The Military-Industrial Super Hero

The commentariat seems to be having a hard time interpreting “Iron Man.” The eponymous hero’s alter ego, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, is a capitalist, in fact an arms merchant at the beginning of the movie. After an ill-starred trip to Afghanistan, however, he decides to get out of the munitions business — but later returns to the country suited up to dispense some heavy-metal justice to evil warlords.

Peter Bradshaw, writing in the Guardian, calls “Iron Man’s” opening scene, “an exhilarating, even brilliant wish-fulfilment fantasy dramatising America’s yearning for a virile exit strategy.” Slate’s Dana Stevens thinks “Iron Man” “may be the first movie about the conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan to become a box-office blockbuster. But if it does, it won’t be because of its Afghan bad guys or somewhat incoherent musings on the immorality of the military-industrial complex.” We’ll have to wait for the inevitable sequels to see just how incoherent. At the end of the film, Stark is on good terms with a government agency, SHIELD, which furnishes him with a secret identity (though there’s a twist to that in the movie’s last line). At one point a SHIELD agent almost literally says, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.” We’ll see whether or not that’s really the case.

The movie is remarkably faithful to the comic books I read by the long-box full in the 1980s. The geekgasm moment of the flick for me was recognizing Stark’s cliff-side Malibu mansion — they’ve actually used for the film the same design that appeared in the comics twenty years ago. This is obscure stuff: Stark’s California mansion is not exactly as iconic as the Batcave or the Fortress of Solitude. But it was a pretty cool design all the same, so I’m happy to see the film make use of it. (I was similarly impressed that the Ian Curtis biopic that came out last year, “Control,” got Curtis’s bookshelf in the opening scene of that movie exactly right. Curtis cultists know what the man read — though I did notice a copy of Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song amidst the Ballard and Burroughs. I hadn’t known Curtis was a Mailer reader.) A recurring theme from the comics back in the 1980s was the government trying to gets its hands on Stark’s Iron Man technology and Stark doing whatever he had to do to keep them from having it — including sinking all his spare suits of armor to the bottom of the ocean, then detonating them when even that didn’t stop SHIELD from going after them. Though I hear the Stark of the comic books has a cozier relationship with the agency these days.

The film has been getting generally positive reviews from critics embarrassed to admit how much they liked a comic-book movie. To salvage their integrity, they mostly praise leading man Robert Downey Jr. (who indeed is good) and disparage the special effects. The latter are actually rather impressive as well, or so I thought: grittier and more textural than expected, perhaps because they’re not primarily CGI. Gwyneth Paltrow’s as Stark’s secretary Pepper Potts — I wish they’d used her less comic-book-y proper name, Virginia, rather than “Pepper” — and Jeff Bridges as a halfway-between-avuncular-and-psychotic Obadiah Stane (the film’s villain) are well-suited to their roles. Terrence Howard didn’t seem tough enough as Stark’s military liaison James Rhodes (Stark’s pilot, and substitute Iron Man, in the comics), but he’s set up to have more presence in a sequel.

I liked the movie quite a bit — the smartest but also the most faithful comic-book adaptation that I’ve seen. And that it happens to be an adaptation of the super-hero who made me a Marvel Zombie back in the day is all the better. I might write more about it later.

Addendum: The Weekly Standard likes the movie too, but don’t let that put you off. “Few scenes in recent memory give off the visceral glee of Stark, as Iron Man, ripping through the terrorist forces like tissue paper,” Standard assistant editor Sonny Bunch enthuses. Well, it is a rousing scene — but then, it represents the comic-book ideal of heroic individual combat with absolutely no civilian casualties. Anyway, Bunch has a good take on the film’s ideological ambiguity:

This is not a “conservative” movie, per se, but it is the film equivalent of a Rorschach test. If you go into Iron Man seeking right-wing imagery, you’ll find it: Tony Stark is a patriot, pro-military, and likes unilateral intervention. If you go into Iron Man looking for left-wing imagery, you’ll find that, too: The true villain here is Stane, representing an out-of-control military-industrial complex. Still, it’s refreshing to go to the multiplex and find a universe where terrorists are despicable and Americans are heroic.

“Director Jon Favreau goes to great lengths to portray [the terrorists IM fights in Afghanistan] as an odd international band,” Bunch writes, “one of the terrorists speaks Hungarian, for example–but they’re a clear stand-in for al Qaeda and the Taliban.” Yes and no: they’re stand-ins for the Vietnamese Communists who capture Stark in the comic-book origin, which is well adapted in the film, right down to the fat Afghan warlord substituting for Wong-Chu. But their multinational character seems to refer to something else: the terrorists are fleeting named as “The Ten Rings,” which alludes to Iron Man’s comic-book archenemy, the Mandarin. I wouldn’t be surprised to find in future installments of the film franchise that there’s a non-Arab enemy behind the group.

(Googling around a bit, I see that Faran Tahir, the actor who plays Raza, the leader of the multinational terrorists, addresses this: “The way this is set up is that Raza is the only connection to the Mandarin that you have in the movie. Hopefully there will be more Iron Man movies and this film will be the groundwork for those. In this Iron Man movie, Mandarin is a faceless identity, we don’t know who he is or where he is. Raza is his right hand man. Is he the conduit for Iron Man to find Mandarin and have a show down? Does Raza become the Mandarin? We don’t know. They needed an element to tie everything to a larger story of Iron Man versus the Mandarin, yet they didn’t want to give it all up in the first movie and have a massive showdown right now. They needed to stretch this into a trilogy — hopefully.”)

