Marvel Comics, that seemingly bottomless well of ideas and filmic inspiration, has done it again with its most recent adaptation for the screen of a comic book superhero. Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr, is superb entertainment. As long as you don’t think too hard. The hyperbolic action and special effects we’ve come to expect don’t disappoint, but it’s the wit of Downey’s performance (much like Christian Bale’s presence in Batman Returns) that reassures us that action and special effects are back where they belong, in the story teller’s tool kit: actors are reclaiming centre-stage.
The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, with Rotten Tomatoes giving it a rating of 93%. It’s no surprise that the box office too has been kind: in its opening weekend in the US Iron Man grossed US$100 million, one of only ten movies to have done so, with a further US$97 million generated elsewhere. Industry analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations smells a franchise in the making: “Expect to see an announcement about a three-picture deal for Iron Man any day now. Anytime a film opens in the top 10 of all-time it means you’ve got a hit on your hands.”
Good news for the fans. And let’s face it, it’s all good fun.
Almost. On the downside, there’s the pretension of a meaningful message (something trite about seeing the error of your ways) sharing the screen with a robust Bush era conservatism and misguided patriotism.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this movie. I walked away from the cinema entertained. But like many similarly successful popcorn movies, it doesn’t take much thought to have reservations about what you’ve been fed as entertainment, and given its phenomenal success I think it’s fair to look at Iron Man with a more critical eye. So, putting aside the fact that it’s great entertainment, let’s scratch the surface.
The politics and world view of this movie are wilfully naïve, bordering on childish. At the same time that it refuses to acknowledge the reality of the post 9/11 world, the movie exploits it for the purposes of entertainment by presenting us with the appearance of reality, and in doing that it’s almost an apology for the mistakes and excesses of recent times.
I can hear the objections now: it’s just entertainment! This is a comic book movie, not a documentary!
Yes and no. To give itself credibility, Iron Man deliberately locates itself in the post 9/11 world and therefore exposes itself to this sort of criticism. A couple of things stand out: the secret services, though sinister at first sight, are squeaky clean. In the world of Iron Man the Geneva Convention is untarnished, there’s no torture of prisoners of war, and rendition is something a musician does on stage. Bound up with this is the notable absence of the government – it has no presence as a governing body at all and is therefore beyond criticism. The only real presence it has is as the military and the military is involved with a war in Afghanistan, which is widely seen as a legit war, and not Iraq, which gets no mention. Clearly the less said about that the better.
And the villains in this piece? A bunch of readily identifiable terrorists of a Middle Eastern persuasion (I hesitate to say Islamic, although that’s more than implied) and, of course, the arms dealers. This last bit is a remarkably simplistic portrayal of private / corporate citizens as villains that overlooks the reality of the military-industrial complex, in which the government, armed forces and private business are equally complicit.
On the flip side, the film’s conservatism is bound up with the reality of US elites. Tony Stark is a genius inventor, billionaire industrialist and arms dealer who sees the error of his ways and builds an armoured suit (something like Robocop meets Optimus Prime), to redeem himself and, basically, save the rest of us.
What’s curious about the Marvel Comics’ view of the world is that the heroes with super or otherworldly powers, notably Superman and Spiderman, are less elitist than those who are merely super through talent or skill. Clark Kent (Superman) is grounded by his farm boy upbringing and working man persona, and Peter Parker (Spiderman) is essentially a nerd. Compare that to Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Tony Stark, both extremely wealthy playboys with talents rather than otherworldly powers, and in that sense more human than their brothers-in-lycra-tights (I’m sure Stark is wearing them under the metal suit – stops the chaffing I hear). The irony is that having human (though admittedly exceptional), skills is not adequate to justify their status as superheroes. That would be dangerously democratic. It seems that it also takes unbelievable wealth and membership of the social elite to fulfil the role of saviour.
Another way of looking at it is that the social elite is in fact the repository for exceptional skills and the source of our salvation…
SFFMedia really needs two ratings for movies like Iron Man. Notwithstanding what I’ve said above, this film deserves 9/10 as pure entertainment: it’s a fast-paced, effects-laden romp with the added dimension of Downey’s fun performance. Just don’t think too hard about it. I did. The film gets 6.5.