Iron Man is one of the more problematic Marvel superheroes.
First, the character was intentionally designed, in the 1960s, as a character to challenge the young, liberal readership of Marvel comics. Conceived as a wealthy capitalist, brilliant womanizer, and lynchpin in the military-industrial complex, Iron Man was meant to embody ‘The Establishment.’ Second, the character’s origin story, gives pause, since it reads more like one of a bad guy, a villain, turned insane by the wiles and pitfalls of his own genius. How many tropes in the villain-verse are convoluted contrapassos designed to expose and punish the dark heart of the impure and improper? Iron Man falling prey to his own genius and weaponry fits this Marvel cliché like a well worn glove.
The fact that the character was an immediate hit for the publisher should surprise no one who understands the conflict raging inside adolescent boys. “The Guns and Snoopy Clause” – so named by the phenomenon that I observed, time and time again, while working in a public library helping boys, roughly aged nine to sixteen, navigate the book stacks. The conversation of the Guns and Snoopy Clause usually went like, “Mister, where are the books on guns? (pause) and Snoopy?” Such is the conflicted mind of the young adolescent boy.
The two movies, so far, dealing with the Iron Man character have done a lot to extend and expand upon the idea of reactionary, macho salvation. It’s not surprising, given they were both directed by Jon Favreau, the creator of such macho tripe as SWINGERS, MADE, and the writer of COUPLE’S RETREAT. His bare knuckle approach to manhood is combative sensitivity encased in tough designer suits and skid along, navigating at hyperspeeds, toward loud moments of introspection and vapid revelation.
IRON MAN I dispatched the origin of the superhero as a transformative event in the life of a crass celebrity playboy. Aside from the invention of the Arc Reactor, the most implausible element of the movie is the idea that a sexy weapons designer, a glorified war mongering arms dealer, would enjoy magazine cover superstardom. Even in this voyeuristic reality tv culture, this seems highly unlikely. His magnetism is ferocious; the angry Vogue interviewer who’s righteous challenge is only foreplay, while his ability to confront his sexual conquests remains timid – hiding in the lab the next morning.
Only after he is captured and kept alive by the benevolent Yinsen, who’s necessary sacrifice superficially challenges Stark’s worldview. This idea of the crass becoming the compassionate, powers the hero engine like so much enhanced Palladium. The whole first movie exists in service of this idea, that evil can be used to produce the counterweight to itself.
The sequel does much to expand upon these ideas. First by adding, the frailty and mortality to the seemingly invincible – the hero is being poisoned by the mechanics of his heroics. In addition, to the obviousness that weapons technology remains deadly, no matter its use, the poisoning remains a surface tension. A reason for Stark to play at confronting his mortality, which he does by racing a car and handing the reins of Stark International over to his love interest assistant/handler. His bravado is not dulled. His ‘live life to the fullest’ cowboy-ism remains unchanged. His drunken dancing in the Iron Man suit is ridiculous. But the captain of industry, this self-styled superhero, needs some touch of humanity for the audience to identify with him. Since Batman has the market cornered on “brooding,” Stark is left with “dying.” Until he isn’t.
Next, IRON MAN 2 introduces the concept of Stark International still bucking the trends and fighting the uphill battle. First, against the government – an arrogant senator who wants the Iron Man suit for the military. This should surprise none. Government exists to stand in the way and hinder the capitalist businessman’s interest. As an audience, we have been subjected to this motif, time and time again (remember X-Men’s Sen. Kelly?), to the point of disinterest. Aside from the subtle digs at the imposed censors and hearings that swirled around and almost killed the comic book industry in America, this anti-government sentiment plays into the general disgust all political affiliations subscribe to, in one manner or other. It is a safe wicker man upon which the hero can singe with great contempt and long self-serving monologues.
