Iron Man

Iron Man

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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

Questions for Reflection

  • The film begins with Tony Stark demonstrating a weapon in the desert, flashes back, and then flashes forward again to tell the story chronologically. Is this structure effective?
  • In what ways does the film allude to current events? Does it comment effectively on its twentieth century American context or does it fall short? Where is it astute and where does it pull punches?
  • The original comic was set in the context of Vietnam. What does the film gain by updating the context to the war in Afghanistan? In what ways does it challenge or affirm the military? The arms industry?
  • What assumptions does the film make about violence? About the relationship between violence and redemption?
  • Who in the film demonstrates self-sacrifice? Self-preservation? In what ways does the film affirm each of these approaches?
  • What inspires Tony Stark’s conversion? How does it compare to a religious conversion?
  • Why do rich, isolated superheroes appeal to audiences so much? How are Iron Man and Batman different from a character like Spiderman with respect to social status, intentionality, etc.?
  • Iron Man has the potential to challenge the flawed good guy-bad guy dichotomy. Does it? What does Iron Man say it means to be human? Do you agree with its assumptions?
  • Discuss the role of women in the film. Does Tony Stark’s view of women change? Are such stereotypes harmless or harmful?
  • In the film’s climactic battle scene, masks come off to reveal human faces. Where do you see the tension between humans and machines emerging? What does the film imply about technology?
  • Director Jon Favreau talked in an interview about the tension between wanting to be “responsible” in the film’s portrayal of violence and weapons and his primary objective of creating something that entertains and allows the audience to escape. How do you see the film wrestling with this tension? How well does it achieve the primary objective of entertainment?