Spoiler warning: There will be spoilers.
Since 2008, a great deal of ink (or, at least, the Internet’s equivalent of ink) has been spilled on the political weight of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. From the depiction of post-9/11 trauma and Batman’s Patriot Act-style tactics in The Dark Knight to The Dark Knight Rises’s ideologically incoherent depiction of Gotham’s Occupy-enabled descent into a metropolitan anarchist dystopia, multiple theories and debates have assessed where the Nolanverse lies on the 21st century American political spectrum. The self-serious tone of these superhero films lend themselves to similarly solemn allegorical readings – Nolan’s Batman films are inferred as brimming with meaning and intent by virtue of an auteur director envisioning an alternative vision of America on a mass scale. But most political readings of the Dark Knight films inevitably encounter contradiction – the ambivalence of these films always fails to match their allegorical promise.
The Robert Downey, Jr.-led Iron Man series presents itself as lightweight, goofy summer entertainment, a media object designed to be consumed passively rather than interrogated for its layers of meaning. But Iron Man has explored far more legible, richer, and more interesting politics than its darker counterpart. Its two directors (Jon Favreau and Shane Black), while talented, are situated less as auteurs and more as contributors to a collective, synergistic corporate vision. Iron Man’s politics, while often foregrounded narratively, are presented as a set of ideological assumptions rather than an active investigation of contemporary political tensions. And that’s exactly what makes Iron Man’s politics so fascinating, loaded, resonant, and problematic.
In fact, the political design of these films is so intrinsic to their essential being that Asawin Suebsaeng of Mother Jones declared Iron Man 3 to be ultimately without politics. That’s not so. In seemingly rejecting the political, Iron Man 3 is actually the most political film of the series.
The Politics of Being Super
There’s something about the superhero film that lends itself particularly well to politics compared to other blockbuster formulas – not necessarily political themes or allegory, but simply the ease with with politics are presented and involved in narrative. Many iconic superheroes have specifically political origins. Superman first emerged with regularity in comics during the tail end of the Great Depression, providing an idealist fantasy in hard times. When Superman joined the war effort in 1943, the character assumed his place as a beacon of American Exceptionalism.
As quoted by Suebsaeng, Stan Lee originally crafted Iron Man as a contrarian proponent of the military-industrial complex during a Cold War in which his readership had great disdain for that very system. Iron Man is, in origination, a specifically right-wing character. But more generally, superhero narratives play off of, explore, and exploit deep-seated political fears and extravagant political fantasies, positioning complex, rooted, and systemic global problems as potentially resolvable by the virtue of an exceptional individual. By the framework of genre alone, superhero films are always already explicitly political.
These politics, it should be noted, aren’t necessarily predetermined or premeditated by the creative individuals behind the superhero narrative. The resonant politics of superhero films operate both generally (through the generic superstructure that conditions what we expect from these films) and specifically. The specific details through which such films resonate politically can seem historical, immediate, and/or uncanny. For instance, in Iron Man 3, the plot point of a US army veteran self-combusting like a domestic terrorist in rural Tennessee simultaneously echoes the rising rates of military suicide just as the visual icon of the shadows of the dead inscribed on walls recalls horrific details of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Such films also contain potent resonances that could never possibly have been premeditated: the sudden bombing of the Mann Chinese theater in Iron Man 3 might remind some viewers of recent events in Boston, just as the New York skyline took on new meaning in the post-9/11 release of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, despite the fact that both films were in production well before these respective tragedies.
Both Iron Man and Iron Man 2 wear their politics on their respective polished, spectacle-stuffed, Downeysnark-filled sleeves. In the first film, Stark’s 60s origins are updated to war-torn Afghanistan, the setting of his cinematic origin story. When Stark later returns to Afghanistan in full Iron Man regalia, he deftly takes care of the Ten Rings terrorist group who had captured him and his fellow captive/engineer Dr. Yinsen, providing, for a moment, a concise American fantasy that imagines an efficient conclusion to a seemingly endless and confusing war.
Iron Man 2 is considerably more complicated. With Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko as antagonist, the film seems to return Iron Man to his Cold War roots, but instead largely focuses on an arms war between government regulation and the free market in which Stark’s heroism stands in for the lucrative practice of privatized industry as a means of national self-defense, echoing real-life Bush-era equivalents like Blackwater. All the while, and despite surface invocations of Stark’s alcoholism, chronic narcissism, workaholism, and daddy complex, these giant films imbue a feather-light tone that makes their events seem largely inconsequential even as they naturally echo recent headlines with a protagonist who is an arms dealer and one-percenter with charisma to burn.
