Iron Man Versus the Imperialists

For any fan of the Iron Man comic books, Jon Favreau's new movie adaptation isn't just good, it's glorious. Robert Downey Jr. delivers an emotionally raw, ironic, and compelling portrait of brilliant billionaire defense mogul Tony Stark -- so compelling, in fact, that it's hard to believe the character has spent the last 45 years in a four-color world running around in a suit of armor battling villains named Thanos, Kang, and Zoga the Unthinkable.

Even more amazing is Favreau's refusal to lift Iron Man out of the context of America's current endless wars. Within the first five minutes, an IED disables a Humvee carrying Stark through Afghanistan's Kunar Province, setting off a series of events whereby a jihadist gang with dreams of overrunning Asia kidnaps our hero and forces him to use his weaponry against the innocent. That's a reasonable update to Iron Man's origin myth, and on the screen it works fantastically well.

But what's missing in the movie is what has sustained the character for most of its history. Iron Man is a scathing critique of American imperialism.

Not that the comic started off with such a subversive point of view. When Iron Man debuted in 1963, the Marvel hero was designed as a Cold War allegory -- the all-powerful manifestation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "arsenal of democracy." (A phrase that that appears in the movie.) Of course, in 1963, that meant that Iron Man's adventures were indicative of the Cold War mentality. The second page of the first Iron Man comic book features Stark showing off a new invention to a bewildered general as he beams, "Now do you believe that the transistors I've invented are capable of solving your problem in Vietnam?" Indeed, in the comic, Iron Man comes into being after Stark is taken captive during a trip through South Vietnam by a Chinese Communist warlord named Wong-Chu. Stark invents the Iron Man armor in order to "defeat this grinning, smirking, red terrorist!" Iron Man liberates a beleaguered South Vietnamese hamlet from the clutches of the Chinese ne'er-do-well and returns home, leaving his readers with the lesson that no foreign entanglement is too complex for the brilliant, benevolent, and armed-to-the-teeth American behemoth.

For years, Iron Man's lesson was just that simple: Stark's keen technological mind represented the secret of American vitality; Iron Man's contribution to the nation's defense was an obligation that his gifts bestowed. America, under this Cold War logic, is powerful because America is inquisitive because America is free because America is good. Doesn't America have the right to defend itself? And shouldn't America use its endowment to the benefit of mankind? If so, doesn't that mean that when Wong-Chu comes to take over a South Vietnamese village, America would be irresponsible not to vanquish him with a souped-up transistor? In that vein, Iron Man's adversaries were fiends like the Red Barbarian, a Soviet general and spymaster who lived up to his nickname by bludgeoning his doltish subordinates with a ham hock.

But before long, the lessons of Vietnam sunk in on the comics juggernaut. Perhaps the idea that all the United States had to do was build bigger gadgets of disaster to use on a complicated world was hopelessly flawed. Perhaps Iron Man was symptomatic of the rot. Perhaps, by holding up a mirror to U.S. policies, Iron Man could become a vehicle for cleansing the country of its Cold War hang-ups. Marvel set to work reworking the character and its themes.

A problem confronted the company, though. Iron Man is a superhero. Cold-War product or not, Marvel couldn't very well turn him into a villain. Writers in the 1970s and 1980s solved the problem in two creative ways. First, the comic adopted the New Left's structural critique of Vietnam -- the war was the inevitable product of a systemic belief in unrestricted capitalism, American exceptionalism, and racism -- by making Stark Industries an enemy of poor Tony Stark, who had unleashed malevolent forces he couldn't control. Thus Iron Man's nemesis became a black-mirror version of himself: the ruthless metal juggernaut (another metal-suit weapon) subtly named Iron Monger, controlled by rival defense-industry bloodsucker Obadiah Stane. More cleverly, Stark's best friend Jim Rhodes became a second Iron Man -- but one sent into a paranoid frenzy of destruction by the armor's inability to interface properly with his brain. Rhodes's secret identity? War Machine.

