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’.
September 16, 2015 @ 5:41 am
” (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.)”
To be fair, Andrew Carnegie (admittedly a century ago) spent most of his money on social causes, and Bill Gates actually appears to be trying to do something “good” with most of his fortune too.
But alas, they are exceptions that absolutely prove the rule.
(Fabulous piece. Thank you.)
September 16, 2015 @ 1:52 pm
Can’t speak for Carnegie, but the Gates foundation is well-known for explicitly pushing a political agenda along with it’s funding (e.g. independent schools)
John G Wood
September 16, 2015 @ 2:09 pm
And even if these Good Capitalists were – if you’ll pardon the expression – “whiter than white”, I still have an objection to any system that relies on the good character of powerful individuals to distribute their largesse in a fair, just and socially useful manner. Why not distribute it a bit more fairly in the first place, and cut out the middle man?
September 16, 2015 @ 2:47 pm
Hey, I entirely agree with you – it’s one of the myriad wilfully obscured flaws of what we like to pretend to call capitalism. I was merely noting that it has actually happened once or twice in “real life”, not that it was a good thing! And certainly not that any system should rely on it happening.
May 1, 2016 @ 11:26 pm
Yeah, let’s instead rely on a system based on the idea of totally corrupt, thieving politicians to do the public good.
Only a true idiot believes that thieving politicians will voluntarily do good for the general public, when they can (and in fact, do) use the resources they have (money obtained via taxes) to fuck up the public, and then use the subsequent crisis as an excuse to INCREASE the raping of the middle class and working poor.
September 16, 2015 @ 6:18 am
Okay wow, that was great. Best thing I’ve read in a long time. You’ll be glad to know that in the comics, Iron Man and Mr Fantastic ran their own space Guantanamo Bay for a while. This was during the hilariously misplotted Civil War event, and I’m intrigued to see what the upcoming Captain America: Civil War film will take (if any) from that.
September 16, 2015 @ 9:24 am
This is why I’m proud to share a platform with Jack Graham. Wow, and bravo.
Also, love the #notallcapitalists hashtag. 🙂
September 16, 2015 @ 5:06 pm
The feeling’s mutual Jane. xxx
September 16, 2015 @ 9:33 am
Not a bad article, even though I’m a person who doesn’t weep over the fact that I’m white and living in a capitalist society as I view those things as not inherently evil. America’s war and fear mongering can go fuck itself with a hot knife though. Only really wrong thing I noticed was that you keep referring to the Afghans and the Ten Rings as “Arabs.” Afghanistan is a ethnically diverse country with little ethnic ties to the people of inhabit the Arabian peninsula and the film makes it clear that the Ten Rings is ethnically diverse as well. Remember the scene with Tony and the other prisoner were confused because the leader of the Ten Rings was speaking Hungarian and other languages?
September 16, 2015 @ 11:04 am
Thank you, that’s a valid point that I should’ve covered.
September 16, 2015 @ 11:38 am
1.) Having sex for sex sake is not sexist, and choosing to only have limited interaction with other individuals does not equal thinking they are disposable.
Do you demonize women when they ONLY want to have sex with a guy? Do you demonize women when they ONLY want to be friends? Bloody Hypocrite.
2.) “because of how badly it affects him personally”
No, not just that, but what his fellow prisoner, Yinsen, endured.. his family & village was massacred by the villains.
If your gonna demonize a film, pay attention.
3.) “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”
Yes, because only minorities can kill people and be right and justified in it.
4.) I am pretty sure any one of any race, of any social standing, with anything resembling a moral conscious would agree people who do this… (just this past January)
Need to be stopped or killed.
So no you do not get to say that there are not Easterners that kill and hurt each other unrelated to rich peoples imperialism.
September 16, 2015 @ 1:28 pm
No point responding to this. What’s wrong with each objection you raise is so obvious that anyone can see it for themselves… and anyone who can’t is not going to be swayed by me explaining it. Thanks for reading though.
September 17, 2015 @ 8:42 am
No, there is NOTHING obviously wrong about the fact that human beings enjoy and want sex for sex sake, and seeking it and only it out, DOES NOT MAKE YOU prejudice against those you are seeking it from.
When men claim the same things against promiscuous women, its called slut shaming, once again… Hypocrite.
#2 was factually shown on film to have effected Stark emotionally, so no there is nothing wrong with it much less obviously, if you can’t even accept what actually transpired on screen, you don’t need to write 40 paragraph articles about the film.
