Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Subversive Superhero

I should begin this post with a confession. I am a comic book nerd. It’s pathetic but true. I love comic books. That being said, I finally have an opportunity to write down some thoughts about the Iron Man movie after having seen it a week ago. One of the things I find most interesting about film is the way contemporary issues of American foreign policy make their way into cinema. Iron Man is no exception to this rule.

The Nazis have been perfect all-purpose villains for decades. There was no shortage of war movies throughout WWII, not to mention the Office of War Information and its influence on popular culture and public opinion. There is also no shortage of Vietnam and post-Vietnam movies, Rambo of course topping off that category. The cold war worked its way into the American psyche in subtle ways through UFO films; hostile aliens being stand-ins for the Communists. It also presented itself more overtly in one of my personal favorites, Red Dawn. WOLVERINES!

It has been especially interesting to see the “war on terror” play out on the big screen. That’s where we find ourselves with Iron Man. Our hero is a defense contractor. What makes him the protagonist of the story is the fact that, after being held captive by terrorists in Afghanistan, the main character is reformed. He announces to the American news media that indiscriminate bombing is not doing the trick and that we need to find more humane and effective ways to battle the terrorists.

The antagonist of the film compounds this critique of the American military industrial complex. The character played by Jeff Bridges (warning: spoiler) is also a high level executive in the same corporation as our hero, the soon to be Iron Man. As it turns out, Bridges is a war profiteer. And not just that, he is a war profiteer who has been selling American technology to the terrorists. The leftist in me instantly goes to Prescott Bush, collaborating with the Nazis (or so the rumors go).

There is an explicitly anti-corporate tone to the movie as a whole. At various points Robert Downey Jr. is portrayed as being aloof and withdrawn from his wealth and power. He is shallow, surrounded by unearned financial largess that he apparently does not appreciate. That is, until he goes through the requisite transformational experience that is necessary to all superhero narratives.

The exclamation point on all of this is what may have been a line of dialogue that most viewers may not find to be too significant but I thought summed up these anti-corporate themes. As the antagonist has our hero on the ropes and is about to leave him for dead, as all villains do in superhero stories, he says to Iron Man, “you think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?” And there it is. Throughout the film we see Iron Man labor over technology, his mechanical art, only to have the one character most symbolic of the corporation swoop in and appropriate it for his own means in one twist of the wrist. That line, worded and delivered perfectly, says so much about individual creativity and corporate appropriation of the work of the individual. It seems even more significant that Bridges delivers the line considering that he played Preston Tucker. Iron Man even featured a still from the film Tucker at one point; a movie whose themes are echoed in Iron Man.

Meanwhile, there are also underlying themes of the ability of an individual to outwit a corrupt bureaucracy and accomplish something for the greater good, the role of America as savior to the rest of the world, and the utility of advanced military technology (when it is under the control of that individual rather than the corrupt bureaucracy). In one scene four terrorists are holding innocent Afghani women and children at gunpoint. With a single push of a button Iron Man locks on target and simultaneously kills all four of them. He’s Uncle Sam in a shiny, metal, orange and crimson suit saving the Middle East.

While Iron Man was a surprisingly subversive critique of the military industrial complex and America’s exercising of its power abroad, at the end of the day there is no criticism for underlying assumptions of American military power. The solution is more exercising of that military might, just in more efficient ways and with a benevolent hand that helps people.


Anonymous said...

I really need to see this movie.

Jordan said...

Rob! I didn't know you had a blog!

Anyway, I enjoyed this post of Iron Man. I think you're dead on. The film was a good "ripped from the headlines" (as much as i hate that phrase) melding of topical issues with the Iron Man origin.

I absolutely lost it when Jeff Bridges was riding that Segway. Absolutely ridiculous. It was just further proof of my theory that absolutely NO ONE can look tough on a Segway.

I will eagerly anticipate further posts. Take care, Rob.

Ben said...

I didnt know you had a blog either. So was it any good? I heard top 10 comic book movies of all time, but havent seen it yet.

For added fun, post your top 10 in order. Batman is #1 for me, after that I dunno.

Lisa said...

Rob - excellent blog. I'm so glad I found this on facebook! Yes, we saw Ironman and LOVED IT. I knew nothing of the story going in and it is definitely in my top 3 or at least top 5 comic movies.

Your take on it is right on. The line you pointed out was not lost on me or Uncle Tony. That summed it all up right there!


Brian said...

I like your blog Rob. I think that its very interesting that a core socialist value was coupled with good old American values.