The second way Marvel subtly readjusted Iron Man for America's post-Vietnam sensibilities was to reveal that the reason Stark could control neither his company nor his relationships was that he couldn't control himself. Stark's booze-soaked, womanizing lifestyle was cleverly reinterpreted as rampant alcoholism and self-loathing. His drive to save the world was nothing more than a martyr complex born of a callow solipsism. It was a brilliant maneuver by the writers. Iron Man began to ask America: Would you trust such unfettered, unaccountable power to someone this messed up? The introduction of War Machine took the critique a step further, showing that the very act of donning the armor makes you messed up. Some exercises of power are too dangerous to be left in the hands of one man. The writers never turned Iron Man into a villain -- that would have been the easy way out. Instead they presented a fascinating character study, a compelling Cold War critique, a subtle plea for liberal internationalism, and a defense of a series of theses presented to the world in America's founding documents. It helps that Iron Man also blows stuff up.

Other recent updates to the Stark/Iron Man story have jettisoned the Cold War element but deepened the dynamic established in the 1970s. In Extremis, a reboot of the franchise during the current Bush era, Warren Ellis, one of the most talented comic-book writers currently working, has Stark unable to answer the question "What is the Iron Man armor for, Tony?" A left-wing filmmaker, dismissive of Stark's protestations that he's more than a weapons merchant, asks, "Do you think they have your painkilling drug pumps in Iraq? Do you think an Afghan kid with his arms blown off by a landmine is remotely impressed by an Iron Man suit?" Tony Stark is meant to be read as a tragic figure. He is one of the smartest men alive, yet he cannot think his way out of the traps his genius constructs for him. And so he blunders, again and again, into a hell of unintended consequences.

Nowhere is that allegory more explicit than in "Civil War," Marvel's 2006-2007 epic superhero-versus-superhero crossover series. (See Julian Sanchez's "The Revolt of The Comic Books," in the November issue of the Prospect.) Iron Man's zealous advocacy of registering superheroes with the government yields a violent crisis that kills the hero Goliath, Iron Man's guileless friend Happy Hogan, and, finally, Captain America. It also yields Stark unfathomable political power. But the story ends with Iron Man emotionally confessing to Captain America's dead body that -- since the terrible price of the war is now on display -- "it wasn't worth it." Iron Man, who represents an imperial America, can only win Pyrrhic victories.

Favreau's movie can't go that far. Structurally speaking, Iron Man needs to be developed as a character before he can be deconstructed and subverted, and that's a challenge too difficult for the first movie of the inevitable franchise. (Rhodes, brilliantly portrayed by Terrence Howard, all but promises a War Machine-heavy sequel by gazing longingly at a prototype Iron Man 3.0 armor and whispering, "Next time, baby.") It's also possible that, even after five agonizing years of the Iraq War, a summer blockbuster isn't prepared to say that not only is its action hero corrupt, he's corrupt because America has become corrupt.

The movie inches up to the comic-book critique, however. Obadiah Stane, the cigar-chomping villain played by Jeff Bridges, conspires to kill Stark and sell Stark Industries' weapons to terrorists. His solution to the unanticipated problem of Iron Man is, as in the comic books, to become Iron Monger (though the movie never uses that name). Similarly, when Stark sees that his company has made him little more than a playboy version of infamous black-market arms merchant Viktor Bout, his answer is to both get out of the weapons trade and to use Iron Man to right Stark Industries' wrongs. When asked by his personal assistant/love interest Pepper Potts why he's doing something that will most likely get him killed, Stark replies, plaintively but with conviction, "I finally know what I have to do, and I know in my heart that it's right."

Spoken like a true imperialist. Heroism, when applied to foreign policy, is a moral vanity that usually prescribes a cure more corrosive than the disease it confronts. It will always be good celluloid for Iron Man to incinerate terrorists who -- living out their own imperial perversions -- overrun villages full of innocents. But the real world does not contain magic suits that kill the bad guys without harming the civilians and let the good guy fly away without a scratch on him. In that world, the actual answer to the Iron Man complex is one of two things. America either needs to submit the Iron Man armor to a series of institutions to govern its just use, or it needs to take off the suit once and for all.

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