#4 Factually provides proof of that you claimed was unrealistic and not true in the film does in fact take place in real life, and of course your cowardly ignoring it.
So not only are you a man hating, racist against white people, terrorist & mass murder supporting sadist piece of human trash, you don’t even have the honor to discuss things when facing facts against you.
John G Wood
September 17, 2015 @ 10:29 am
Jack isn’t racist against white people, because it is actually impossible to be racist against white people in the world as it exists now. If you can take this one point on board, you might then see at least some of why Jack considers your arguments obviously flawed; if you read up on it and reject the statement anyway (or indeed reject it out of hand), you might at least understand why he thinks answering is a pointless exercise.
This reply may, too, have been a pointless exercise; it almost certainly comes across as me being smug and arrogantly confident of my own rightness. Hey ho, what can you do?
September 17, 2015 @ 12:07 pm
If he hates or demonizes white people which he does then he factually is racist towards them.
September 17, 2015 @ 11:07 am
I feel it’s important to point out Jack doesn’t hate men, he hates capitalists. And not even then. He hates their capitalism. Poor Show sir.
September 17, 2015 @ 12:04 pm
No, my saying he hates men had nothing to do with his issues with capitalism, it was him implying that men being promiscuous and limiting their interaction with most women to sex, is inherently sexist or wrong on any level.
No its not, its just limited interest. Men do not owe women a relationship or a meaningful emotional connection any more then women owe men sex.
September 17, 2015 @ 1:36 pm
You’re currently enjoying a charming grace period whereby the ability to ban commenters has not been implemented on the site yet.
I strongly recommend changing your posting style before Anna gets this coded.
September 17, 2015 @ 1:56 pm
Seriously dude, that’s what you take away from the essay? That’s the thing you’re outraged about? I’m being mean to men and white people? Fuck off.
September 17, 2015 @ 1:07 pm
“So not only are you a man hating, racist against white people, terrorist & mass murder supporting sadist piece of human trash, you don’t even have the honor to discuss things when facing facts against you.”
But Jack, surely you’ll reconsider now you can see how reasonable this guy is being.
September 17, 2015 @ 1:35 pm
I think I feel the scales falling from my eyes even now. I wonder if Vox Day will be my friend instead of Phil.
September 16, 2015 @ 12:44 pm
Ok, attempt 3 at this comment.
This essay is excellent. It’s an example of why people should be supporting the Eruditorum press Patreon.
I don’t agree with your assessment of Tony Stark as a character, but you’ve explicitly excluded the Comics (and future films) from your essay and so it seems pointlessly pedantic to bring it in.
September 16, 2015 @ 1:38 pm
September 16, 2015 @ 2:17 pm
I went to see “Dark Water / Death in Heaven” last night at the 3D showings, with your podcast takedown of this film in my brain. And what do you know, it almost looks as if Moffat is making a half-hearted critique of neoliberal adventurism, with his Iron Man style Cybermen becoming tools of the World President, ready and willing to do perform humanitarian interventions all across the galaxy. I say half-hearted because the whole situation is resolved just by the Doctor saying “nope, I give up” and handing Danny the self-destruct button.
September 16, 2015 @ 2:52 pm
I honestly saw the ending of that episode as more the Doctor immediately recognizing the terrible implications of that sort of story and promptly rejecting it in favor of one where, just this once, everybody dies.
John G Wood
September 16, 2015 @ 3:04 pm
First off, great essay – some of that I’d thought about, most I hadn’t, so thanks. I don’t really have anything to add from a political point of view (heh, not that I’d expect to, given the author); but I wanted to say something about my experience of reading superhero comics and watching superhero movies.
I like superhero tales. I am, in fact, quite happy to see the white hats and black hats facing off and beating seven bells out of each other for no morally sound reason, so long as it’s done in an entertaining manner. In real life I don’t go “yay for the vigilantes and our noble spy organisations keeping the world for decent folks!” – but that’s pretty much what I do when it comes to the comics, if that’s the kind of world the comic is set in (and it usually is).
The thing is, there is no real contradiction there. In my preferred vision of the real world, someone like Tony Stark would be facing multiple murder charges; in the comics he’s just a dick, and all the more interesting because he’s a dick. I draw a line in my head, somewhere, and I just assumed other people did too…
…until I saw that bit about reviewers describing the film as anti-war and pro-pacifism. What the flip? Now I’m worried.
