Falling in line with recent themes of humanized superheroes and comic book adaptations is this summer’s film Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau (Elf).
Robert Downey Jr. leads as globetrotting gazillionaire Tony Stark, inheritor of his father’s Stark Enterprises, a capitalist empire built on manufacturing bigger, faster and deadlier weapons than the other guy. As the genius playboy-turned-superhero, Downey is as brilliant an actor as Stark is an engineer, carrying off the character with just the right balance of solemnity and wit.
Though Downey’s portrayal is a stark contrast to other humorless heroes like Christian Bale’s Batman, the films are similar in their attempt to draw contemporary contextual parallels, particularly related to terrorism. After all, who needs to battle robots when the incomprehensible sources of today’s fear have a much more human face? “[Iron Man is] a grown-up's superhero, saving the world not from mutated super-villains or space aliens, but global terrorists and corporate greed,” notes Christianity Today reviewer Russ Breimeier.
An early scene in which Stark’s hedonism shines begins to allude to the off-screen globalized world of the 21st century. Provoked by a reporter, to whom he responds only because she’s “cute,” Stark offers a canned response to the accusatory nickname Merchant of Death. “It's an imperfect world, but it's the only one we got,” he says. “I guarantee you the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I'll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals.” Stark’s approach to living in a gray world is surprisingly black and white, as he flippantly acquiesces to the notion that someone must necessarily do the dirty work of making very expensive high-tech weaponry to defend democracy. In fact, the first chronological event of the film is a ceremony honoring him as civic hero—“a real patriot”—for his contributions to U.S. military strategy.
A crisis in the desert of Afghanistan, however, challenges Stark’s convictions when he realizes that his weapons deal death beyond his control. With his good-guy-bad-guy notions shattered, Stark commences to build an impenetrable supersuit to escape his Taliban-like captors, and Iron Man is born. Back in the U.S., Stark announces his intentions not to be one of the ambiguous bad guys anymore. “I want to protect the people I put in harm’s way,” Stark announces, as he simultaneously shuts down his company’s weapons manufacturing and braces for the stockholder fallout.
However, Stark’s commitment to save everyone his weapons have “put in harm’s way” is ambiguous. The American soldier and the infant Afghani still embody the archetypal good guy, while the iron-clad Stark dramatically obliterates the (obvious and total) bad guy. In spite of noble intentions, Iron Man still promotes an oversimplified dualism that is a commonly used narrative element, but never, in the end, wrestles effectively with the problem of evil. Like much of American storytelling, particularly superhero stories, the film falls prey to the myth of redemptive violence. The premise that weapons are okay in the hands of the right people betrays one of the fundamental principles of Reformed theology in its assumption that right people, unaffected by sin, actually exist. Theoretically, the “right” people would know exactly who the bad guys are and who the good guys are, never harming even a hair on the head of an innocent and eliminating evil by destroying evil-doers. Recognizing that good and evil cut right through the heart of every person, however, necessitates a more nuanced approach to the problem—an approach that is generally much more difficult and less entertaining.
The film could have explored the theme of gender more deeply as well, but instead falls back on a cinematic stereotype of the helpless, gorgeous, loyal female whose sensitivity humanizes the brute male hero. Though Gwyneth Paltrow performs well as an understated Pepper Potts, her relationship with Tony Stark is simply a nod to the essential ingredient of a love interest, rather than the profound image of sacrificial love that it could have been.
In spite of holes in the overarching themes of the story, Iron Man is still a well-constructed film that strikingly honors the visual culture from which it emerges and draws out significant threads for reflection. “The theme is the image of America abroad, whether we’re to be regarded as peacekeepers or ‘merchants of death,’ even whether one necessarily entails the other,” notes reviewer Evan Kindly for Not Coming to a Theatre Near You.
-Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma