Is Iron Man 2 an escapist, crowd-pleasing piece of big-budget popcorn entertainment, or a two-hour ad for neo-capitalism? Can it be both?
I – Marxist Film Theory and Criticism
As Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni convey in their essay, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” “Because every film is part of the economic system it is also a part of the ideological system, for ‘cinema’ and ‘art’ are branches of ideology.” The authors go on to categorize films that affirm or challenge dominant ideologies to differing degrees:
“The first and largest category comprises those films which are imbued through and through the dominant ideology in pure and unadulterated form, and give no indication that their makers were even aware of the fact. We are not just talking about so-called ‘commercial’ films. The majority of films in all categories are the unconscious instruments of the ideology which produces them.”
Comolli and Narboni’s assertion that each film is reflective of the particular ideology that produces them suggests a connection between how meaning is expressed in a particular film and the nation, region, governance, or industry that it is directly or indirectly affiliated with. Thus, a mainstream film made as a product of industry within a capitalist society, intentionally or not, implicitly or explicitly reflects the dominant values of both that society and its accepted form of governance. Thus, the authors come to the powerful and inevitable conclusion that, in fact, “All cinema is political.”
II – Iron Man 2
In several simple ways Iron Man 2 follows the typical Hollywood formula for ideological mythmaking: the protagonist wins the girl (an expected affirmation of heteronormativity and monogamy), the film concludes with closure in the triumph of the clearly delineated good over definite evil, it contains the presumed destiny for greatness (here enabled by the Stark’s father), and the hero succeeds through the triumph of individualism. This formula can be found everywhere in Hollywood cinema since its silent years, and while such conventions may at first seem like simple repetitive storytelling, they also serve the function of affirming the most treasured of American value systems. But the Iron Man films operate more specifically on a political level as well.
Mainstream superheroes have had a history of functioning as symbols of ideal American value systems, classically exemplified by Superman’s association with “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” (one in doubt of Superman’s nationalist function only needs to turn to Superman Red Son to see how the association with a different nation and ideology changes the meaning of the superhero entirely). Iron Man operates similarly.
The first Iron Man is a story of American exceptionalism by means of our political ideology’s value of individual triumph. The way Stark survives and succeeds in Iron Man’s first act is by proving his superiority in intelligence, ingenuity, and willpower over what are posited as the inferior (technologically and otherwise) Afghan militants. His triumph over these enemies is, in a sense, a triumph over their culture, specifically a non-Western culture possessing competing values and traditions. All of Stark’s nemeses, then, are enemies of a dominant cultural structure that Stark/Iron Man, and all he represents, bestows upon himself the responsibility to preserve. It is no coincidence then that the respective enemies in each film are enemies of a culture located both abroad – the Afghanistan-based Ten Rings and Mickey Rourke’s post-Cold War fossil, Ivan Vanko, each embodying explicit historical locations of real life American ideological warfare – and domestic – Jeff Bridges’s Obidah Stane and Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer both seek personal wealth and power at the expense of their own national allegiance, each doing business with an enemy abroad in order to achieve their goal.
While many Hollywood films operate ideologically through a regimented system of expectation-delivery, convention, and generic formula, the Iron Man films are unique, even amongst the rest of the superhero genre, in the respect that they are often overtly political.
Iron Man, released at the end of the Bush era, came about in a year when superhero films narrativized and contextualized the sociocultural significance of the previous eight years. While The Dark Knight explored an allegorical history of elusive and confounding threats of terrorism, the iconography of fallen buildings, and the sacrifice of liberty for safety, the first Iron Man worked as a form of American ideological fantasy-wish fulfillment as it presented a superhero who could seemingly singlehandedly defeat the War on Terror and (in the film’s most telling moment, when Iron Man returns to obliterate the Ten Rings to the delight of the Afghans around him) deliver himself to the Middle East while actually being greeted as a liberator.
“I have successfully privatized world peace.”
Iron Man 2 continues its predecessor’s conservative affirmation of American tradition and sense of exceptionalism by, initially, the very fact that Stark as Iron Man is public and transparent, forgoing the humble anonymity of his crimefighting forefathers and relishing in the association of his public persona with individual triumph. For Stark, narcissism is a virtue. This pride in individuality extends itself to the fetishization of private industry, a value recently accelerated by the Tea Party’s selective demands of a free market and a new neo-libertarian rhetoric amongst conservative politicians that distrusts everything the public sector offers to the degree that they unknowingly discredit the very purpose of their own publicly elected occupation. When Stark utters the (loaded) above quote during the Senate hearing at the film’s beginning, it initially alludes to the shadows of the controversial private national security efforts of Blackwater, but also affirms our culture’s exponentially escalating celebration of private industry in all sectors, here personified through the symbol of the individualist American hero (remember here that the triumph of individualism stands in stark (get it?) contrast with the ideology of the collective good that characterizes democracy’s proposed enemy, Communism, represented here by the Iron (get it?) Curtain memories of Vanko).
It is assumed in Iron Man 2 that government bureaucracy inevitably leads to corruption, as the border-crossing lobbyist/arms dealer Hammer has his hands in the pocket of both America’s enemy and a public official. But unlike Hammer, Garry Shandling’s party-unspecified Senator Stern is never given an overt reason for presumed nefariousness within his character – instead he’s simply presumed to be so by the very existence of his public office, a reflection of our culture’s growing knee-jerk distrust of government. Both Hammer and Stark, at their core, seek out the same thing: individual achievement. What ultimately defines them as hero or villain is where this pursuit of success stops with respect to the potential compromise of their culture’s dominant value systems.
These are just some of numerous potential examples that identify Iron Man 2 as a work of sociological propaganda, a byproduct of the dominant ideological necessities of our culture. And what a fun byproduct it is to watch.