Oops, got to dash!
September 16, 2015 @ 4:15 pm
First of all, an excellent piece considering the politics of a film I haven’t seen in its entirety since its initial release. A few thoughts:
1) Obadiah Stane’s subplot always felt tacked-on and unnecessary to me, largely because it shifts focus from the “hero’s journey” story of Tony Stark’s “becoming” Iron Man (although I agree in your reading they are of course one and the same). I suspect the subplot was added in the first place because of the need for a compelling villain for the last-act battle sequence essential to the structure of the modern action film. Impersonal, systemic forces are fundamental to an understanding of the moral universe we live in, but on screen the audience is at least perceived as needing a single “villain” who can be defeated at the end. Also, of course, a singular “hero” who can do the defeating.
(Idea: a Robocop remake in which the title character realizes that he or she is a propaganda piece used in support of the nameless wealthy in oppressing the people of the large metropolis in which he of she lives, and eventually turns against the police force itself, allying with the innocent populations terrorized by systemic brutality by the boys in blue.)
2) It’s oft remarked that modern four-quadrant blockbusters, to the degree that they have any explicit political focus at all, tend to hedge their bets so as to offend as few people as possible. That’s how you get hundreds of millions of dollars with which the make/market a big-budget film, after all. The additional financial pressure given in a film like “Iron Man” by the American military (in the form of use of military hardware) means that any anti-military messages get filed down even further, giving even with the best of intentions a pro-war spin to the finished product. And, of course, the desire to be as “apolitical” as possible only serves to make the current status quo the only acceptable political message. Bleh.
(Related: currently streaming on Netflix is a film called “Down Three Dark Roads,” which looked at first glance to be an early 50s noir but ended up being a love letter to Hoover’s FBI, largely because Hoover himself had to okay the script.)
Interestingly, most of the rest of the MCU films avoid the worst of this by setting their action scenes with knobby-headed aliens or other pseudo-supernatural beings rather than basing themselves in a real-world conflict. One of the great powers of SF in general is its ability to examine social issues by distancing through metaphor, but this often means that it is then impossible to set such stories back in the real world. Jake Sully can fight against capitalist encroach and take the side of blue catpeople precisely becuase they are blue catpeople and not real-world oppressed peoples. (Omitting for the moment the massive White Savior issues with that film, of course.)
3) Finally, one of the places where the MCU films (and the Iron Man trilogy in particular) fail utterly is in their idea of worldbuilding. Tony’s arc reactor (assembled from a box of junk in a cave!) has the ability to utterly change not just the technology sector of the Western world but the whole of world geopolitics. What does the Israel/Palestine conflict look like when the oil industry is reduced to chemical feedstock rather than the primary energy source for humanity? For that matter, if the stakes are raised in warfare by the addition of cheap Iron Man suit technology to militant groups of whatever ideological stripe, what does American foreign policy then look like? Such considerations may give us not just a more interesting political situation to consider, but would undoubtedly be more interesting stories in general.
Again, excellent piece and I’m very happy this resource now exists.
September 16, 2015 @ 4:46 pm
Stane fills in as the culmination of a sins of the father/corruption within plot, because as much as the film advocates for Stark’s ability to fly into the middle east and fix everything it shys away, as you note, from expressing this pretty radical idea.
So instead, Stane is the one who massacres the Afghan leadership with advanced technology – giving Stark an excuse why not to do it other than ‘it’s inherently evil’.
Of course, by the time we get to Age of Ultron Stark has stopped letting the fact that supervillains are also advocating for his plans stop him, but that’s more to do with him spending that whole film halfway through a signposted heel turn than it is an appreciable ideological shift.
September 17, 2015 @ 6:36 am
So uh, Robocop 3 then? 🙁
September 19, 2015 @ 1:24 pm
That sounds not unlike the premise of Chappie…
September 17, 2015 @ 4:50 am
I have nothing useful to add – this is a brilliant, searing, on point critique. However, I did want to say that I loved the title. It made me laugh out loud.
September 17, 2015 @ 12:09 pm
Excellent breakdown of a movie I really enjoyed when it came out but has some really awful messages. I am curious about your analysis of Iron Man 2, especially the fact the villain at first appears to be like the ones in the first movie but turns out to be something entirely different.
