Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Politics Of: Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 is the latest Marvel franchise movie from Disney featuring Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark: the man inside Iron Man. The review will be relatively un-spoiler-riffic and then we'll talk politics which will have spoilers.

The Movie
Man, oh man, is the Iron Man franchise lucky they cast Downey in the lead role. To be sure, the rest of the cast is good--and the multi-million dollar spectacle would be fun to watch even if there were someone less capable under the helmet--but that would only get it near greatness. By the 4th time we see Tony don the armor (three movies plus The Avengers) it would get pretty old if the guy playing Tony Stark didn't have mega-watt charisma.

Fortunately, Robert Downey Jr. does.

The third Iron Man movie is big, loud, makes very little sense (I'll discuss that in the politics section as it's a spoiler) but it's a hell of a ride. Downey inhabits Stark in a way that allows him to not just do the heavy lifting but pretty much carry the whole thing with the ease of his super strength-augmented character.

The story is a fairly convoluted mess: a master terrorist (The Mandarin) is setting off explosions around the world and in American and no one can stop him. There's a mysterious business-man who runs Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM) and wants to do a deal with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) who now runs Stark Industries. Tony is hanging around for all of this but is way more involved with not-sleeping and working on new armor.

Stark has taken a backseat because he's dealing with post traumatic stress disorder over the alien invasion in The Avengers. When it turns out there may be some connection to the AIM guy, The Mandarin, and Potts, Stark becomes entangled (mostly due to the actions of his chief of security played by former director Jon Favrau).  Then we get to see if Tony Stark--the man under the mask--is actually a capable hero in and of himself--or if it's all just clever mechanics.

The story is not especially deep and it isn't trying to be dramatic--and that's a good thing: I keep waiting for these Iron Man movies to devolve into the maudlin mess that the Spiderman series did and, fortunately, they don't. Part of that is probably the writing and directorial intent. Part of that is the pretty much unique way that Downey can play Stark as a jerk and still make him lovable.

I believe that there is at both the studio/producer level and at the script-writer level a problem with making these superhero scripts: they are, at least, half, power-fantasy. Yes, Spiderman lives in a dump and has the world's worst boss--but when he's swinging around the city, being Spiderman is great. Yes, Tony Stark is an alcoholic--but he's also actively a playboy billionaire and, unlike Batman (where that's just a front) he gets to enjoy it. And wouldn't flying around in the Iron Man suit be a blast? Yes. Yes it would.

When writers (probably encouraged by producers who are afraid of making a 200-million-dollar kid's movie) try to find a dramatic core to the character beyond the origin story (which is usually somewhat dark) they mine it for relationships: The (not-illogical) assumption is that being an ego-maniac superhero would be hard on the family life. I believe there's also some implicit themes in Superhero movies that they're basically "adolescent." That is: they need to grow up. This isn't absurd: remember, to a degree, these characters were created and meant for young people. Kill Bill's The Bride isn't on too many first-grader lunch boxes.

The problem with using relationships to drive the emotional drama of superheroes is that it results in (a) domestic discord which is not fun to watch but probably does 'contrast nicely' with the power-fantasy heroics of the superhero identity in the opinion of writers and directors and other people with script approval and (b) results in the heroes inevitably having to "learn a lesson" about being more attentive to their girlfriends / wives to complete an arc. We've seen this in:
  • Spiderman 3 ... interminably
  • The Fantastic Four movies where the family drama isn't The Thing and The Human Torch--the kids--fighting (which was prevalent in the comics) but rather Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Girl ... the parents
  • The Green Lantern who, to be fair, really did need to grow up in that movie
  • Batman falling out with Alfred in father-son dramatics
  • Sometimes Superman not appreciating Lois Lane sufficiently
And so on.

In Iron Man 3 Stark needs to learn to appreciate Pepper Potts some more ... and he does.

Part of my problem with this, other than it being not so much fun to watch ... and predictable (and kind of trumped up: although those elements do exist in the comics, the comics themselves are not generally, nearly so filled with domestic strife) is that you take even a half-step back from the narrative you suddenly see that these women (it ... thus far ... is always women: I wonder what they'll do with Wonder Woman?) are really acting incredibly entitled and unbelievably self-centered.

This is not the message the script writers intend to convey--but look:

Mr. Fantastic is basically on the front-line of global defense against humanity-ending threats. If he's delaying a wedding because it looks like Australia might sink or something, that's not being an immature man-child--that's being the only guy in the world who can save billions.

Spiderman is out stopping murders no one else can stop: if you hear sirens in the middle of your "big talk" with the guy ... maybe that can wait a few--if someone dies because you guilt-ed him into staying ... what's that say about you

Batman is a justice-machine: if Alfred hurts his feelings he pauses for a moment and grumbles: I actually have feelings? News to me. Punk. 

Superman is more or less the hand of God: if he's a bit busy, well, you might want to understand that.

In other words, while Potts--and in this movie she does get a good deal to do, thankfully--may be right to have some issues with the admittedly immature Tony--she may also want to consider that he has responsibilities (literally saving the planet) that other people don't.

Fortunately, the movie doesn't get dragged down by this--but it's still in there more prevalent than it ought to be.

Despite this complaint (rant), Iron Man 3 is fun--and you should go see it if you saw the other ones and liked them. In a way it may obviate the need for a 4th (although, you know, shut up and take my money if they it)--it didn't add much to the story or the character. It's competent (even with a new director) and I think it still gets the character right and does it with style.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of Iron Man 3 
The big spoiler is this: The Mandarin, played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley, is really a British, drug-addicted actor bloke who has been taken by the AIM guy (Guy Pearce) to act as a master terrorist (sending out video Pearce shoots). This is done to fool the world into thinking there's a bad guy when, really, AIM is trying to both create terror (having people using the new experimental treatment blow up as giant bombs) and then fight it (sell more stable versions of the treatment for use as super soldiers).

Interestingly: every Iron Man villain thus far has been a genius businessman. Iron Man 3 is no exception.

Interestingly: AIM, in the movie, is doing exactly what 9/11 Truthers think the American government is doing--propping up "fake terrorists" (or, less literally, 'creating them' the way the US 'created' Osama Bin Laden) and then using them as an excuse to conduct a 'War on Terror' which, among other things (such as taking our civil liberties away), makes someone a whole lot of money.

Interestingly: Iron Man 3, despite these plot constructs, doesn't really have a single political idea in its pretty little head.

Consider this: You are Iron Man. You are in Tennessee without the use of your armor or anything. You discover your girlfriend is being held captive in Miami by a madman. Do you:
  1. Pick up the phone and call SHIELD and have Sam Jackson storm the compound himself and dispatch various guards by swearing alone?
  2. Call your good friend Captain America to wreak havoc on the bad-guys until you can get your armor working to go help him? He can maybe bring Hawkeye and the Black Widow if you think the other super-soldiers might be too much for him to handle by himself?
  3. Call your best buddy Don Cheadle who wears the Iron Patriot suit--and, by doing so, depending on the timing--realizing he's been compromised so you could properly warn the US government of that?
  4. Call the cops?
  5. Hire Blackwater?
  6. Create McGuyver style assault gear, load it into a suitcase, and take a commercial jet to Miami, rent a car, and then storm the compound yourself? Without even regular body armor?
You know which one he picked ... even if you didn't see the movie.

Iron Man's plot construct is not political not just because it has a massively stupid plot-hole in it (if that were the standard everything would be shot) but because of the reason why it has the plot-hole. Iron Man 3's script needs to show that Stark is effective even without his armor--that He. Is. Iron. Man. (Ozzy Osbourne GROWL + METAL GUITAR RIFF). Indeed, it's the needs of the story that drive every other decision Iron Man 3 makes.

