Iron Man (2008)
Now that it’s nearly 2010– a decade after 2000, a year I once contemplated with awe in Ms. Conyers’ Language Arts class because I would be as old as Sting– it’s time to screen all those films I missed almost 2 years ago. The oughts (00’s) were a crap decade. Expectations those of us of a certain age had quietly nursed have been cast to the side of road like the shuck of a blown tire and we now face a deeper, more insidious version of what Hunter S. Thompson memorably tagged “the New Dumb.” The spine of American-style capitalist democracy finally buckled and snapped with the 2000 election (a judicial coup which has been carefully rehabilitated as a minor glitch in the system long since redeemed by the following two rounds of voting); the millenarian contortions of the post-conservative right resulted in millions of dead, maimed, orphaned, widowed and displaced people; and neoliberalism– its policies responsible for the greatest economic cataclysm since Black Tuesday– seems to have retained a patina of credibility among those Americans who can’t be bothered to be minimally informed about current events.
Here in Babylon, where we speak only in declarative sentences and the rentier class rules with a demented arrogance usually reserved for Roman proconsuls sotted on lead-rich wine, it is a time for studious reflection– or, barring that, the season for catching up with pop cinema. Last week I screened Iron Man (2008) directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey, Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges, among others. Howard plays an army colonel with an expansive portfolio including rather vague intelligence duties, a key role in military-industrial R & D, and public-affairs work. His friend, Tony Stark (Downey), a character who puts the 13 in PG-13– narcissistic, surrounded by cool toys, always primed with a wisecrack– has developed a new weapons system called Jericho (as in “Joshua fought the battle of”) which for no explicable reason he has gone to Afghanistan to demonstrate. This event provides the pretext for a condensed narrative on American military intervention in the form of a glib bromide any College Republican would be proud to dispense:
They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it… and it’s worked out pretty well so far.
At this point in the film it is not clear that Favreau has any sort of satirical intent, an ambiguity which never quite dwindles. Instead, barring a conversion experience that leads Stark to question his involvement in the production of WMD, the film’s protagonist remains shallow and smug. With the exception of Obadiah Stane (Bridges)– a creepy weapons contractor and Stark’s business partner whose bald dome strikes a visual rhyme with Raza, the film’s central villain of color– the predicates of “military humanism” (i.e., altruism in the service of global hegemony) remain intact. Marvel at Stark in his gold and candy-apple red suit, defending hapless Afghan peasants from the depredations of Taliban/Al Qaeda thugs! Wince as that personification of military-industrial greed, Obadiah Stane, slams Stark to the ground while they battle to determine the fate of the world!
The original version of Iron Man, as he appeared as a comic book hero in 1963, confronted wily communist agents in the jungles of Vietnam. The anti-communist origins of the character continue to influence Favreau’s contemporary rendering, albeit in distorted form. The modest, liberalish critique of militarism expressed here is paved over by an unexamined, perhaps even unconscious, complicity with the most disruptive and destructive effects of the US’s enduring love affair with itself, American exceptionalism. But perhaps the most noxious moment in the film is when Stark returns to the States after 3 months imprisoned in a cave and informs his attractive but sexually benign assistant, Pepper Potts (Paltrow) that he wants “an American cheeseburger.” Cut to Stark munching a carefully groomed disk of antibiotic-laced beef and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil with the Burger King logo prominently displayed. It’s tempting to locate the center of the film in this scene– Downey, Jr. demonstrating his thespian chops by consuming the culinary and nutritional equivalent of crack cocaine with apparent relish, the audience recognizing on a sub-verbal level that they too are eating this cheeseburger, gag reflex paralyzed, uncertain whether once it goes down it’ll come right back up– but that would misconstrue a cheap truth for critical insight. Suffice to say that part of Iron Man’s charm– as with much pop product, for better and worse– is its garish disregard for anything other than itself. And like a Burger King cheeseburger this film has been painstakingly engineered for consumption.