Iron Man 3 takes this trajectory to its natural next step with the industrial superhero’s equivalent of the unmanned predator drones: an iron army that hardly require Stark’s actual body in order to operate.
Each of Marvel’s Iron Man films feature a visually-striking villain marked as the cultural, ethnic, and ideological “Other”: the Ten Rings organization in the first film, Vanko in the second, and Ben Kinglsey’s The Mandarin in the most recent film. But in each of these cases, these conventional, stereotypical villains hide and distract from (and take a back seat for) the more nefarious figure, typically one of Stark’s economic competitors: Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah Stane, Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, and Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian. Where the emergence of Stane as Iron Monger in the first film is inevitable, and the balance between Vanko and Hammer in the second is clunky, this conceit is executed quite skillfully in Iron Man 3.
Unlike prior exotic villains, Kingley’s Mandarin is revealed to not be a threat at all, but simply a convenient icon of terror for the Information Age. The cultural and political schizophrenia embodied by Kingley’s Mandarin is performative of an ill-defined war “on terror” that nominally seeks to obliterate a tactic rather than, say, defeat a nation 20th-century style (as with the indecipherable Mandarin, contemporary, culturally-varied acts of terrorism make xenophobia rather difficult). Between his Bin Laden beard, his samurai bob, and his vaguely brown appearance (Sir Kingley’s made a career of being a master ethnic chameleon – the Fred Armisen of British knighthood), The Mandarin is realized through a virtual Orientalist salad whose smorgasbord of signifiers all decode a “terrorist” while at the same time suggesting no coherent ideology or distinct political association, complete with a strange Midwestern accent. It’s quite brilliant, then, that the accumulation of these signs lead only to a hollow core when The Mandarin is revealed to be simply a desperate British actor.
And it’s this connective thread between the films – that the Five Rings, Ivan Vanko, and The Mandarin are never the central villain – which makes the Iron Man series so politically potent.
An Industrialist Revolutionary
Despite the narrative elements regularly at play, the Iron Man films hardly generate a critical examination of capitalism – what they do instead is favor a side between competing industries. In Stark’s dangerous conflicts over commerce with his three American villains, Stark is, in alignment with generic expectations, the one who should win and the one whose industry is comparably virtuous. Despite that the destruction of Stark’s house resembles the stunning, Pink Floyd-accompanied consumer critique in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Tony Stark is always already a character with problems on the surface but undeniable heroism at his consumer-capitalist core. Unlike Nolan’s Bruce Wayne, the cinematic Stark lends his wealth to few populist aims – he’s neither Gandhi nor Robin Hood, but he’ll do. Stark’s enemies are created simply by virtue of his existence and his insistence on maintaining his capitalist autonomy. These enemies are not located in Afghanistan, or Russia, or wherever terror might bed down, but in the most extreme forms of competition with lesser industrialists.
It’s in this way that the Iron Man films are both transparently and invisibly political: they assume a set of largely mainstream libertarian values, and use a masquerade of international political struggle to mask the never-interrogated core of Stark’s laissez-fare character: he’s all-American and all-Austrian. What needs protecting, time and again, are not America’s people, but the centrality of the military-industrial complex itself. Any actual semblance of critique – Stark declaring himself to have “privatized world peace” in Iron Man 2, The President almost becoming killed through the symbols of his own private interests and greed in Iron Man 3 (apparently nobody in the Iron Man 3 universe actually minds fossil fuels, they only seek the illusion of protest for deeper nefarious ends) – is either explored as a thematic distraction echoing Deepwater Horizon or an interesting tangent before normalcy is restored. Suebsaeng argues that, when Stark essentially leaves capitalism at the end of Iron Man 3, he’s leaving ideology (and libertarianism) altogether.
But isn’t this the ultimate capitalist dream – to rest on one’s laurels after succeeding at the game? Maybe disillusionment is left behind, but since Tony’s core politics were never up for debate, they walk off without a scratch. In other words, I can think of no better illustration of creative destruction than Tony Stark driving away from a ruined Malibu mansion in a shiny sports car.