The reason that they use super-rich genius business men as antagonists is because you want the guy facing down Iron Man in an armored suit to also be "a super villain." You don't want him to be a flunky who is just wearing the suit someone else made (see what happens with the Iron Patriot battle: that guy doesn't last too long, does he?). So the foe has to have more or less invented the outfit too--not just be wearing it. That takes brains and money: TAH-DAH!*

The Mandarin reveal is in there because (a) the original character's 'orientalism' may have given some people pause and (b) the reveal (that he's a soccer-loving, hard-drinking Brit) is shockingly hilarious. The movie doesn't need two separate villains and it doesn't need three "climactic battle sequences" (and, arguably, if you count Stark's assault on the compound, it does in fact have three climactic battles. If you concede that then it definitely does not need four). 

The camera sells you The Mandarin and then pulls the rug out from under you and you laugh. It isn't commentary on arms-deals to Osama.

If I had to guess Stark's politics, I'd say ragingly Libertarian**--which would give him a rightful distrust of the power-elite in Washington (or, whoever those guys on the TV screens were in The Avengers who could order a nuclear strike on New York without having the President on the line)--but we never even see him wearing a Ron Paul T-shirt. 

So no, despite some construction that looks political, Iron Man 3 is pure summer-blockbuster.

Conclusion: No political message.

* Note that Tony Stark is also a super-rich genius businessman and he's the hero. The franchise sure isn't anti-capitalist even if it is, modestly, anti-arms-merchant.

** Doubly so after he stopped his arms-deals and stopped being the military industrial complex ...


  1. these women are really acting incredibly entitled and unbelievably self-centered.

    Don't have many cop families in your life? This is the dynamic, it is real, and it is why cops have so many ex-wives.

    1. Ha! Well, yeah--depressing--but true I guess (although, to be fair, cops are more interchangeable than Mr. Fantastic is supposed to be--and the scale he works on is much, much bigger).

    2. The conflict is as old as time. Women find men attractive who are committed to something bigger then themselves, then are disappointed when their men continue to be committed to that thing.

  2. Hi Omni,

    I just saw the film yesterday and enjoyed it immensely, though I disagree with you about the politics. Attempts have been made to make a 9/11 Truther movie in Hollywood, and all such attempts have been shot down. So if a filmmaker wants to include any kind of Truther theme, it must be done subtly. For example, in the second Sherlock Holmes movie, the terrorists are controlled by Moriarti, who wants to make money selling weapons. But here in Iron Man 3, the subtlety wears very thin. After the Mandarin is exposed as a fake, there is even a line about Osama bin Laden. I would need to see the film again to remember the exact quote. Either that or find the script somewhere online. But the connection between the Mandarin and Osama bin Laden both being masks used by others is made explicitly. So yes, there is politics. Thanks to Robert Downey, Jr., the movie is too big for Hollywood to shoot it down, and the closest thing to a "Truther film" is now out there.

    I'm curious what you think about the cooperation between AIM and the Vice President. In the film, the President is supposed to be killed, with the Vice President providing cover for AIM. In real life, there is some evidence that a terrorist attack against Bush in Florida was thwarted on 9/11. Coincidence?

    1. I started to write a response here--and then decided I'd do an actual post about it (a longer, more thoughtful response). If you click on the Conspiracy tag at the top of the blog, you can see a lot of my conspiracy-oriented posts for now.

    2. Here's your reply--in post form!

      As to the Vice President: I think that he was given a very personal reason for colluding with AIM (his crippled daughter) and that changes the calculus completely (it's no long a steal-the-gold / invade Iraq 9/11-style plot).

      As to the attack on Bush: I've not heard of it and I suspect if there was an actual "thwarted attack" (as opposed to some evidence of plans somewhere amidst the 9/11 hijacker's materials) we would know.

      Even if the Secret Service could "keep it a secret" (something I doubt) those teams coordinate with local PD and other local entities and those people would *not* keep it a secret.

      We'd know--and we don't (or, at least, I don't)--so my conclusion is that it probably didn't happen. That said: I've not seen the evidence so I could be wrong.

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  5. Watch Iron Man 3 (2013) at los movies is A Marvel pure, fun, popcorn, Action Film and the third entry of the Iron Man trilogy. It is an awesome superhero Action flick a huge improvement over Iron Man 2 (2010) and million ways better than the new Marvel comic book film Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
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