Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Enigmatic Iron Man

In a shocking turn of events Iron Man 2 is a good movie! In another shocking turn of events, its not as good as the first movie! The fact that the second turn of events is shocking is because usually the second movie in a superhero franchise is the best. But why is it shocking that it's good? Well, that's the real question isn't it.

You see, as far as the original comic books are concerned, Iron Man was one of Stan Lee's worst creations. He was a Cold War anti-Communist whose rogues gallery included a Fu Manchu wannabe called "The Mandarin" and a dragon in purple underwear named "Fin Fang Foom".

But somehow, when this awful superhero made the transition to the silver screen, the whole thing was turned on its head. Of course, as a big budget Hollywood summer blockbuster, you can't expect a well-rounded Marxist analysis. However, the Iron Man movies are the closest to a well-rounded Marxists analysis made by a big budget Hollywood summer blockbuster since 1987's RoboCop.

Incidentally, RoboCop was also about a guy who used a robotic suit to fight crime.

While the first Iron Man movie featured the characters of the comic book it also introduced some wonderful Altman-esque dialogue (carried on in the second movie). Most importantly it featured a story clearly inspired by Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! and its cinematic adaptation There Will Be Blood.

While There Will Be Blood focuses on the personal greed of oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (much like that of Iron Monger), the book Oil! focuses its attacks on the capitalist system as a whole. In Oil! J. Arthur Ross (on whom Plainview and Iron Monger were modeled) isn't necessarily a bad person, but he's driven to do horrible things because he needs to make a profit or go out of business.

Similarly, in Iron Man, neither Tony Stark (Iron Man) nor Obadiah Stane (Iron Monger) are bad people. In fact they both seem like nice enough guys. But they own an arms business and have to make weapons or go out of business. What makes Iron Man a hero and Iron Monger a villain is that Tony Stark, in the opening scene, had the misfortune of witnessing the effects of his business, giving him a crisis of conscience. Obadiah Stane, on the other hand, remains isolated and thus makes the transition to the pure villain Iron Monger (from J. Arthur Ross to Daniel Plainview).

Really the capitalist system is the main villain in Iron Man. In fact, the only person who can truly be considered a pure villain in the movie is Jim Cramer whose role as attack dog for the capitalist press is what motivates Obadiah Stane to go down his dark path. Interestingly, the character of Jim Cramer is played by an actual attack dog for the capitalist press named Jim Cramer who's show is every bit as comically full of shit as the show in the movie.

Iron Man 2 tries to replicate the pure evil of Jim Cramer by featuring Bill O'Reilly playing a media hack named Bill O'Reilly. It's not as successful, but I certainly hope they continue the tradition of having right-wing pundits playing themselves as villains. In particular, I'm looking forward to Iron Man 3 featuring Glenn Beck as a conspiracy theorist who accuses Tony Stark of being a socialist.

Anyway, in Iron Man 2, the focus is broadened to cover not just capitalism, but its institutions, namely the military-industrial complex. The first Iron Man ended with a meeting between Tony Stark and Nick Fury, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., signifying the possibility of collaboration between business and the government. In Iron Man 2 we are introduced to their villainous doppelgängers in the form of the businessman Jim Hammer and politician Senator Stern.

This alliance between Hammer and Stern results, as do most collaborations of capitalism and the state, in the assembling of a robot army that tries to take over the world.

Meanwhile, Tony Stark is getting over his guilt from the first movie and turning into his usual, egotistical self (see picture at the top). Before the robot army thing, Tony Stark publicly calls out Hammer and Stern and makes declarations about how he "privatized world peace" as if that was a good thing. This has caused some to interpret Iron Man 2 as being pro-mercenary and pro-privatization. However, every time the cameras turn off it inevitably turns out that Tony Stark was just making vacuous speeches for self-promotion.

Also, it should be stated that opposing the militarism of the state doesn't automatically make you Milton Friedman. The two Iron Man movies should be viewed in the context of each other. If one read Lenin's State and Revolution in isolation, one could interpret its focus on the state as an endorsement of Reaganite "small government" but, everybody knows that's not the case.

Others have accused the Iron Man of taking an "equal opportunity offenders" attitude, particularly evidenced by the fact that it's never specified whether Senator Stern is a Democrat or a Republican.

But people who claim to be "equal opportunity offenders" are always lying. You can tell, for instance, that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are centrist libertarians, because that's the one ideology they never make fun of. Similarly in the Iron Man movies, while they attack both the notion of direct private ownership (Iron Man) and government intervention in defense of corporations (Iron Man 2) they never attack or mock the notion of public ownership under democratic workers control. By a simple process of elimination, that must be what the Iron Man movies are in favor of.

However, as I mentioned, it is still the case that Iron Man 2, while good, is not good as the first Iron Man. Partly, this is because Jim Cramer makes a more entertaining villain than Bill O'Reilly. But one still has to accept that the Iron Man movies are part of a capitalist-owned franchise and, as such, any attempt at serious social commentary must ultimately end in a cop-out. In Iron Man 2, the cop-out is a bit more serious.

The cop-outs in the Iron Man movies generally result from overzealous attempts to make Tony Stark/Iron Man a true hero rather than a conflicted anti-hero. In the first Iron Man, this meant that once Iron Man got rid of Iron Monger everything was suddenly peachy again.

In Iron Man 2 there is a fourth villain (in addition to Senator Stern, Justin Hammer and Bill O'Reilly) called Whiplash (aka Ivan Vanko). In typical cop-out fashion, Vanko wants revenge because Stark's father ruined Vanko's father. For some time it's implied that he has legitimate cause for wanting revenge against Stark, which could conceivably result in a similar moral dilemma to the one Stark had in the first movie. But instead it's all explained away by saying that Vanko's father was crooked.

Note to Hollywood writers everywhere (especially Star Trek XI's Alexander Kurtzman and Roberto Orci): If you're going to have a villain's motivation be revenge make them have a legitimate reason for wanting revenge! Fortunately Vanko is played by Mickey Rourke who delivers a much better performance than Eric Bana in Star Trek XI, but it still cheapens the movie a bit.

But cop-out aside, the Iron Man movies accomplished an astonishing feat in taking a lame superhero and making it into something worth watching.