Repulsive heroes to the rescue…?
Is it a coincidence that Batman and Iron Man have so much in common? Like Batman, aka “The Dark Knight“, and “The World’s Greatest Detective“, and whose true identity is that of Bruce Wayne, an American millionaire (later billionaire) playboy, industrialist, and philanthropist, Iron Man’s Tony Stark is also scion to an industrial fortune (made on military hardware), a flamboyant chauvinist (Superman himself was proud to “fight for freedom, truth, and the American Way”), and a fierce capitalist. His egotism is seemingly boundless. Some models for the young to imitate.
By Hiram Lee 26 May 2008 | [print_link]
IRON MAN is the latest in a barrage of comic book superhero films to come to the big screen in recent years. Like a number of the others, it is done very well for itself at the box office and with mainstream critics. While all of these movies, from Batman Begins to The Fantastic Four, have been slight and drawn on thin sources, hardly any have been adapted from a source as repulsive as Iron Man.
The Iron Man character first appeared in Tales of Suspense, issue number 39. Published in 1963, the comic told the story of Tony Stark, a wealthy playboy described as “the dreamiest thing this side of Rock Hudson” and an inventor of high-tech weaponry for the US military. In the comic book, Stark is injured during an explosion in the Vietnamese jungle and captured by Wong-Chu, “the red guerrilla tyrant.” Ordered by Wong-Chu to build an advanced weapon for his own army, Stark instead creates the first Iron Man armor which he dons to become an invincible opponent of the evil “red” and everything the latter stands for.
It is striking that this profoundly anticommunist character, who was used to promote illusions about capitalism in general and the brutal US role in Vietnam in particular, should find a screen adaptation at the present time. At a moment when the American government is mired in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iron Man once again steps forward to fulfill his role of attempting to foster illusions about United States’ neo-colonial adventures, secretive intelligence agencies, terrorism and capitalism. It is a film so divorced from reality one can hardly believe one’s eyes.
The movie, directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, Zathura) transplants Iron Man’s origins from Vietnam to a more modern setting. We first meet Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as he is riding in a military convoy in Afghanistan. He has just demonstrated, with considerable arrogance, his latest weapon designed for the US military. When the convoy is suddenly attacked by terrorists, Stark receives near-fatal injuries from a rocket made by his own company, Stark Enterprises, that has somehow fallen into enemy hands.
Replacing the ‘red tyrants’ of the original comic book, a terrorist group whose power mad leader idolizes Genghis Khan captures Stark this time. The essential details of his captivity remain the same. Told to build an advanced weapon for the terrorists, he instead creates Iron Man and makes his daring escape.
Having returned to the US deeply affected by his experiences, Downey’s Stark immediately moves to shut down the weapons program of his vast Stark Enterprises. He cannot, he says, go forward knowing these weapons have fallen into the wrong hands. “I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them,” he tells the press. This is a curious line which deserves some thought. Was this budding superhero not bothered by the horrors inflicted on the people of Afghanistan by his weapons? It appears not. Stark has doubts about his profession, but not the role of the US military in Afghanistan. His conscience extends only so far.
From here, the movie continues along the path well established for superhero films. Stark will build and test new armor and equipment, take his first awkward flights through the night sky before mastering his new abilities and find himself in various battles that grow in intensity until the final clash with another superpowered being. Virtually nothing comes as a surprise.
One battle worth noting takes Stark, in his Iron Man persona, to a village in Afghanistan where the terrorist group he encountered in the beginning of the story is now threatening the lives of the local inhabitants. The CEO-superhero quickly dispatches them with the small arsenal hidden away in his armor. There is something unseemly at work in the cool way Iron Man strolls away from an enemy tank he has just blown apart with a rocket.
What are we to make of this militaristic superhero? While Iron Man is a fantasy, it is still a fantasy with its basis in reality. One cannot ignore the setting of the film and all the implications that go along with it, nor the context in which this film has been made and released.
The US has been pursuing a colonial-style war in Afghanistan for more than six years now, resulting in thousands of deaths. Just within the past week, the World Socialist Web Site reported on plans to build a $60-million prison near Kabul capable of holding up to 1,100 prisoners, a facility in which one can be certain the brutal treatment and torture of Afghan prisoners housed in other locations will continue.
This week also brought word, in the form of a preliminary United Nations report, of widespread civilian deaths in Afghanistan, with many occurring at the hands of the CIA and other intelligence agencies working with the US occupation.
What is one to think, then, of a film released in the same month showing an armor-clad weapons manufacturer, an ally of the secretive government agency SHIELD, fighting off ‘terrorists’ and saving the innocent civilians of one village from their attacks? It simply turns reality on its head. The comic-book superhero revival of recent years has clearly been something of an unhealthy trend, but never has this been clearer than in the present case.
The fact that the film is so dreadful and dishonest has not, however, kept critics from praising it. A.O. Scott, writing for the New York Times, while compelled to acknowledge that “it all plays out more or less as expected,” nevertheless glowingly comments about the film that “Within the big, crowded movements of this pop symphony is a series of brilliant duets that sometimes seem to have the swing and spontaneity of jazz improvisation.”
Richard Corliss, with Time Magazine, writes that Iron Man possesses “lots more intelligence than the genre usually demands,” adding that the work has yanked “movies and the worldwide box office out of its months-long doldrums and into the stratosphere.”
“Fallible, ordinarily engaging, human-size, earthbound characters just don’t measure up when the weather turns warmer,” says Corliss, “We need another hero, and lots of ‘em, the bigger, stronger and cartoonier the better.”
