May 5, 2010

The Iron Man Interface: Part 3

Part Three:
Daze, Gaze, and Politics

Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) opens in the Afghan desert on a U.S. military convoy carrying weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) on his way back from a demonstration of his newest high-tech missile, the Jericho. Quickly, however, Stark’s humvee is assaulted, the three soldiers accompanying him are dead, and Stark is seriously wounded by shrapnel from one of his own weapons. The scene does not seem out of place within the narrative of Iron Man and most viewers (including myself) did not question the presence of the fictional Stark in a real warzone. The scene is buffered by comedy stemming from Stark’s offhand charm and playboy theatrics (“March and I had a scheduling conflict but luckily the Christmas cover was twins”). In fact, Stark as portrayed by Downey, dominates the scene. His introductory shot is conveyed to the audience through the young soldier escorting him, whose gaze is focused on the drink in Tony’s hand before it is on his face. Tony’s ice breakers (“Come on, it’s okay, laugh”) are as much an entreaty to the audience as to the soldiers on screen.

Even the way in which Stark’s defining injury is shot is strangely comic. Taking cover behind a rock, Tony franticly whips out his cell phone for a text before being interrupted by the missile. The camera zooms into the Stark Industries logo and quickly cuts back to Downey, wide-eyed and scurrying. It’s more Wile E. Coyote than Hurt Locker.


And it may just be this overarching Starkness, the seriocomic sleazy charm of the character that pervades every aspect of the film, which allowed Iron Man to feature and comment upon the ongoing U.S. war in Afghanistan. In an article on the sociological associations between Iron Man and boys’ culture, Bernard Beck remarks that the film is “the only treatment of the issues of American involvement in the Middle East to achieve commercial success. The more serious and heartfelt recent attempts to deal with this troublesome material, in spite of the high levels of excellence in movie making they reach, have all been duds. Only the wholehearted acceptance of the pop-culture-genre sensibility allowed these issues to be presented successfully to a mass audience” (Beck, 29). That the very next scene features Stark being held by a group of armed Middle Eastern terrorists in a recreation of the hostage videos all too familiar in post-9/11 America only strengthens Beck’s argument.

But what is also interesting about that hostage scene, and what corresponds to our earlier discussion of point of view, is the shot that immediately follows Stark’s injury. It’s a point of view shot, Tony’s POV through the burlap sack the terrorists have placed over his head. We see what he sees: a bright but obscured source of light through the fabric. When the bag is removed, Tony is hit full in the face with the blinding light of a movie set—a terrorist’s hostage movie set, true, but a movie set nonetheless. The effect of Tony’s intra-diegetic daze is meant to mirror our own. In the dark, in this pre-credit sequence, we’ve been introduced to a character we immediately like, seen him critically wounded and captured by terrorists. The Iron Mantitle card is accompanied with a sharp metallic slicing nose, intimating further harm (this association sneakily, albeit wisely, left to the viewer). The title is the same glinting golden yellow as the light through the burlap bag, another connection that seeks to solidify Tony’s point of view as the dominant, preferred, and authoritative take on the film’s events.


The pre-Iron Man interface, Stark's POV before heroics: obscured, the unknowing victim. 

The chief import of this POV shot is, again, to establish Stark's authorial perspective in the film. What he sees is what we see; what he believes, we believe. That latter point has come up against much scrutiny from critics who view Stark as a right-wing warmonger and the film as merely pro-U.S. military propaganda. It is true that the film was advised by the U.S. Air Force in collaboration with the Department of Defense and shot on location at Edwards Air Force Base. Although the more right-of-center reader may not see military stewardship of Hollywood productions as a cause for alarm, some leftist critics regard it as a potentially dangerous bias. But before political discussion devolves into political food fight, Stark's history in the comics should be considered. 

In an insightful article, "Hero of the Military-Industrial Complex: Reading Iron Man Through Burke's Dramatism," Ronald C. Thomas, Jr. parallels Tony Stark's debut in comics with the rise of the military-industrial complex in the American system. From President Eisenhower's first usage of the term, Thomas defines the military-industrial complex as "the growing synergy between national defense and American industry" (Thomas, 152). In the 2008 film, this connection is given dimension through the Tony/Rhodey relationship. Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Terrence Howard) is the Air Force liaison to Stark Industries and it's his job to keep an eye on Tony's projects to see which could be applicable for military use and encourage him to develop weapon's technology for the U.S. government. 

Stark's bombastic enthusiasm for destruction and 
laconic/ironic toasts to peace aren't exactly subtle. 

Besides this business aspect, the two men are friends. In the film, their friendship is hardly equitable as Tony clearly dominates the wheres and whens of their meetings. Stark ditches Rhodey at an awards ceremony in his honor and keeps him waiting three hours before their flight to Afghanistan. Stark's excuse ("I thought with it being my plane and all that it would just wait for me") underscores the characteristic pride in his technological possessions and the control they afford him. Stark's business dealings with the military may be mutually beneficial but it's clear from his attitude that he's not working for them, they're working for him. The dominance and control Stark wields via his association with the government seems to support Thomas' assertion that "Stark [Industries is] the Marvel Universe's answer to Halliburton" (Thomas, 158). Not the most flattering comparison, and definitely problematic in terms of Stark's likability factor. 

