Iron Man (2008) ***

I have an inkling to watch all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and it makes sense to begin with Iron Man. There are many other Marvel Comics superhero movies that predate this one, and the MCU continued well after this, but Iron Man (then of Paramount, not Disney) marked the beginning of an era.

Trying to figure out when MCU movies began coming from Disney, with Rory’s help, was a bit more difficult than we expected, and that led me to the realization that a MCU project would be…daunting.

So for now, I’m just looking at Iron Man.

It’s telling that I’m logging this movie very late because I keep forgetting I watched it. It’s not even that it’s a bad or forgettable movie. Iron Man takes me back to a kind of post-9/11 jingoist America that was, for my young self, a very confusing haze of misinformation that felt *wrong* but I couldn’t say how. I haven’t really wanted to spend time thinking about it. I’m not sure that “triggering” would be the right word here when my reaction is not so severe, but I definitely felt myself cringing away from the memories it evoked.

Hollywood military movies are made in conjunction with the military itself, who will happily lend out equipment and whatnot in exchange for having some control over messaging. There’s a whole wikipedia article about the military-entertainment complex if you’re not familiar, and Iron Man is indeed on the list of examples:

Tony Stark’s character development is oriented around turning the sexy cool weapons dealer into a living weapon instead, which gives the veneer of being dissatisfied with the status quo without actually changing it.

I just rewatched Blue Beetle and it’s hard not to compare the two on this point: both of them are about a megacorporation tearing itself apart over a transition from weapons manufacturing to more general technology.

Many (most?) big developments in science throughout history have come about for military gain. Since colonizer civilizations are dominant world powers, they invest the most resources into ensuring they maintain their dominance. It’s not simply that a company can choose to stop doing war tech and pivot elsewhere; the empires’ billions are not available as readily for anything that doesn’t sustain their power. The companies don’t exist if they don’t exist for war, period; without the war machine, colonizer civilizations have no foundation. This is a greater existential threat to the setup of American society.

In Blue Beetle, we get the impression that changing society itself is favorable. Our heroes are all-in on building community, which is not one of the central values of contemporary America, where community formation is often stunted by paywalls.

Iron Man doesn’t feel nearly as aware of its positioning and comes across as vastly more naive. There was no appetite to subvert post-9/11 patriotism, and capes in comic books are patriotic American symbols, embodying some essential, exceptional Americanness.

Tony Stark seems to be primarily disturbed when his weapons hurt Americans and not their enemies. There’s a very real Us Versus Them attitude—a lingering bit of 90s post racial attitude where Tony and Rhodey can be from different backgrounds but bffs in killing people overseas.

This coldly, bitterly militaristic orientation is difficult to swallow, especially with all the post-9/11 imagery.

Aside from finding the story itself unpleasant, there is a lot about Iron Man to make it an entertaining watch.

The heart of the movie belongs to Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr. Talk about a PR dream for both Marvel and RDJ: The actor delivered a stellar performance earning him close association with the redemption of a billionaire bad boy turned hero. By absolving Tony Stark, culture absolved RDJ, whose time with Marvel revived his career. Stark and RDJ alike are so endearing. Charisma always ages well.

Also, Gwyneth Paltrow showed up to work and looked nice.

It’s a solid screenplay, no matter how much I dislike their choices of execution. There are a lot of clever moments. It does a great job pairing the witticism of Spider-Man with the wealth and (lack of) power from Batman, managing to feel subversive in its context while being about the military-industrial complex.

If the Marvel Cinematic Universe had continued at this level a while longer, I don’t think anyone would have minded.

Leave a Reply