last) and, in the process, making both himself and the world better. (Let’s leave aside the fact that stories about rich people displaying legendary generosity and social conscience, while popular and numerous, are about as firmly based in reality as Tron multiplied by Narnia.) Lots of people will tell you that this moral journey of Tony’s is what the film’s about. This is the heart of the film. This is a big part of why the film is so good. Which is bollocks, frankly. Nothing like this happens in the film. The film formally depicts just this journey, but the depiction is without actual content. It’s like one of those things people say to each other in adverts that are supposed to be jokes. It has the form of a joke – i.e. one person says something, another person hears and laughs or groans, and the way it’s shot and scored informs us that something funny has supposedly happened – but there’s no actual joke there, just a joke-shaped pattern which we are expected to laugh at from pavlovian obedience. Similarly, in Iron Man, there’s no moral journey made by the hero, just a moral journey-shaped pattern.
What does Tony do when he gets back from his harrowing experience in the Afghanistan? He carries on developing weapons. He just develops them for his own personal usage rather than for sale to the military. He doesn’t do this because he suddenly thinks its wrong to make money from peddling technology designed to kill and maim as many human beings as possible. He doesn’t do it because he suddenly cares about the effect of American imperialism upon the people of the Middle East or Central Asia. He doesn’t do this because he suddenly realises that the American military are a bunch of gangsters who destroy lives and nations on behalf of the needs of capital and capitalist governments. He does it because he has decided he knows better how such weapons should be used, and that consequently he should be the guy who gets to decide when and how to use them. Basically, he has a bad experience with the mass of interchangeable extremists who are ‘our’ enemies and, because of how badly it affects him personally, decides that he has the right to control the weapons himself. This is the moral journey. This is the maturity and personal responsibility. A rich, privileged, white dude decides that, as a capitalist entrepreneur who had a bad day, he has the right to decide who lives and who dies, and to administer these decisions via his sole control of the ultra-technology of death. And the film absolutely supports his right to do all this. The American military are at least notionally accountable to a government that is notionally accountable to people it supposedly represents, people who can exercise at least a tiny degree of pressure on it once in a while. Tony Stark is accountable to no-one (not in this film anyway… the question of his accountability is raised in the next film, only to be dismissed), makes no claim to represent anyone but himself, is under the scrutiny and control of no-one but himself, and feels entirely entitled to act as a law unto himself while being in total personal control of what amounts to the most fearsome private arsenal in the world. Indeed, his arsenal is so inherently and aggressively personal and private that it takes the form of a suit that he wears, an alter-ego… effectively, another self. This is what it really means to say that Tony Stark is Iron Man, and that Iron Man is Tony Stark (and the film literally ends with just this declaration: “I am Iron Man”). Iron Man is a superhero because of privately owned wealth and military technology. That’s it. The technology takes the form of an identity; it is personalised; it is reified as a ‘man’. And that ‘man’ is Tony Stark in another form. It is an expression of him in the form of military tech, of private capital. If it weren’t for the fact that the film depicts this as totally unproblematic, laudable, heroic, admirable, and sexy, it would actually constitute a telling metaphorical depiction of the way in which capital takes on the personality (i.e. the aims and desires) of whichever bourgeois asshole owns it.
Please don’t try to come back at me with something like “Oh… but… Obadiah Stane is in league with the Ten Rings, and he’s the main baddie, and he’s a white American capitalist dude!” Yes, but this makes Stane into the classic exculpatory figure of the bad capitalist… implying there are good ones. Indeed, the bad capitalist is always there for the good capitalist to fight and defeat… which is exactly what Tony Stark does. Tony, the moral capitalist, defeats Stane, the immoral one, and so all is right with the world because the right rich fucker is back in charge. Stane is no alibi for the movie. Rather, he’s an alibi for the capitalist class. He’s a conservative libertarian hashtag: #notallcapitalists.
