Monday, May 13, 2013

A Self-Indulgent Superhero

I realize that I'm coming very late to the party on this one, but I just saw Iron Man last weekend.  This film was a huge hit when it premiered in 2008, grossing over $500 million in the box office worldwide, and continues to remain popular, having inspired two sequels (one that just came out a week ago--check back on Wednesday for our thoughts on this latest installment).  It also got quite a bit of critical praise, including from Roger Ebert, who called it one of the best films of the year.

I would like to disagree.  Iron Man is a lousy superhero movie.

Now, I say this having only seen the first movie, but from what I have seen, Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) lacks the most basic quality needed to be a compelling superhero--a conflicted sense of self.  Stark is a multi-bajillionaire who is the head of Stark Industries, a weapons contractor that has just invented a high-tech new missile.  Stark is kidnapped by a group of Afghan terrorists, who hold him hostage until he builds them one of these new missiles.  Stark has been injured during the kidnapping, and instead of building a missile, he builds a way to keep himself alive--an armored suit that is powered by the "arc reactor" that keeps the shrapnel bits out of his heart.  It also protects him from bullets and lets him fly around.  Yeah, that was a bit of a stretch for me, too.

Anyways, Stark blasts out of the terrorist camp and then goes around, trying to right the wrongs he sees his company causing in the world.  He builds a new, better suit, flirts a bit with his cute assistant, and triumphs over his nefarious business partner, Obadiah Stane.  The movie has fancy technology, fast cars, sexy women, and lots of explosions--just what you think a superhero movie would need.

But the problem is Stark.  He never has to make the hard choices that are so important in other superhero narratives.  He doesn't have to choose between keeping his family safe and keeping his identity secret.  He doesn't have to choose between saving the girl he loves and saving the whole city of New York.  In fact, he doesn't even have to choose between the two sides of his identity--in the final scene of the movie, during a press conference where he is told to disavow all knowledge of the Iron Man showdown, he goes off script and declares, "The truth is...I am Iron Man."  He gets to have his cake and eat it, too.

Nor does Stark have to change his behavior at all.  He still spends most of the movie tinkering in his lab with high-tech gadgets, which is what we're led to believe he usually does.  And while he makes a super Iron Man suit instead of missiles, what he makes is still very much a weapon--it's not like his conscience has been so affected by his transformation that there is actually a real change in his character, motivations, or behavior.  Instead of acting responsibly and working with the military, Stark instead gads about in his super suit, endangering the life of a fighter jet pilot and causing his plane to crash.  It's this kind of self-indulgent behavior that made Stark completely unappealing to me as a superhero.  I never for a moment thought he was truly concerned about someone other than himself.

On a more serious note, I also was extremely frustrated with the way the film represented the "bad guys"--a group of terrorists in Afghanistan.  At best, this was a lazy decision on the part of the filmmakers, and at worst...well, let's hope it's just laziness.  Sure, Obadiah Stane was the antagonist of the film, but the lack of any real back story for this group of terrorists makes it seem like the film is just playing off of (and contributing to) the post-9/11 prejudice against Muslims and Middle Easterners.  While self-indulgence is merely irritating in a protagonist, this kind of representation is much more problematic, as it shapes narratives of "good guys" and "bad guys" that extend past the big screen into the real world.

By Jen Miller


  1. I was somewhat late to the party as well. I'd decided Iron Man represented the end of the superhero genre with its ridiculous ads of a guy building a metal suit in a cave. I couldn't believe it had made a fortune at the box office. Peer pressure from friends and family finally got me into the theater before it left, and I ended up having the opposite reaction as Jen. The movie wasn't about a superhero, it was about the U.S. military industrial complex. For me, that was a pleasant surprise. The leading defense contractor, Stark Industries, turns out to be the villain. And the prodigy son, Tony Stark, gave us an extremely believable cog in that machine. When he partied on his private jet before giving a weapons demonstration in a foreign land, I couldn't help but believe that was an accurate reflection of everything that's wrong with the U.S. elite who profit off war. I drew parallels between the Reagan administration giving arms to the mujahideen in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, then the U.S. invades those countries to eliminate what it created. Obadiah Stane is Uncle Sam, supplying "the bad guys" with weapons, then taking them out when they are no longer under his control. I thought it was genius. 9/11 has a background story, and this movie is a metaphor for it. Only when Tony tries to change the system does he start on the path to becoming a superhero. I couldn't wait for Iron Man 2 to see if he would grow into one. Without question, I think Jen's review is spot on for that movie. It was all about self-indulgence. What a horrid disappointment. Yet, it's The Avengers where Tony Stark demonstrates a superhero choice with his sacrifice of losing the woman he loves in order to save the world. Iron Man 3 then carries Stark to the finish line - he becomes a bona fide superhero. I think the first is more of a background story about how a billionaire playboy figures out that he, and his company, may not be the good guys after all. And, if I may, I must make a request of Jen. See Iron Man 3. This shaping of the narrative about "good guys" and "bad guys" is entirely about the U.S. military industrial complex. The story arc comes full circle.

    1. Thanks for this very thoughtful reply, Mark! I'll see Iron Man 3, though it might take me a few years :)