As for the “rich white guy saves the day,” I think that’s a problem with a lot of superheroes. Batman is the most well-known, but I think in the comics, Reed Richards is actually the straight-up most destructive and evil while still being portrayed as a hero: http://new.websnark.com/post/93357159033/reed-richards-sociopath
September 17, 2015 @ 9:10 pm
One thing that Jack touched on, but didn’t really get into was the exact problem with the message around clean energy. Setting up the arc reactor as something someone could literally make in a cave in Afghanistan with spare parts reinforces a technocratic viewpoint as a solution to climate change. It basically says, “If we hang around long enough, a Steve Jobs of clean energy will come along and invent something that will just solve all of our problems.” While R&D is necessary and we’ve made a lot of technological advances, there are no arc reactors on the horizon. To an extent, they put this off in the movie a little bit by saying that Tony needed some very rare metal to make it, but the archetype of the uber-inventor that waves a magic science wand and solves everything is highly problematic, especially in the context of climate change.
September 18, 2015 @ 5:42 am
The biggest problem faced by anyone trying to come to any sort of rational decision about climate change is surely that the extent to which technology can help is so mind-bogglingly uncertain. I wouldn’t be surprised on one hand, if we made strong AI within 25 years, the AI singularity happened and we very quickly had solutions to everything. And I wouldn’t be surprised on the other hand if strong AI turned out to be totally impossible, or if all it could tell us was that the physical limitations are insurmountable and we’re doomed.
(Doesn’t help that predicting what positive or negative feedback mechanisms might get triggered, and whether there are any tipping points to be worried about is so difficult too.)
I guess you can complain about anything which makes the problem seem less serious though, on the basis that it might make people more likely to burn carbon frivolously. Even if we don’t know whether that will make any difference, it’s clear which end it pushes the probabilities towards.
September 17, 2015 @ 8:08 pm
Well, this makes me REALLY excited about this whole Eruditorum Press thing.
September 20, 2015 @ 3:51 pm
I just discovered this post and site through it being shared by Noah Bertlasky of the Hooded Utilitarian, and I wanted to thank you for clearly expressing what has been a jumble of thoughts about the film I’ve had since I was convinced to go see it by a friend.
If there is anything I take issue with is the claim re: the power of texts to influence people. It probably goes without saying to someone sharp enough to have written this that it is not that simple or straightforward. I think texts like these have a lot more influence in terms of how they reflect and confirm pre-existing attitudes and prejudices, and in some cases their hopes, usually through re-framing the very political dynamics represented in ways that reinforce individualist ideology (at least in the U.S.). Maybe I am just splitting hairs w/ this critique since you even mention that you need to come back to the topic in the future.
I wonder if the recent doubt cast on the Stark character in the films is meant to suggest his possible villainous character (leading up to his role in Civil War), or (the more likely) if his POV is meant to simply be another acceptable and morally justified choice?
Anyway (at the risk of being spammy), if you (or your readers) are interested in reading a take on a different Marvel film that sets up a foundation of its cinematic universe) check out my post “Captain America: The Winter Soldier as Liberal Fantasy – A Review” over on The Middle Spaces
September 23, 2015 @ 4:44 pm
There are so many problems with this, I don’t even know where to begin.
Let’s start with the one that bothered me the most: the writer’s constant references to “Arabs” despite the fact that there isn’t a single Arab character in the movie. Contrary to the article’s claims, the terrorists of the Ten Rings are neither Arabs nor Muslims. It’s also extremely unlikely that any of the Afghan villagers are Arabs. If the author of this article actually knew anything about Afghanistan, he’d know that France has a larger Arab population, in both size and percentage! (Arabs comprise roughly 9% of France’s population and less than 4% of Afghanistan’s population.) The terrorists and villagers in Iron Man were mostly portrayed by Pakistani and Indian actors, lived in a region predominantly inhabited by Pashtun and Urdu tribes, and spoke the Urdu language on screen (which shows that the filmmakers know more about Afghanistan than the writer of this article does). It can be safely assumed that they’re not meant to be Arabs!
I’m part Arabic myself, and the fact that the author seems to lump all of the ethnic groups in the Greater Middle East and the Indian Sub-Continent as “Arabs” makes it very difficult for me to take his views on international politics seriously. That’s something I’d expect from an uneducated and mildly racist hick, not a supposedly progressive intellectual.