But you’ll notice the Tony the Good Capitalist’s objection to manufacturing weapons for sale to the US military is nothing to do with the fact that they’re being used to kill people. The film never once questions that the US military only kills ‘bad guys’. You never see the US military kill anyone in the film. You don’t even see them doing any of the things we’re all supposed to pretend to believe they do… say, carefully and conscientiously making sure that their strikes are only going to hit confirmed terrorists who are at that very moment plotting to infect all the world’s apple pie with anthrax. You don’t see the missiles hit their bad guy targets with pinpoint accuracy, only killing the bad guys. It’s all taken for granted that this is how it works. The film doesn’t need to show you such laser-guided moral heroics because the basic contention – that ‘we’ are the good guys and therefore ‘we’ would never dream of killing anybody but the bad guys – is never questioned. It is an underlying common sense assumption that the film feels free to make. It then uses this assumption as tacit, obvious, operative logic all the way through, feeling no need to shore it up, or even mention it. Indeed, if anything, the film actually takes a critical stance towards the US military for its hesitancy to use the weapons Tony provides. The army don’t do enough righteous killing of bad guys. The evil Ten Rings, attack a cutesy little Afghan village full of the kinds of Afghan people we’re allowed to like, i.e. poor, rural, unsophisticated, cowering, crying, cowardly, useless, helpless people who resemble tear-jerking depictions in charity commercials, and who need ‘our’ help. And Tony duly does precisely that, personally deciding – on a whim that is part self-satisfying revenge and part moral duty – to drop in and blast the Ten Rings guys, saving the useless good Afghans (including the obligatory cute kid) from the scary bad guys. This village also deserves saving because it was the home of Yinsen, the Afghan guy who helped Tony escape the Ten Rings earlier in the film. He was a good guy because he sacrificed his life for Tony… presumably he just realised that the white guy was the hero and so accepted his own role as martyr and sidekick. The US military – particularly in the person of Tony’s buddy, the thoroughly decent but straightlaced Colonel Rhodes – stands by and watches the terrorists attack the little village, and does nothing. They desperately wish they could help of course (being the decent humanitarians they are) but can’t, for some reason undoubtedly to do with politics (you have to imagine the film’s authorial voice saying the word ‘politics’ with distaste, like a six year-old saying ‘sprouts’). You get scenes elsewhere in the film where Rhodes has to account for some Tony-caused snafu with a fighter jet to a baying hound of journalists who – it is implied – mercilessly scrutinise the military’s every move, desperately yearning for anything that looks like impropriety or incompetence, hellbent on holding the military to an irrationally high standard. Because that’s how things work in the reactionary fantasyland that this film depicts as the real world: a liberal media are out to get the military, who are stymied into ineffective overcaution by politics (yeurch) and who therefore can’t get out there and enforce their idealism on a world that needs it, the way they desperately wish they could… which is why we need Tony.
It can’t be overstressed: Tony’s objection to seeing his weapons used in the Afghanistan is nothing to do with the fact that Afghans are being killed with them. How could he object to this, given that the film never shows him (or us) any such thing. The reality of the ‘War on Terror’ is entirely effaced. Instead of seeing Iraqis or Afghans dying, Tony sees young Americans dying. Neither Tony nor the audience sees Afghan or Iraqi civilians being bombed by American (or British) planes, or incinerated, or dissolved in white phosphorous, or poisoned with depleted uranium, or slaughtered at Fallujah, or tortured in US military-run prisons, or murdered by US-sponsored headhunters. Instead, Tony sees young American servicemen and servicewomen killed by terrorists using Stark weapons that they’ve nefariously acquired. His objection is manifestly nothing to do with not wanting to be involved in murderous American imperialism leading to possibly millions of corpses. Obscenely, such realities are erased from the film. Instead, Tony is worried by the idea that sometimes his weapons find their way into the hands of people like the Ten Rings. (To clarify: I don’t mean to say that America’s enemies in the War on Terror are all goodies who haven’t done terrible things themselves; but that side is all you see in Iron Man, in highly distorted form, shorn of context.) Tony doesn’t realise that weapons of mass death are bad; he just realises that the US military can’t be trusted to use them enough, or to stop them getting into the hands of the terrorists. Tony’s moral epiphany is about how he doesn’t want American boys and girls killed with anything that’s got his logo on it. Tony agonises over his “life’s work in the hands of murderers”… as if it isn’t murder when the US military carpet bombs civilians. As if shock and awe isn’t murder.