Which brings us to the most overtly political section of the film when Tony is being held hostage by the terrorist group The Ten Rings, a convenient comic book substitute for Al Qaida. Tony is being held there with a captured Afghani doctor/engineer, Yinsen (Shaun Toub) who was forced to save Stark's life by grafting an electromagnet in Stark's chest to keep the shrapnel from penetrating his heart. Yinsen explains that his family was killed by the Ten Rings and helps Tony construct the Iron Man prototype armor for their escape. However, Yinsen is predictably killed during the escape plan and while dying, manages to encourage/inspire Tony's future exploits as Iron Man. That Yinsen even manages to expire on humanitarian bags of rice marked with USA in red, white, and blue sends an obvious message of guilt for Tony and a condemnation of U.S. action in the Middle East as a whole (some kind of humanitarian aid if it went to the terrorists!). 

Ohh, symbolism. 

However, Yinsen's death is problematic because it still represents the death of the racial other in order for the edification and evolution of the white, male protagonist. It's the inescapable trope of almost all action movies and when you get right down to it, nearly every film where a white guy gets revenge. The death of the racial other is a classic narrative conceit in Western film and literature. And if it isn't the non-white guy, it's the white guy's family (ideally his beautiful young wife and daughter--see: every Mel Gibson movie ever made). Unlike Batman, Tony's parents are already dead, so you can't kill them. Unlike The Punisher, or even Spider-Man, Tony doesn't have a family to kill. Due to the nature of his neurosis, however, he is always on the lookout for father figures and Yinsen fit the bill. That Yinsen himself is a little bit of the avenging angel, getting payback on the terrorists who killed his family and destroyed his village perhaps indicates a more level partnership between himself and Stark. However, this view is probably a little optimistic. Yinsen and Stark are not partners in the real world, they are only brought together under the pressures of their captivity. Yinsen even mentions that he and Stark met at a technical conference once but Stark was too drunk to remember. Even if Yinsen is the smartest man in Afghanistan, he's still merely an apprentice to Tony Stark. 

In an article in Bright Lights Film Journal, Cristobal Giraldez Catalan rips Iron Man apart, calling the film "jingoist wish-fulfillment" and "government propaganda." In particular, he takes issue with the scenes in Afghanistan and the treatment of the Yinsen character. He writes, "Yinsen implores Stark to let him sacrifice for the messianic good of American homeland security, so that Iron Man is ensured by a spectacular, biblical montage of flames in the decimated Arab homeland." Okay, a couple points here. One, the land Tony decimates is not anyone's homeland. It's the refuge of the Ten Rings, a terrorist organization that's not even primarily Arab, being comprised of mercenaries from Europe, Asia and the Middle East and working for (spoiler) an American businessman, Tony's Stark Industries partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Catalan also falsely constructs a dichotomy between Iron Man as the Western intruder and the poor, downtrodden Ten Rings, stating that Stark's "cyborgian superman confronts ancient Soviet rifles." This is patently untrue. The entire point of Stark's capture was to construct the Jericho missile from Stark Industries weapons the Ten Rings had gathered. The consolidation of power in the Middle East came precisely from their acquisition of state-of-the-art Stark technologies, not "ancient Soviet rifles" as Catalan claims. Of course, this is never justification enough for cultural critics who look for any and every reason to identify and vilify American foreign policy in pop culture. 

To his credit, Catalan does make some good points in his article, rightly identifying the connections between the filmmakers and the U.S. government and the inherent ironies and hypocrisies in Tony's character. He astutely outlines the problems in using technology, as Tony does, to solve identity issues in the American psyche. Catalan: "Stark's proclaimed moral epiphany is consistently juxtaposed to a narrative that posits white men's production of spectacular displays of destruction." It is true that Stark's answer to violence is more violence, which is justifies because it's a type of violence that is centralized away from the military and falls solely to his responsibility. As is so often the case, the white protagonist comes to distrust the centralized powers once they have failed him, and becomes a vigilante to compensate. As we'll see in later entries, Stark's Iron Man identity affords him not only a way to consolidate his power and control away from the military, but it gives him a way to compensate for the personal failings he believes tainted his business practices. Tony's answer to these failings, as it is to almost every question in his life, is too retreat to technology as a stopgap savior. 

Works Cited

Beck, Bernard. "Something for the Boys: Iron ManTransformers, and Grand Theft Auto IV." Multicultural Perspectives. 11.1 (2009): 27-30.

Giraldez Catalan, Cristobal. "“Heckuva Job, Tony”: Racism and Hegemony Rage inIron Man." Bright Lights Film Journal 61 (2008): n. pag. Web. 6 April 2010. .

Thomas, Jr., Ronald C. "Hero of the Military-Industrial Complex: Reading Iron Manthrough Burke’s Dramatism."Heroes of Film, Comics and American Culture: Essays on Real and Fictional Defenders of Home. (2009): 152-166.


  1. Thanks for the kind comments about my book chapter on Iron Man. Re: Stark Industries as Halliburton, I suppose I could have said Stark = Lockheed-Martin but I was thinking of how Stark seems to be the provider of all engineering solutions in the Marvel Universe. Stark Tech is the handy plot device in the comics when a writer needs a doodad that does something needed in a story.

    1. Hello there!

      Sorry for the late reply--I'm very bad at checking my stats.

      I think you're absolutely right at how much the MU leans on Stark to provide tech/leadership/authority to its other characters. Of course, this came to a head during CIVIL WAR, where Stark's moral authority was questioned. The idea of challenging the billionaire because of his billions is quite subversive.

      This has (thankfully) carried over to the Marvel Universe onscreen; Stark seems more like the "silent partner" in The Avengers: he may show up late to the party, but you know he's got all the labs, all the tech, all the money, and all the connections to run things smoothly. Introducing an Iron Man movie first (before more well-known characters) was probably the smartest thing Marvel Studios could have done.

      And I know Stark's father (in the films) is basically a combination of Howard Hughes and Walt Disney; Tony definitely has that Hughesian combination of genuis and self-destruction.