The movie also makes it clear that the terrorists are not Islamic fundamentalists, since it explicitly states that the Ten Rings is a secular organization. The terrorist leader, Raza, is shown as a non-ideological warlord motivated solely by the acquisition of power and territory. (The religion of the Afghan villagers is never specified, and it can probably be assumed that they’re Muslim, since Afghanistan’s population is almost entirely Muslim, but I don’t see how that matters.) This one mistake causes a lot of the author’s other arguments to break down, most notably his complaint about how they can’t be both religious fanatics and self-interested cynics; they’re not both, they’re solely the latter.
Regarding the author’s suggestion that the audience should sympathize with the Ten Rings for defending their homeland from American imperialism, there are two huge problems with that argument. First, the Ten Rings are not a local resistance group, they’re a multinational terrorist organization that’s taking advantage of an existing conflict to pursue their goals of conflict. They’re explicitly shown kidnapping, enslaving, and slaughtering local Afghans! In that light, it makes perfect sense that Yinsen would side with anyone, even a hated American imperialist, over the people who kidnapped him and are holding his family hostage.
Second, it’s based around the rather simplistic assumption (one which I’ve seen fairly often among the more extreme critics of American foreign policy, on both the far left and the far right) that since the invading Americans are the “bad guys”, anyone who opposes them must be the “good guys”. This ignores the fact that many of America’s enemies are responsible for countless human rights abuses in their own right. If the author had a better grasp of history and politics, he could’ve pointed out how the evils of Al-Qaeda and ISIS actually highlight the flaws in American foreign policy, since both groups exist as a result of American intervention in the developing world. (In fact, Iron Man 3 makes that exact point, exposing the Ten Rings as a literal creation of the American military-industrial complex designed to foster a perpetual demand for war.)
As for the author’s claim that the movie is undemocratic because it portrays one man as having the solution to all of the world’s problems, that could be applied to any superhero movie. It’s an inherent problem with the superhero genre, especially in large scale stories where the superhero is focused on more than just stopping local crime. But while I see how it’s mildly problematic for Iron Man to go off on his own and take drastic actions without any oversight or accountability, I don’t see how it’s any more problematic than when Captain America or Thor or Batman or Superman or John McClane do the same thing. I completely disagree with the author’s idea that it symbolically represents how whites/males/rich people/Americans have all the answers to the world’s problems and should be allowed to do whatever they want; that’s drawing an association that isn’t there.
I don’t think the movie is particularly supportive of the U.S. military either. It doesn’t condemn the military in any way, but that’s not the same as supporting it. However, it’s important to remember that Tony does stop creating weapons for them, and he sticks with that decision even after Stane is exposed and he no longer has to worry about his inventions falling into the wrong hands. That shows that, regardless of the initial reasons for his change of heart, he does come to believe that there’s something innately amoral about supporting any form of militarism. (The sequels make this more explicit: Iron Man 2, for all its flaws, shows that Tony deeply distrusts the American military-industrial complex, while Iron Man 3 goes even further by portraying the military-industrial complex itself as the source of America’s threats.) It’s also important to remember that his original goal as Iron Man is not to police the world as a one-man army, but simply to atone for his past sins by stopping the specific terrorists who are using Stark Industries weapons.
Finally, the author’s sudden rant about the oil industry and climate change is extremely bizarre and out of place. I’m not a climate change denier by any means, but his apocalyptic prediction of humanity’s impending extinction is absurd, it’s alarmist technologically-regressive fear-mongering at its worst. No credible scientist would agree with those claims. It’s also completely irrelevant to the topic at hand, since the movie never mentions environmental issues or the oil industry’s role in the Iraq War or anything even tangentially related to any of that. And while I fully agree that going to war to steal a nation’s resources is completely immoral, I don’t see how going to war for oil is any worse than going to war for iron or gold or rubber or diamonds or water. It’s not like Saddam Hussein’s regime was just sitting on top of all that oil doing nothing with it; they were extracting and selling it too, so the fact that it changed hands doesn’t really affect global carbon emissions.
September 24, 2015 @ 4:55 am
Thank you very much for this comment. You have identified mistakes in my article which I should have caught and fixed before publication. Some of them were problems with lack of clarity, others were outright factual howlers. I don’t excuse it, but it was a product of rush, and leaving first-draft placeholders in when they should’ve been altered after research. They’re still unforced errors and I apologise for them. I’ve amended the article accordingly. I’ll do better in future. Needless to say, all errors are entirely my responsibility. 🙂
September 24, 2015 @ 4:31 pm
I just want to echo Jack’s thanks for the comment, and add that it’s a genuine honor both to have a site that receives such intelligent and on-target critique and to work with people like Jack who, when confronted with it, own up to their mistakes and fix them.
