I could start by fabricating the excuse that I was queueing for the Jia Zhangke screening and it was sold out, but whatever lie I come up with, I ended up foregoing more edifying entertainment in order to watch Iron Man. I’d been softened up by some warm reviews, and the assurance that its politics couldn’t have been more right-on if Hans Blix himself had been transformed into a cyborgic weapons inspector and spent two hours of screentime failing to inspect any weapons.
How surprised was I to find out that Iron Man is not the liberal avenger and “ally of the United Nations” that he was purported to be in a Guardian Guide cover story? A bit surprised. This is the latest in a long line of films that deals obliquely with America’s post-9/11 situation, tentatively probing areas of moral ambiguity, but rarely with a whole-hearted commitment. Certainly, it seems to be about an arms dealer who makes a moral choice to withdraw from his position of complicity in the networks of retributive, territorial destruction that his trade fertilises, but it is actually less a fantasy about how a moral interventionism might work and more a vision of how the Bush administration seems to think it already acts.
The film dresses up tortuously complex geo-politics in a fantasy of precision-engineered bodies, a convenient replacement of diplomacy with kicks and punches. To most of us, a Middle Eastern warzone is a distant, scorching, no-go area of torn limbs, twisted wreckage and unreasonable locals. Iron Man can be there at a moment’s notice, picking off bad guys (with no stray “friendly fire”), thumping some sense into those toothless desert types. He can get in and out unscathed and withdraw to his default position of non-involvement, the ultimate in convert interventionism. Surely this is meant to be cathartic, a vision of weaponised body armour that does its job as surely and precisely as the algorithms used to make the CGI happen. Digital effects make it all seem effortless – there’s little in the way of tangible physicality, so there’s an over-compensation in the thudding sound effects and rock-solid violence, and since all the effects are plotted so carefully, there’s little in the way of chaos to make it feel like real, rough-and-tumble combat with lives and limbs at stake. If nothing else, this kind of eye-defying, lightning fast action can only show up the elegance of the superheroic mayhem in Ang Lee’s much maligned Hulk. In Lee’s film, the customary “get me the president” sequence that announces the monster as a national threat finds the Leader of the Free World on a fishing trip, barely interested in news of the green giant that is currently trashing the fixtures and fittings of the military industrial complex. There’s a grander political statement in that one moment than in all of Iron Man‘s hand-wringing.
As a character, Iron Man is not as interesting as Robocop, whose metal prostheses were permanently forced upon him, bringing on an existential crisis that makes Tony Stark’s yearning for a cheeseburger seem like a state of luxury. (Neither character is as afflicted as the protagonist of Colossus of New York, which deserves more recognition than it gets, if only for having a mournful solo piano score at a time when the theremin was the 50s sf instrument of choice.) After Spider-Man, Hulk, Daredevil and Batman, it has become customary to see superheroes grappling with the internal crises created by their public status and physical difference, so it’s a big surprise to find Robert Downey Jr’s character embracing the diplomatic impunity and celebrity that goes along with his alter ego. It’s just a bit of a boring surprise.
P.S. The pun in the title of this post no longer matches the way my argument turned out, but I liked the sound of it, so rather than teasing out some sense of irony from my reading of the film, I thought I’d just leave it there anyway. Who’s going to notice?
P.P.S. I should also note that in Iron Man Gwyneth Paltrow ‘tackles’ the most thankless decorative role offered to an Oscar winner since Orson Welles advertised fish fingers. But I have nothing substantive to say about that fact. Unless a sigh of resignation counts as comment.
“[The] middle section, in which the newly energized Tony tinkers with his emerging superpowers like a kid in shop class, is the movie’s finest and funnest hour. But when he starts to actually use those powers, zooming to random corners of Afghanistan to save cowering villagers from evil warlords, the movie’s sharp intelligence gives way to a dopey wish-fulfillment fantasy. This is what we’d like our wars to be: a clearly defined moral crusade against a bald, glowering meanie who proclaims his Genghis Khan-like ambition to “dominate all of Asia.” (With an eye on potential box-office buzz kill, the movie cannily stays away from the mere mention of the Taliban, the war in Iraq, or domestic terrorism.) Tony’s invulnerable, omnipotent, impossibly expensive armor is an almost touching overcompensation for the moment of extreme vulnerability in which our country finds itself.”