Then there is the corporate intrigue, represented by the horribly incompetent, Justin Hammer. Hammer’s impotence is immediately made manifest – he is seen failing to enthrall that little Vogue reporter, who Stark bedded and tossed away in the first movie. Hammer can’t even keep her interest by relaying stories ABOUT Tony Stark. Hammer exists as a foil for Stark. For all of Stark’s egoism and self-absorption, while potentially unattractive, exists in direct contrast with Hammer’s ineptitude. Stark’s genius and skill emerges as Hammer fails.
Hammer’s ambition to BE Tony Stark turns into a vendetta, which blinds him to all the consequences of his employing the marginally defeated Vanko. By unleashing Vanko, who he sorely underestimates, Hammer unwittingly funds a more deadly project than the one he conceived. Hammer’s ambition to beat Stark in the market is trumped by Vanko’s vendetta to kill Stark, literally.
Before diving right into the daddy issues, this idea of “privatized peace” begs to be addressed. As another of the prime movers of the narrative, this de-escalation of world conflict at the hands of Iron Man, seems to fulfill the contract of the weapons manufacturer. Peace through superior fire power, or the concept of the Cold War’s Mutually Assured Destruction Deterrent. It’s a wonderful notion that one single weapon, utilized solely to stop conflict and interfere with war, could not only bring an end to war, but, also, a profit to its manufacturer/inventor.
But the whole notion that a single person, no matter what moral code they act upon, could successfully curtail armed conflict, borders upon the tyrannically absurd. Even if it is assumed that Iron Man was only disposing of Stark International guns, missiles and other weapons systems, there would come a point of miscalculation and “collateral damage.” The state of peace would be tenuous, at best, and probably, built around a boogieman-like fear of the wrath of the Iron King.
Further, by extension, “privatized peace” assumes that a single person could operate on the world theater unbridled from constituent politics, fear of all out war or retaliation, and with the precision that large scale military endeavors seem to lack. A private individual, a vigilante if you will, could stabilize the geo-political landscape? If Iron Man is to work as a hero, one must take him at his word. Much like we must take Blackwater Inc. at their word about Iraq.
IRON MAN 2 is riddled with enough daddy issues to make any Freudian blush. Poor Tony never got enough attention from his brilliant, wealthy father. This conflict is an easy motivation for a lot of the Marvel heroes. It is part of the cosmology that the hero must forge his own path, assume the responsibility without any direct guidance. They must learn to be the “man” after the superpower. This ‘lack of daddy’ adds the illusion of depth, of some larger emotional framework to boys’ soap opera with punches. Tony Stark’s daddy issues are easily resolved by a few well timed newsreels handed over by Nick Fury. Tony, not only gets to hear his daddy say he has faith and love in him, but also, gets to resolve the issue of what sort of man his father really was – a good one, duh!
Contrast that with Vanko Sr. – an old partner of Stark Sr., who made the unforgivable error of wanting to sell the new power source they were on the verge of creating. Dangerous, foolish, and worthy of deportation. The sort of thing they were working on, which Whiplash and Iron Man invent at the same time, was much too powerful to entrust to a government. No, this was the sort of thing that could save the world, save it from itself, and needed to be entrusted to only the best and brightest. The independently wealthy, the genius, capitalist upper class. A new elite? Of course. A bit creepy? You betcha.
Of course, Whiplash grew up caring for his bitter, broken and vengeful father. A man destroyed by Stark’s father. Whiplash’s fury was justifiable to the point he started working for Hammer. His plan was brilliant in its slow burn take down of Stark. Open the floodgates, show the world that the Iron Man technology was already loose in the world. The artificial peace powered by the energy blasts was suddenly cast in a shadow of doubt. But this subtly cannot be sustained. So, Whiplash suddenly comes to fulfill all the Marvel heavies. His vendetta gets the best of him, instead of destroying a single man, Whiplash sets upon destroying the world that worships him. Obvious bad guy territory.
While I can’t say much good about the movie, I can say that it does remain faithful to the tenor, tone, and intent of the source material.