Hailed as a subversive action flick for its portrayal of weapons industry corruption, Iron Man is a disappointing techno-imperialist fantasy, but its special effects will keep die-hard gadget fetishists on the edge of their seats.
Based on Marvel’s successful Cold War-era comic book, Iron Man tells the story of American überman Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), an arrogant child prodigy who built his first engine at the age of six and went on to take over his father’s weapons manufacturing outfit. In between feats of engineering, he spends his time cajoling women into bed with him — even a sharp-tongued progressive reporter for Vanity Fair cannot resist the charm behind comments like, “I’d be willing to lose a few hours’ sleep with you.” He abandons her to his projects the next morning, and she carries the grudge until the end of the film.
Almost a symbol of America on the world stage, Stark does what he wants when he wants with whom he wants because he can. His unmatchable technical know-how and wealth give him a market value so high as to let him wander the world at his leisure, selling his highly desired weapons with a perpetual whiskey on the rocks in hand (not totally unlike Julian from the Trailer Park Boys).
Stark travels to Afghanistan to show off his latest weapon to the boys in the field: the Jericho, a missile that fractures into many highly potent mini-bombs that scatter across the landscape with total imprecision. When his convoy is attacked by one of those roadside bombs Afghanistan is so famous for, Stark notices that it’s his own company’s weapons that are being used in the attack.
He finds himself captured by a terrorist organization called The Ten Rings. Though they take their name from the weapon of choice of Orientalist villain The Mandarin (apparently to be Iron Man’s foe in the 2009 sequel), this group turns out to be based faithfully on the principles of CNN-defined terrorism. Genghis Khan-inspired foreign jihadis, they have come to Afghanistan to kill as many women and children as possible, before they go on to try to rule the world. For cold-blooded villains, they come off looking quite cool in their green fatigues and kafias and, in a PC inversion of the James Bond trope, they are the only characters to always be seen smoking. This image is reinforced by the presence of rock stars in their ranks — Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello does a cameo as one of the many dispensable guerrilla fighters.
In the bomb attack, Stark is severely injured, with a piece of shrapnel coming dangerously close to entering his heart. Fortunately he is imprisoned alongside the resourceful scientist Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who has created a shield for his heart, the electromagnet from a car battery. Meanwhile, the terrorists want Stark to make them a version of his Jericho missile. After a bout of water torture he agrees but in fact sets out to plot his escape. Cumbersome as car batteries are to lug around, the even more resourceful Stark replaces his with a device powered on a miniature “arc reactor,” a kind of advanced nuclear energy device, and simultaneously solves the world’s energy crisis. In a feat that had previously eluded trapped POWs, Stark decides to build himself an indestructible flying robot suit to escape with. This makes Raza (Faran Tahir), the good-looking Ten Rings commander, understandably upset, and he sends in his foot soldiers and rock stars to show Stark what’s what. Most of them are mowed down as Stark escapes, including the Good Muslim, Dr. Yinsen, whose death is a model of Oriental subservience: all he ever wanted was to join his family in the afterlife, so if he can help an able-bodied American merchant of death escape in the process, so much the better.
Equipped with his new cyber-heart, Stark returns to America where he decides to get out of the arms business. Here the film’s criticism of the military-industrial complex is at its strongest: stock shares plummet and the Board of Directors panics and tries to remove him. But Stark hasn’t turned against the Empire. He has merely changed from egocentric war profiteer to humanitarian warrior. His next task will be to improve his robot costume and use it to fly to Afghanistan to deal with the terrorists in a Rumsfeldian wet dream of techno-war precision.
Throughout the film, American technical wizardry is contrasted with Afghanistan primitivism. The Good Muslims secretly aid Iron Man or wait in hope and awe for him to save them from evil. The Bad Muslims are jealous. Since they lack American smarts, the only way for them to keep up is to steal the technology using those tried and true methods of Oriental savagery: kidnapping, torture, and blackmail.
As a modern American übermench, Tony Stark is an archetype of a successful American male. Witty, self-aggrandizing, sexually potent, brimming with brains and money, Stark also has a heart. He represents an America reengineering itself away from Kissinger-style what-we-say-goes foreign policy to the more moralistic territory of today’s humanitarian imperialism.
Unsurprisingly for a comic book, Iron Man is an unabashedly male fantasy. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Pepper, his beautiful assistant whose job it is to “do just about anything Mr. Stark needs me to” (of course even she has a secret, unfulfilled crush on him). Other jobs that women have in the film include worrying about Mr. Stark, sleeping with Mr. Stark, and, if they feel used by him, asking spiteful pointed questions during press conferences.
There is no doubt that the special effects and fast-paced action make for an extremely watchable film. Stellar performances by all the main actors, especially Jeff Bridges as bad-guy-on-the-inside Obadiah Stane, help to make this production one of the best made comic book series so far.
The original Iron Man was part of a wave of 1960s Cold War propaganda comics. The original villain in this film was supposed to be the Mandarin, a crude metaphor for Maoist communism, but director John Favreau felt that this would be out of date. In updating the comic, Favreau has successfully updated his propaganda as well, skilfully bringing to the screen the military humanitarianism of the War on Terror.
Matt Jones is a Montreal-based writer and activist and the founder of The Blacklist Committee for Unsafe Theatre. This review first appeared in Montreal Serai.