May 6, 2010

The Iron Man Interface: Part 5

Part Five: 
Why We Love Tony Stark

I’d like to conclude this series of articles on Iron Man with a round-up of all we’ve covered so far and an explanation of why Iron Man and Tony Stark are so popular.

As we’ve already seen, Tony Stark is essentially egocentric. All of his creations, from JARVIS to his HUD interface—all of the technology Stark surrounds himself with is subject to his commands. It seems that all of Stark’s problems stem from his own personality. In the first film, Tony has to destroy his own Jericho missile, he has to save the Air Force fighter pilot only after Iron Man has damaged his plane and forced him to eject.  You could even argue that Tony’s former business partner and friend Obadiah Stane would not have betrayed him had it not been for Tony’s post-hostage change of heart. 

As is often the case in the American superhero narrative, all of the hero’s problems, as well as their solutions, stem from their own attitudes and actions. This supra-American strain of rugged individualism is clear in Stark’s ideals and is reflected in the Stark-centric style of filmmaking. Although Iron Man may feature a large cast of talented performers, it is Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark who dominates the narrative, both by the power of his personality and visually, as I’ve demonstrated through the Iron Man Interface.

But back to rugged individualism for a second. The term comes from Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which has since become an important resource in cultural studies. Turner posited that the essential American national character was forged through the expansion of the frontier, and has since been an important touchstone for theories and programs as diverse as Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” justification for expanding American Imperialism, as well as being applicable to the study of American myths in popular culture, especially superhero narratives. The concept of Frontier justice is attractive to modern Americans because the myth of a bygone era as somehow freer and purer is ingrained in the national psyche. But the longing for the simpler past is not just an American compulsion, but a human need. The future will always be uncertain the present always painful. Creating utopian myths of the past is an essential human coping mechanism.

So, what does this have to do with Iron Man? Okay, okay, I’m getting to it. American superheroes follow a natural progression from outlaw/folk heroes like Robin Hood in Europe and John Henry in America. Most American superheroes favor vigilantism instead of working for and/or with the police and government. As I’ve demonstrated in previous entries, even when Stark was technically working with/for the U.S. government, he still dominated the relationship. Whatever the reason, be it these pervading cultural myths or some rebellious strain in our nation character, Americans have always been vaguely unsettled by authority figures. We instead seem to prize the lone wolf, the self-styled man (even if the man is a born billionaire, e.g. Bruce Wayne/Tony Stark), the man who won’t lie down no matter what life throws at him. In short, we’re looking for heroes. For examples of how to live.

Tony Stark fits that bill. He has the supreme confidence that makes him attractive to men and women alike. He plays by his own rules--but only because he has the means to stack the deck in his favor. Much like one of Tony’s robotic assistants, the film is constructed to his specifications. The IMI works to create an intimate connection between Stark and the viewer. We see through his eyes, so we come to sympathize with his concerns. We don’t get this kind of insight into the terrorists’ mind, although we do get a POV shot for the main villain, Stane. However, this is only through the the HUD technology he has acquired from Stark.

By creating a world in which Stark’s personal technical proficiency and skills are privileged, the viewer becomes enamored of these abilities, even without first-hand knowledge of what it is exactly Stark is doing. I’ll just cop: I have no idea how to work a soldering iron. I don’t know what a transducer is or what significance palladium has to engineering. “Gold-titanium alloy” sounds badass as anything but I’ll be damned if I can tell you what it is or why it makes better Iron Man armor than say, titanium by itself. This sort of technological mysticism is evident even in the film itself. Witness the scene where Stark and Yinsen are working on the Iron Man prototype right under the noses of the Ten Rings. One terrorist asks another: “What’s he doing?” His friend replies simply, “Working.” In that exchange, it becomes clear that even though the terrorists are holding him captive, that they despise his Western Imperialist dogma, they kind of admire him. They recognize and respect his American work ethic even if they don’t comprehend the technical specificities of his designs. In fact, that’s why they had to capture Stark in the first place. No one else could put together the Jericho. It’s hard to imagine a CEO with that level of hands-on knowledge and involvement (it’s not a very efficient business model to make your weapons so complicated only one man can assemble them), but it fits neatly within the myth of rugged individualism. Even before Stark becomes Iron Man, he is already a one-man army. His specified technology knowledge and abilities render him superhero before superhero. 

Stark fulfills many important American myths, namely the country’s desire to self-identify as a producer. The land of Edison and film, Henry Ford and the automobile, of Howard Hughes and the Wright Brothers. Invention and innovation are the fuel for a constantly consuming society. The slow exportation of manufacturing and tech industries in recent decades has contributed to a rising national anxiety. What better salve on the national wounded pride than Tony Stark? Stark manages to embody both the best and the worst of the national character. The worst: the gambling, womanizing, greed and narcissism, the unquenchable thirst for meaningless acquisition (on a Jackson Pollock painting: “I need it. Buy it. Store it.”) tempered by the best: individual genius, hard work, “innovention” and ultimately, a deep-seated humanitarian goodness.

Besides its appeal to a collective imagined past, I think Iron Man offers an agreeable vision of the future, one of the technological integration of life and work. Stark’s touchscreen windows, doors, and furniture are only a more useful variation of our touchscreen phones and computers. As I already outlined during the discussion of Stark’s UIs and HUD, many of the interfaces Tony uses are currently military grade tech, included the ocular-controlled heads-up displays. I’m no expert, but a widespread dispersion of this kind of technology can’t be more than twenty or thirty years down the line. And I’m not the first to suggest it but considering the increasing emphasis on high tech superheroes (witness Batman’s wiretapping in The Dark Knight), it seems the new frontier is now technology. In the 21st century (of course we’ll well into it now), the 19th century conceptions of an expanding/disappearing land-based frontier are completely antiquated. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” of space exploration seems to be on its last legs with the scaling back of the U.S. manned space program. In the 21st century it seems that technology allows us to expand and contract our world and our place within that world to whatever scale we deem preferable; technology dictates our connections and facilitates our ambitions, both nationally and personally. Tony Stark as Iron Man is a symbol of that emerging truth. Stark is an example of how old and new myths come together to remind us of the inherent contradictions and frustrations in the American character, and why, even if we love to hate him, we still love him. 

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