Tony’s sea-change is about how he thinks he knows better than the army, presumably because they’re fighting with one hand tied behind their backs owing to squeamish politicians and sentimental public opinion (exactly the bleat of Vietnam hawks going way back). It’s about how he’s got the right to own and control and use staggering military tech all on his onesome because he’s who he is. It’s about how he reckons he can fix the world by himself, through private vigilantism. He’s not just trying to fix one city like Batman; he’s trying to single-handedly fix global politics… with his essential view of how it needs fixing coming directly from Fox News. His maturation, and his assumption of adult responsibility, is about him realising that, because he owns the private capital that goes into making weapons, and because he has the superior moral vision, he himself therefore has the right and the duty to go and use it any way he sees fit, unilaterally. This moral centre of this film is the idea that rich white dudes, through their manfeels combined with their property rights, have the right to save the world from itself by ploughing through democracy, by shouting down political correctness, by ignoring doveish qualms, and by killing the terrorists who are basically causing all the world’s problems. This is not an anti-War on Terror movie. This movie basically makes the case for the War on Terror by representing George W. Bush’s wet dreams as reality.
It might be objected, of course, that the existence and success of ISIS – or whatever we’re calling it this week – is proof of something like the premise Iron Man puts forward… but this ignores, as Iron Man ignores, as all such reactionary bullshit always ignores, the wider historical context. ISIS grew from the invasion of Iraq. This is beyond rational dispute. Seriously, if you want to argue to the contrary, you put yourself into the same league as climate change deniers, creationists, birthers, and people who think the Tories are good for the economy. And the blowback from Iraq, of which ISIS is only the most recent manifestation, was entirely predictable. Saddam, the Taliban and al-Qaeda – the evils that ‘we’ were supposedly trying to conquer – were all not only former allies of America, but foreseeable blowback from America’s former cynical, imperialist meddling in the Middle East and Central Asia. The islands of brutality in the Middle East and Central Asia that our leaders and media opportunistically point to whenever they need a new monster are almost invariably the product of previous interventions against previous media-highlighted monsters. To the extent that Iron Man has a coherent view of the Middle East and Central Asia, it has a view that alibis and promotes more of the same cynical, violent meddling which causes or perpetuates the very trouble it purports to be able to solve.
It’s All a Matter of Timing
Of course, none of this justifies singling Iron Man out for special opprobrium. Loads of other films do all the things I’ve just been talking about. I could adumbrate them point for point, as could many of my readers I expect. Even if the notion that Iron Man is an evil film is granted, how can I possibly support the claim that it is possibly the most evil film ever? I mean, there’s Triumph of the Will (1935) to consider, and Birth of a Nation (1915), and Song of the South (1946). (Incidentally, many of the techniques Iron Man uses to obfuscate reality and present its ideologically loaded vision are precisely the same techniques used by older evil films. The classic, old-as-the-hills technique of blaming the victim by reversing the order of aggression, for instance, can be found in Birth of a Nation, Stagecoach (1939), and a whole tradition of Westerns, war films, and films set in the urban jungle. The basic technique goes back even further. It’s the basis for the relationship between Prospero and Caliban.) On the specific issue of the War on Terror there’s the slippery-slimey Team America: World Police (2004) and, for the War on Terror avant la lettre, the frankly loathsome Rules of Engagement (2000), in which a soldier accused of firing on civilians turns out to have been justified because the Yemeni Arab women and children he mowed down were all packing heat and baying for the blood of his heavily-armed squad of peace-loving infidels.