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5 thoughts on “The Military-Industrial Super Hero

  1. Matthew May 2, 2008 / 2:51 pm

    I am pretty excited about this too… I remember the old cartoons from the 1980s.

  2. Tim May 4, 2008 / 1:06 am

    The idea of a “merchant of death” that comes to see how his family business has become embroilled in an out-of-control system, despite the patriotic intent of his father, is a bullseye hit against the military industrial complex. In the movie version of “IronMan”, Stark Industries, or at least a concealed arm of it is certainly trading under-the-table with the same warlords that the over-the-table branch of Stark Industries is helping arm American troops to fight. I don’t think any popular movie, Michael Moore included, of the past seven years has targeted the military industrial complex as directly. As Stan Lee used to say “Excelsior!”

  3. patrick May 7, 2008 / 5:10 am

    Iron Man was practically flawless as a super hero flick; it drops pretty obvious hints that would indicate a sequel as well… i’m thinking the next one should be equally great

  4. Bluestar February 9, 2009 / 1:21 am

    Someone came close (I havent even seen the movie)
    But no one still gets it?

    It is an earth elemental spirit, a living thing that has been destroyed by man, it holds the earths magnetic field together and by humans mining it and using it it has caused much pain and suffering. Should have been left in earth.

    Lake Erie UFO Antigrav Evidence:

    Last night I had this strange revelation as I was falling asleep after a negative attack. During the attack even my dogs got involved. My dogs are outside and the dark heavy force cam down then dissipated and I even saw what appeared to be small black and bluish triangular shapes dissipating around my floor then disappearing.

    Anyways I am about to fall asleep and then all these thoughts come into my head at once.

    Pennsylvania is known for its Iron mines as well as coal mines. Pennsylvania and Ohio along Lake Erie have huge steel mill factories.

    They rip core elements out of the earth, open gaping holes, and transport the elements to the shored of lake Erie where they melt it down in hellish conditions. I know, I almost worked in one until they told me about the heat and the fires and the molten steel.. at $6.50 an hour to work in hell? Sorry, I walked out.

    Anyways, iron/steel has magnetic properties and magnetic properties have antigravity manifestations … obviously you have seen a magnet can repel another magnet if turned a certain way, and lift it with unseen forces.

    UFOs are understood to have magnetic and antigravity properties, and they appear always over Lake Erie area right over the steel mills and surrounding areas. Why so concentrated there? From what I have been reading it seems there are more UFO sightings, abductions and all kinds of weird stuff going on in the Erie area, even more than A51!

    And I know fine powder airborne steel/iron products from factory grindings that make high tech stuff can have an effect on people.

    I just KNOW that there is some symbiotic relationship between the Iron ore, the steel mills, and the UFOs and aliens. I even think that some of the so called ‘aliens” are not from space, but from Inner earth, and are here because they were dug up, portals opened, and their core elements used in antigrav propulsion are used in huge factories around Erie lake in concentrated amounts enough that they can manifest their craft and themselves.

    The scientific evidence of how magnetism works easily proves this. A small magnet may lift another piece of magnetized steel only an inch or so by antigrav… but what about TONS of steel, thousands even millions of tons of steel.???? All concentrated into one area…???

    I also know when I was contacted by Orion aliens (from space) they showed me their energy source which was a combination of crystals, a jell like living substance, and PURE IRON. The pure iron rods spread from the central “brain” of the craft out to the outer hull. I even knew the chemical designation for it at one time… but lost it. (That was 10 years ago…. OMG, today & this whole week !!! Feb 1999.) Their iron has antigrav properties, but it is not like earth iron which is considered a more corrupt form of iron.

    Enough of this….!!!! Anyone want the real interpretation to Black Sabbaths Iron Man??? This JUST came to me and fits EXACTLY this scenario!!!!

    “Has he lost his mind?
    Can he see or is he blind?
    Can he walk at all,
    Or if he moves will he fall?
    Is he alive or dead?
    Has he thoughts within his head?
    Well just pass him there
    Why should we even care?

    He was turned to steel
    In the great magnetic field
    Where he traveled time
    For the future of mankind

    Nobody wants him
    He just stares at the world
    Planning his vengeance
    That he will soon unfold

    Now the time is here
    For iron man to spread fear
    Vengeance from the grave
    Kills the people he once saved

    Nobody wants him
    They just turn their heads
    Nobody helps him
    Now he has his revenge

    Heavy boots of lead
    Fills his victims full of dread
    Running as fast as they can
    Iron man lives again!”

    The feeling you get from the oppression in the area is like boots of Lead… it is heavy and dark, and GRAY!

    He was turned to steel in the great magnetic field???? Oh you are so busted now sucker! No one has ever been able to interpret that song correctly. And their daughter is my friend… and no she didn’t tell me. he traveled time for the future of mankind? Why does he kill the people he once saved… He used to be left alone in earth. He is an elemental and no one cared to know… they tore him apart and melted him down. Oh this is so frikken clear. this is easy now. He stares at the world through all the iron based stuff manufactured. Torn apart, ripped up and melted down. Turned to steel in magnetic field around lake Erie, the steel capital of the world!!!

    But now I have a problem…. it says no one helps him and I feel sad even though he kills and destroys constantly….

    I am crying my eyes out right now and can hardly see. I can write no more… I will write later….

    The mining of iron is disrupting the earths magnetic field, causing near earth asteroids to be attracted closer and closer beacuse of their magnetic properties.
    Yes the MI.C are involved, don’t even know what the hell they are doing. Just about everyone is involved.
    earth should have remained in the stone age and used wood, rock and bone…. Iron is used for nothing but polution and war machines with a few handy utensils on the side.
    Interpretation FINALLY revealed!!!

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