Newsweek’s David Ansen spoke favorably of the film’s political stance and its depiction of terrorists, “Though they use Afghanistan as a backdrop, [the filmmakers] carefully avoid any political specifics—you won’t hear the word Muslim uttered here—and the bad guys, led by the nasty Raza (Faran Tahir), are generic power-hungry villains who could have been plucked out of a James Bond movie of any era.” It is remarkable to observe a critic praising filmmakers for creating generic and two-dimensional characters.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone went a step further than Ansen, not only doing away with his own critical faculties, but also urging audiences to do the same. “Don’t question,” he wrote, “just lap it up.”
The list goes on, shamefully. If nothing else, Iron Man has at least provided us with a good long look at the wretched state of so-called film criticism with which we are presently plagued.
Iron Man 2 and the sad state of American filmmaking today
By Hiram Lee 18 May 2010
The state of American filmmaking at the moment is pretty appalling. In hardly a single recent Hollywood film do we find a hint of life as it is lived by millions of people in the United States and internationally, and certainly no hint of social opposition.
We have entered extraordinarily tense and convulsive times that would seem to demand the most serious attention from film writers and directors, however that might find artistic expression. Where is the filmmakers’ response? Their anger, their ideas, even their interest? At a time when films—dramas or comedies—animated by the desire to get to the bottom of things are sorely needed, audiences instead by and large confront superficial, complacent, and light-minded works. The professional cynic, of course, will blame the viewers—as though they had any serious choice in the matter.
A glance at the current “USA Top 10” at the box office reveals the fare Hollywood is presently inflicting on a mass audience. There is, first of all, Iron Man 2, the latest comic book blockbuster, and a sequel. This is followed by yet another (and not a promising) version of Robin Hood, a few tepid romantic comedies that come and go indistinguishably, a computer-generated cartoon about dragons, remakes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Clash of the Titans, along with something called Furry Vengeance. By and large, these are dismal, unimaginative offerings for which no one should feel obliged to settle.
In regard to Iron Man 2, the emergence of so many comic book and superhero films following the events of 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has been one of the least attractive phenomena in recent filmmaking. These works, in which super-powered police figures—and in the case of Iron Man, a highly militarized policeman—battle pure evil on a global scale, often carrying out the bloodiest acts of violence and vengeance, as fantasy-like as they are, no doubt speak to a real phenomenon: the extent to which a whole social grouping, including prominent and wealthy figures in the entertainment industry, has signed on to the “global war on terror” or the Obama version of that. That is to say, they identify with, more or less openly, or at least find no reason to object to America’s drive to dominate the globe. (It is not inappropriate, of course, that such stupid fantasies should be done in cartoonish style—it would be difficult to make them believable in more down-to-earth surroundings.)
Iron Man 2 is the second installment in a planned trilogy about the Marvel Comics superhero. In this episode, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the wealthy CEO of Stark Industries who also fights crime in a high-tech armored suit, has almost entirely rid the world of war. Now he faces a new foe: the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Subpoenaed to appear before the committee, Stark is told his Iron Man suit is a weapon and must be handed over to military authorities. No such weapon can be left in the hands of one person, he is warned.
In a scene worthy of free enterprise fanatic Ayn Rand, Stark defends himself, telling the committee that Iron Man is his own creation, cannot be considered as separate from himself, and that he will not relinquish it. As Stark storms out of the hearing in victory, he declares, “I have successfully privatized world peace!” We are meant to congratulate him.
There continues to be something genuinely repulsive about the Stark/Iron Man character. As the first film established, Stark is the billionaire CEO of a weapons manufacturing corporation who, as a militarized superhero, fought against “terrorists” in Afghanistan during his earlier adventures. Now, he is the subject of worldwide adulation, a fact that makes the egocentric playboy even more of a narcissist. The filmmakers clearly want us to admire or find amusing the recklessly self-centered exploits of the character, but one simply can’t go along with it.
While Stark struggles to keep his armored suit out of the hands of the government, he must also contend with a new super-nemesis. The son of a Russian physicist who claims his experimental breakthroughs were stolen by Stark Industries decades earlier, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a physicist like his father, constructs his own power suit and goes after Stark. Defeated by Iron Man in their first encounter, Ivan joins forces with one of Stark’s competitors in the weapons industry and creates an army of drones in preparation for their next battle.
In a film filled with markedly unbelievable moments, it is perhaps especially difficult to believe that Ivan Vanko is a physicist; the hulking, tattooed Rourke looks as though he could still be wearing his make-up from The Wrestler.
This is not the only feature of the film that is, unintentionally, absurd. One is treated to scenes in which Downey, clad in his Iron Man armor, snacks while seated in the giant donut atop Inglewood, California’s well-known Randy’s Donut shop, or becomes drunk at a party and dances wildly while shooting at bottles thrown into the air by party-goers with rockets contained in his armor; it is virtually impossible to take any of this seriously.
Actress Scarlett Johansson also joins the cast in this segment of the Iron Man trilogy, appearing as a super-spy called Black Widow. She performs complex martial arts maneuvers in a skintight suit and is asked to do little else. Also coming aboard for this film is Don Cheadle, who plays Stark’s friend James Rhodes. Rhodes dons his own armored suit during the film to become the superhero known as War Machine (the name is revealing). Just what are Johansson, Cheadle and, for that matter, Downey, doing here? It would do everyone a lot of good if some of these actors would simply learn to say “No.”
As with most films of this kind, the special effects and action are center stage, while the dramatic scenes placed in between—only because they have to be—are forced, unconvincing and built around the most exhausted banalities. One’s eyes glaze over when forced to watch such material.
Unhappily, there are several more superhero films on the way. The entertainment press reports on films in the works starring such comic book favorites as “The Green Lantern,” “Thor,” “Captain America,” “Batman,” and “Spider-Man”—and the list goes on. We can hardly wait.
HIRAM LEE is a senior cultural analyst with the World Socialist Web Site.