September 29, 2015 @ 6:28 pm
Some interesting comments from ‘The Mandarin’ on the Iron Man forum I frequent. Posting them here because his views match my own and he expressed them better than I could. (Quotes from the article are his. Text in brackets is mine, added for context.)
“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!”
The Ten Rings were not Afghanis. They were a multi-ethnic group of imperialists from all over the world doing mercenary work in the short term to fund their long-term goal. [Iron Man 3 revealed their goal was to keep the War on Terror going so the Mandarin’s PMC could sell soldiers and weapons to both sides, as part of the Mandarin’s plan to take over the US.] They were Spectre and Cobra and such. They were also an easter-egg about The Mandarin himself, who [in the comics] initially did mercenary work for the Chinese as part of his long-term goal to destroy the Chinese and almost everyone else by causing World War III.
A lot of the other things [the author of this article] said collapses because of that one thing.
“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.”
This is something inherent to all heroic stories. The hero is right, the rulers and the mob and everyone else are wrong. Heroes are metaphorically Jesus, even the antiheroes. I consider this trope somewhat problematic, but I’ve seen what happens when you abandon it, and the price is too high for a monthly mass-entertainment. Superheroes especially disintegrate when you abandon this trope.
The Solid Dick writer tries to make this about some huge evil of American thinking, when it’s really just a trope without which a comicbook star collapses and will lose readers in the long term.
Having said all this, he does have something of a point about comic Stark, which is why the movies immediately move him two steps away from being an industrialist, by making Obediah Stane and Pepper the businesspeople in Stark’s life, while Stark is mainly an absent-minded-professor.
He’s initially presented as basically this combo of absent-minded-professor and sheltered-rich-kid. Obediah is leading him astray, feeding him a line that he is purely inventing weapons to help heroes stop villains, and he’s too busy alternating between doing Sheltered-Young-Rich-Fop stuff and Absent-Minded-Professor stuff to realize this.
Once he has his redemption arc, he kicks Obediah to the curb and becomes much more purely the heroic Absent-Minded-Professor who deeply cares for his friends and his woman. It is Obediah who embodies everything the Solid Dick writer is talking about, and Pepper who embodies a softer variation on it.
In other words, Obediah is Steve Jobs at his worst [a parasitic predator who profits off the creativity of others], Pepper is Steve Jobs at his best [a pragmatic entrepreneur who comes up with practical uses for creators’ abstract ideas], and Stark isn’t Steve Jobs at all, he’s really more of a Wozniak. Even more than that, he’s the science hero in a million movies and pulps, doing crazy science and acting for small, personal goals like protecting or avenging his loved ones. By the third movie, he’s cloistered in his lab obsessed with protecting the love of his life, and only leaves it to avenge his friend Happy. No grand economic/political schemes on his part, just mad science used for small, personal goals.
In other words, the movie people were keenly aware that the core comic concept is utter fail, and very wisely created massive retcons to make the movie version work. They made Obediah guilty of his worse sins, and made Stark himself a misled mad scientist who deeply cares about Pepper, Happy, and Rhodey.
“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.”
I disagree somewhat. He becomes distrustful of the morals of the military itself. You can see this in Iron Man II, and in Avengers. He is flat-out an anti-establishment figure in both.
He is neither a pro or anti establishment figure in Iron Man III [despite that movie having the most anti establishment message of the trilogy], but only because by this point he’s become utterly the eccentric isolated inventor using mad science for tiny personal goals like protecting the love of his life. His world is too small for politics at this point, and he works better as a character that way.
I think what the Solid Dick author misses or wildly misinterprets is the core trope of all heroic stories, which is that the hero is right and everyone else, the government, the masses, everyone, is wrong. It’s a somewhat problematic trope because it’s inherently undemocratic. And the wires behind the literary-magic-trick that is this trope show a little when the hero is flawed rather than a straight-up Jesus type. But the trope is still necessary or heroic fiction disintegrates under its own weight.
September 29, 2015 @ 9:14 pm
“The Ten Rings were not Afghanis. They were a multi-ethnic group of imperialists from all over the world doing mercenary work in the short term to fund their long-term goal.”
Yeah, part of the problem with the originally-posted version of this article was that it sounded like I was saying that the Ten Rings were Afghan freedom fighters. It’s quite right that they’re not. I think my point still stands though (certainly now I’ve amended the article), which is that they are all that is depicted by the film in place of Afghan insurgence, thus depicting any resistance to the invasion as illegitimate criminality.