There’s no shortage of films that range from embarrassingly dated to malignantly reactionary. Many of them are much loved, even by people like us. Back to the Future (1985), for instance, asks us to cheer when some Libyans burn to death, simply on the basis that they’re Libyans. It might be argued that they are also terrorists who try to kill Doc Brown, but a) Doc Brown is a sociopath who deals with terrorists in order to create technology that could destroy the space/time continuum, and then uses it recklessly and selfishly, and b) the Libyans are only terrorists because they happen to be Libyans appearing in 80s Reaganite cinema. Back to the Future materialises in the midst of an ideological American cinema watched over by the sullen, vacuous, bearded faces of Chuck Norris and John Milius. It arrives in the context of the Missing in Action saga (1984 onwards), and Red Dawn (1984) and Rambo (1982 onwards) and Delta Force (1986) and Death Before Dishonour (1987) and Invasion USA (1985); films in which the notorious liberal bastion that is Hollywood spends a great deal of time trying to decide on behalf of the American public which foreign nationality they are most threatened by this week: Libyans, Palestinians, Cubans, Nicaraguans, Russians or Vietnamese.
To anticipate my ultimate point: the reason why this itchy rash of mob-rousing, red-baiting, Islamophobic or crypto-islamophobic, persecution/revenge fantasies was so obnoxious was less to do with the specific things that were said or implied in them (vile as these things may have been) and more to do with the timing. Ideology is often very similar to comedy: it’s all a matter of timing. These films about manly American manly men slaughtering the 80s iteration of the category of people in American cinema whom Michael Parenti (following Tom Engelhardt) calls “the swarthy hordes”, or about all-American high-schoolers fighting off invading armies of Russkies and Nicaraguans, were all salutary and timely addresses to the American public about the need to support (or at least tolerate) Reagan’s foreign policy. (I say “tolerate” because agreement is not required by ideology; indeed, that isn’t now ideology works. Ideology works by being all-encompassing and constituting itself as a hegemonic take on ‘normality’ or ‘common sense’ from which divergence seems insane and/or impossible. You don’t have to agree with it for it to accomplish this.) Reagan’s foreign policy, in case we’ve forgotten, involved escalating tensions with the Soviet Union, planning lunatic sci-fi space laser-beam systems, repeatedly bombing Libya, Iran-Contra, setting the Contras on Nicaragua and letting them practically destroy the country in order to bring down the Sandinistas, and perpetrating similar blood-caked mischief in Grenada and Panama and Guatemala and El Salvador. In many ways, Iron Man is a direct descendant of this Reganite cinema, offering just a slightly more subtle version of exactly the kind of bullshit Hollywood peddled back then.
But that was then; this is now. Iron Man was released in 2008, seven years into the War on Terror and five years after its showcase project, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Iron Man comes to us openly as a War on Terror movie, part of a raft of such movies coming out at more or less the same time. (Again, I may talk about these more another time.)
Films don’t just exist when they’re produced. They exist years, decades, after they’re produced. They don’t just exist for the society into which they are released. They exist for other societies, later societies. They continue to exist after the world that spawned them has changed, or disappeared. As a result, their valences change. Triumph of the Will was probably the most evil film of its time, but its time is long past. The ideology it espouses and promotes doesn’t become any less vile, but it does become less urgent a threat. Fascism, though worryingly resurgent in those parts of Europe most hit by austerity, is not currently posed to take over great swathes of the continent. Even if fascism was a great deal more powerful than it currently is, it wouldn’t be able to get very far wearing swastikas, what their their reputation. Consequently, the evil of the film has become muted, because the danger it posed has subsided. The film no longer exists in its original context. It now exists in the present, and in the present context it is considerably less pertinent, effective, insidious, persuasive and dangerous than it was when it was made. Not only is it far less likely to materially benefit any currently ascendant fascist movements, but, also, very few people are likely to watch it and have their ideas about Nazism changed to be more positive. Similarly, in the present day, very few people are likely to be persuaded that the KKK were the real heroes of the post-bellum South after watching Birth of a Nation. Still less are they likely to find the film a spur to fight for black slavery or against Reconstruction, given that black slavery and Reconstruction both ended a long time ago. This isn’t to say that the film becomes less wrong or offensive, or that issues connected to the history from which it springs do not continue to be important. What I’m saying is that the film has become far less of a live issue. Birth of a Nation, despite being open pro-slavery, pro-KKK, racist propaganda, is almost always going to be less materially damaging and dangerous in the world of today than a comparatively mild bit of casual racism on the TV news.
