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.”)


Karl Hess: Toward Liberty

It’s amazing what you can find on Google Video. This is the Academy Award-winning (yes, really) documentary about Karl Hess, who was one of the founding editors of National Review and a key Goldwater speechwriter — and who later became a New Leftist and an outspoken (as well as tax-resisting) libertarian. A very interesting figure, though I can’t say I’m impressed with the film, which won the 1981 Academy Award for best short documentary.

I think I’ve described Hess in the past as a “crunchy libertarian.” You’ll see why in the documentary:

For good measure, here’s a link to Hess’s best-known essay, “The Death of Politics.”


He more than deserves the Oscar, but it’s a sign of just how dull the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is that he finally gets it for “The Departed” rather than “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” or “The Aviator,” are all of which were much better.  I like long films, but even I thought that “The Departed” could have stood to gain from being about 20 minutes shorter.

Was 2006 as dismal a year at the movies as I think it was?  Things picked up a bit toward the end of the year with “The Departed” and “The Good Shepherd,” but over all there wasn’t much I wanted to plunk down $10 for.

Human Sacrifice, American Style

I’m looking forward to “Apocalypto.” While promoting the new film, Mel Gibson put the collapse of Mayan civilization in context:

In describing its portrait of a civilization in decline, Gibson said, “The precursors to a civilization that’s going under are the same, time and time again,” drawing parallels between the Mayan civilization on the brink of collapse and America’s present situation. “What’s human sacrifice,” he asked, “if not sending guys off to Iraq for no reason?”

R & R

Nobody in his or her right mind would follow my lead in recreational pursuits, but for the voyeuristic among you here's what I'm devoting my downtime this weekend to…


Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists. The latest from Bill Kauffman. We've lined up a very apt reviewer for TAC, and I'll be taking part in another project involving the book in a few weeks. But right now I'm reading Kauffman's tributes to Dorothy Day, Gene McCarthy, and other decentralist heroes just for the pleasure of it. (An excerpt from the book runs in the new TAC, by the way, which should find its way to bookstores and subscribers' mailboxes in a week or so.)

Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism. A short new collection of essays from the University of Chicago by a Straussian writing about Strauss. In light of recent controversies, perhaps I ought to review it.


"Rise & Shine" and "Sick & Tired," by the Cardigans, a band I'd have dismissed for their irritatingly catchy one hit from a decade ago except, that I'd recently heard their later single "Erase/Rewind" and quite liked it. Better yet are the two tracks I bought from iTunes yesterday from their first album, Emmerdale. I should have checked out a few selections from the band's back catalog earlier, since I've always liked their producer Tore Johansson's work on St. Etienne's Good Humor. "Rise & Shine" and "Sick & Tired" are prime jangle-pop specimens — the latter somewhat the better for having stronger lyrics and an undercurrent of melancholy.


I've never seen "Easy Rider," but I think I'll have to now that I've read what Bill Kauffman has to say about it —

… the best radicals are reactionaries at heart. They despise the official order, be it state capitalism, militarism, communism, or what have you, but wish not merely to remove the malignancy but to replace it with an organic system, rooted in human nature and human affection…. They are not mere rebels without a cause. Instead, they value the importance of "doin' your own thing in your own time," as those two deeply American filimmakers Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda (our Kansas-Nebraska Act-ors) said in their druggy paean to the pioneer virtues, Easy Rider.

I don't really have to convince you that Easy Rider is a reactionary picture, do I? The only characters depicted as unqualifiably virtuous are the homesteading faimly, living on their own acreage…. The hippies and the small-town southerners gathered in the diner; the small farmers and shaggy communards: they were on the same side. The side of liberty, of locally based community, of independence from from the war machine, the welfare state, the breaucratic prison whose wardens were McNamara, Rockefeller, Bundy… 

N for Neocon

It’s mildly ironic that neocons like Don Feder and Junior Podhoretz dislike “V for Vendetta” so much. They wouldn’t have any reservations about, say, a Kurdish vigililante who went around blowing up Saddam’s palaces and assassinating Baathists, would they? They’re always hot on the trail of Islamo-fascism. But a film about old-style Euro-fascism has them up in arms.

Maybe it’s because these European fascists are British, not German. The fascists must always be German, Arab, Russian, or (if you’re John Derbyshire), Irish. They cannot be British.

V for … Very Good, Actually

I wasn’t eager to see “V for Vendetta,” but someone who calls his blog the Tory Anarchist can hardly fail to go see the movie that has the Wall Street Journal talking about anarchism. A similar sense of duty — I wanted to popularize Richard Weaver’s idea of the Great Stereopticon by tying it in with the “Matrix” movies — had led me to see two of the Wachowskis’ last three movies, some four hours or so of my life that I will never get back.

Glamourized sadism is an apt description of the Wachowkis’ last few flicks, and that’s what I expected from “V” as well. (Even though they were only adapting the script from Alan Moore’s comic book.) But I was pleasantly surprised. There’s nothing profound about “V,” but the characters have at least half a dimension more than those of the average Hollywood blockbuster. The same can be said, more mutedly, about the film’s social commentary — it’s very heavy-handed in places, but as a middlebrow political thriller it’s better than most.

Hugo Weaving, behind a Guy Fawkes mask throughout, manages to make the title character believable within the framework of the story; he’s not Batman. Stephen Rea, as the basically decent investigator Finch trying to catch the terrorist, comes off plausibly as well. Natalie Portman’s thespian abilities I’ve always had some doubts about (I’m thinking “Closer” as much as “Star Wars”), and her turn as V’s accomplice Evey doesn’t go far toward dispelling them, but here at least she doesn’t draw attention to her limited range. The most convincing character of all is Prothero (played by Roger Allam), a sort of British Bill O’Reilly on steroids — perhaps literally.

Leon Hadar discusses the political context of the film (and reviewers’ reactions) and quotes this spot-on remark from The Economist:

as for the dystopian fable, only fans of detention centres, torture, unfettered government surveillance, screaming-mad television pundits and laws against alternative lifestyles will find anything here that could possibly offend.

Liberals, except the doubly odious “responsible” kind, will like the film because it’s politically correct: the evil government is right-wing and vaguely Christian, its victims seem to be mostly homosexuals. Jeffersonians will like it simply because there’s a little rebellion here. Bush loyalists will hate it for the idea that anti-terrorism and good old fashioned law-and-order can ever go too far. But of course, they can, and readily do, which is one reason “V for Vendetta,” for all its oversimplifications, is a timely movie. It’s also well made, and should entertain even unsympathetic viewers who don’t get too hung up on its exaggerations.

Edit:  I should have credited the comic book to both Alan Moore and David Lloyd, especially since artist Lloyd apparently came up with the Guy Fawkes motif.