The other objections don’t seem relevant, to be honest. They’re either about different films, or comics (which I specifically leave out of my analysis), or they’re generalities about heroes and superheroes… generalities which may be true, but which don’t affect the cumulative case I make. I’m not saying that this film does anything especially unusual (in fact I specifically say otherwise), rather that it does it better and bigger and with more directly damaging and retrograde associations.
October 5, 2015 @ 8:56 pm
Since you admit that the film doesn’t do anything unusual, would you say that you find all forms of heroic fiction to be harmful for similar reasons? If you’re going to condemn all stories where the hero is right and everyone else is wrong, that leaves precious little left in the action hero and superhero genres.
I greatly respect that you were willing to amend the article to correct your mistakes, but I don’t see how some of your points can stand in light of those corrections. The movie doesn’t show any Afghani resistance fighters at all, so I can’t agree that it portrays Afghanis in a negative light. The only Afghanis we see are Dr. Yinsen and the villagers, who are all portrayed positively. The movie only briefly touches on the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and the entire plot revolves around the protagonist cutting his ties to the military, so I can’t agree that it’s pro-military and certainly not that it’s pro-war.
Your interpretation seems to be that the Ten Rings are meant as a stand-in for the Afghani resistance and that Iron Man is meant to be a stand-in for the U.S. government or military, but I strongly doubt that was the message the filmmakers intended or one that most viewers internalized. In my humble opinion, it’s a movie about a fictional superhero fighting a fictional terrorist organization that uses the Afghan Civil War as a backdrop. To the extent that it has a message, it’s an anti-war message, even if it’s not particularly anti-military (the sequels definitely are, but you said you only wanted to discuss the first film, so I won’t get into that).
The movie could be seen as pro-American since Tony Stark’s primary concern is for the lives of American servicemen. So what? I don’t see anything wrong with that and I don’t think being pro-American and anti-war are mutually exclusive. It’s a perfectly valid moral concern. The American soldiers who were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq under false pretenses were victims too, deceived and exploited by the same corrupt warmongering politicians who went on to cut veteran’s benefits. From WWI to Vietnam to Iraq, anti-war movements in the U.S. have predominantly been driven by concern for the lives of American servicemen. Those millions of protesters and activists you praised in the article for their unprecedented opposition to an unjust war? A large majority of them, at least here in this country, were motivated by the same sentiments you seem to be condemning Tony Stark for.
I half-agree with your assessment of Stane as a “bad capitalist” in contrast to Stark’s “good capitalist”. I half-disagree because I don’t see how that’s a bad thing. As a center-left liberal, I think it’s ridiculous to assume that good capitalists don’t exist. I don’t see how a movie that portrays a single good capitalist and a single bad capitalist can be seen as pro-capitalism any more than it can be seen as anti-capitalism. I also half-disagree because I think you got the roles wrong. As ‘The Mandarin’ pointed out, it’s the pragmatic and business-savvy Pepper who’s the “good capitalist”, not Stark. Stark isn’t a capitalist at all, he’s a heroic mad scientist adventurer in the mold of Doc Savage, Benton Quest, Emmett Brown, and Dr. Who. His corporation is a plot device to provide him with the resources he needs to build his inventions and to provide motivations for his allies and enemies. The whole reason the writers chose to have Stark inherit his wealth is because that’s the only way for the character’s absent-minded professor naivete to make sense. If he’d built his own company from scratch that would’ve required making him into a capitalist, which changes the core concept.
June 9, 2020 @ 1:05 am
“the US started sponsoring mujahideen rebels against the modernizing pro-Soviet government in an attempt to lure the USSR into invading”
Nope. The USSR invaded Afghanistan because the pro-Soviet Afghan president, Nur Muhammad Taraki was overthrown and then assassinated by his (also pro-Soviet) second-in-command, Hafizullah Amin. Brezhnev, Kosygin, and most of the Politburo were against the idea of invasion, but were goaded into it by the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, as well as Andrei Gromyko, Dmitriy Ustinov, and Boris Ponomarev. I suspect it was probably Andropov who was responsible for the conspiracy theories about Amin being an agent of the CIA, but I don’t think there was ever any definitive proof. At any rate, the Mujahideen didn’t become a factor until after the Soviets invaded and the US did not begin Operation Cyclone until after the war began.