Iron Man, by contrast, still speaks to more-or-less the same context, the same historical moment, it was designed to speak to. The War on Terror continues, albeit in a mutated form and with the serial numbers somewhat filed-off.
Iron Man is a film which begins a story which continues to be told. It is a living part of a still-unfolding text. Its story continues via a series of sequels and associated films which are all extremely effective, successful, and high profile.
Iron Man is the foundation of this series, of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is currently one of the biggest, most significant, and most successful ongoing concerns in the culture industry. It is the keystone of the edifice of the MCU. It is absolutely crucial for an understanding of contemporary pop culture. It is highly present and prevalent, both in its own right as a relatively new and highly significant film, but also by proxy via the other films that inherit its characters, aesthetics, storylines and themes.
To say that it is the most evil film ever made is to say that it is currently the most evil film ever made. These things don’t remain constant, for the simple reason that they are historically embedded, and history does not remain constant. Ayn Rand was fond of saying “A is A”, but it really isn’t, y’know. A – whatever A may be – is historically embedded, because everything is. As an historically embedded thing, it is in a constant process of change. More, it is a process of change. Because everything is. Everything interacts dialectically with everything else. Everything changes because of internal contradictions, or because of contradictions between itself and other things around it. This usually pertains to what we currently think of as ‘things’; it certainly occurs even more to less discrete and stable things like ‘categories’ or ‘judgements’. If we’re going to talk about “the most evil film ever made” (and I’ve decided we are, and I’m writing this essay) then we have to bear in mind that this kind of judgement can only be made historically – by definition, it has to be, since it has the word “ever” in it. The superficial way to do this would be to compare it to other films made throughout the history of cinema and try to judge which was the worst. A far more telling way of doing it is to look at the history of cinema (and you can apply this kind of historical-ideological criticism to anything you like) and look at the products of the cinema industry in relation to the politics of the day from which they sprang, against which their political valences can be judged, and their likely effect gauged.
To be blunt: Iron Man is currently the most evil film ever made because it is currently the most influential, popular, widely seen, well loved and effective cinematic artifact promoting what is currently the world’s most damaging ideology. Even an equally well-made (in its own way) film, steeped in just as much dishonesty, just as beholden to American power, just as grovellingly subservient to their ideas, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), has nowhere near the reach of Iron Man. Iron Man is therefore currently the most significant and powerful film shoring up the world’s current most dangerous political praxis.
This is about more than just direct death tolls. The amount of death, pain, maiming, suffering, bereavement, ruination and misery caused by the War on Terror – so much that you could put 9/11 into it many times over – is nightmarish and unimaginable. It would be bad enough by itself, but we also have to factor in the environmental devastation. I don’t refer to the direct damage done, bad though that is. I refer to the fact that the whole thing is, at almost the most fundamental level, about fossil fuel. It’s far too reductive and vulgar to say that ‘we’ invaded Afghanistan to get Unocal an oil pipeline, or Iraq to steal their oil. There’s a complex of reasons for these invasions. The causes range from the directly material to the ideological; from the brazenly commercial desire of Western corporations and fanatical privatisers to wet their beaks, to the deep structural demands and strategies of the American imperium. But there’s no sensible way to argue that the junta of oil company executives who constituted the second Bush administration would have felt so morally obliged to assist Iraq in the way they did if the country’s main export had been guano. In an era of diminishing supplies of the fossil fuels that keep our industrial civilisation chugging along, control of such supplies is a key concern for the world’s only empire. The war in Iraq not only caused the deaths of possibly more than million Iraqis, it also contributed towards the onrushing extinction of the human race. It helped to bolster the West’s continuing access to, and dependence upon, fossil fuels. By securing access to Iraq’s oil reserves and production, the War on Terror helped ensure the continued suicidal syndrome of man-made climate change.
That’s the project Iron Man supports. Even as it depicts Tony the Good Capitalist insisting upon new, environmentally clean tech that will save the world, it’s the fossil fuel-fuelled heat death of humanity that the film tacitly accepts. That’s what it protects with shiny armour and quips. And it does it really well. Better than anyone else ever did.
Oh Yeah, Sorry… It’s Also a Matter of Quality
Iron Man – and this is a crucial point – is really, really fucking good. It’s superbly made. It reaches a very high level of storytelling competence, rarely seen these days in Hollywood films which mostly seem dramatically inert, under-characterised, charmless, top heavy and cursed with spaghettified plots. By marked contrast, Iron Man is paced, plotted and characterised to near perfection. It’s a masterclass of Hollywood professionalism. The casting is canny and the performances all noticeably well judged. Stan Lee’s dream is realised with regards to Tony: he has become one of the most widely loved characters in recent cinema, even amongst people who should know better. The effects interact almost flawlessly with action sequences which are judged to within an inch of perfection, matching spectacle with clarity. Iron Man has become the exemplar of films of its kind. Nobody gives a damn about the politics or worldview of Green Lantern (2011) because it’s shit and nobody saw it, and the people who did see it forgot it seven minutes after it ended. It is universally derided, forgotten, culturally insignificant, so even if its politics were worse than that of Iron Man, that wouldn’t change the fact that Iron Man is the more evil film. Iron Man stands tall; hence its long shadow.
Iron Man pulls off its various tricks and balancing acts to perfection. It is not only the pinnacle of the Hollywood film-makers’ art in terms of aesthetics, but also in the related terms of ideology. Iron Man managed to convince apparently sensible people that it was ‘anti-war’. According to Matthew Alford, reviewers described it as being “anti-war” and “pacifist”. Alford quotes Peter Bradshaw languidly reviewing Iron Man for the Guardian as calling Tony Stark a “pacifist superhero”, a description which beggars belief given the number of people he blasts with his palms of power. But Bradshaw isn’t entirely to blame. The film – a far more sophisticated piece of work than Bradshaw gives it credit for – pulls some very tricky steps. If even normal viewers are liable to find themselves disoriented, what chance a Guardian reviewer?
And Iron Man sold. And continues to sell. Bradshaw said in his review that, as of the first film, the franchise was “already beginning to rust”. He was exactly wrong. The film was seen by millions, and made a fuckload of money. And goes on doing so, both in itself and in the person of its continuing sequels.
And, y’know, to say that Iron Man is the most evil film ever made is not actually so great a claim. I’m not saying that the film sticks out as particularly unusual as a result. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily vastly worse than anything else around it. It edges out in front by a micron of extra evil, which it garners from factors like its unparallelled significance in mass popular culture, its particular representations, etc. This isn’t to say that it is actually exceptional or unusual as a text of its kind. Most of the products of the Western capitalist culture industries are evil to one extent or another. Iron Man is, I think, currently the most evil example of a vast, teeming breed of evil texts. One day, a new contender for its throne of skulls will arise, interacting with some new context, reinforcing some new praxis, furthering some new development in Western civilisation’s war on the future of the human species, with even more ruthless efficiency and success than Iron Man managed. When that time comes, Tony Stark will have to cede his place to the newcomer. For now though, he’s firmly ensconced at the apex of the vast structure of Stark tower, and the massive ‘A’ on the side of his steel palace doesn’t stand for ‘Avengers’…
It stands for ‘Armageddon’.