Marvel Studio’s Iron Man: The Military Versus Its Industrial Complex
The thing that immediately jumps out is how different this film is from other Marvel movies.
The prologue has Tony and a Hummer full of U.S. troops driving through Afghanistan. Scored to ACDC.
The troops are noticeably nervous to be escorting this billionaire badass, so Tony breaks the tension by taking cracks at the driver, dishing about the models he’s banged and taking photos (no gang signs).
Then a hummer in the convoy explodes. The gunfight ensues, and Tony is knocked on his ass by a shell. He has just enough time to read the Stark banner on its side before it explodes.
He passes out, bleeding from his wounds, and the next scene is a bag being lifted from his head as he sits in front of a camera while a group of men, positioned in front of a banner, armed and clad in the garb of militant Afghani fighters, read his ransom note.
And then the credits roll.
And I find myself thinking… this is a fucking comic book movie?
The tone of this film seems far removed from where the franchise ended up.
And I gotta say, I really dig it.
We cut to an award ceremony that Tony isn’t present for because he’s gambling in Caesars Palace. On his way out the door, he’s approached by a reporter who wants a few quotes for a magazine.
Happy gives him the heads up that she’s cute (beauty move) and Tony turns to indulge her with a few quips.
The most significant;
“Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy”.
They have a quick back and forth about the morality of supporting philanthropy through military funding.
We then smash cut to her and Tony making out on a bed before she wakes up and starts snooping around his kick ass Malibu mansion in his shirt from the night before.
And this where we get introduced to Pepper Potts.
Pepper is lowkey a fabulous character. We discover her wit when the reporter tries takes a run at her, maybe a little miffed at being so stylishly kicked to the curb.
Unfased, Pepper’s retort sets us up for a woman who can go toe to toe with the infamous Tony Stark.
Surprise, surprise there’s chemistry.
James Bond + Moneypenny anybody?
Only Tony’s going to be wise enough to wife her up.
And Pepper is no secretary.
She shows her savvy during the hacking scene at Stark Industries.
Her presence, at this point in the film, has been the love interest and moral compass for Tony. A foil for his shittier aspects, showing us his more tender, genial side. The soft underbelly beneath the armour.
Now she plays a dynamic role in the script. Her theft of the classified documents from Stark Industries data base, a feat accomplished with the watchful villain standing right there in the office, demonstrates Peppers more than we had given her credit for.
The look of dismay on Obadiah’s face when he realizes she’s stolen the key to his whole plot from right under his nose is telling of her ability. This isn’t a guy who’s lost the upper hand at any other point in the film. He’s always one step ahead of the game.
Until he underestimates Ms. Potts.
So Tony races Hogan, his driver, to the airport, because their boys, and Rhodes gives him shit for being 3 hours late.
Rhodey’s role is that of military liaison to Stark Industries. That extends beyond the literal. He’s the personification of the military. Ready for a fight, or to lend a hand, loyal to Tony but chastising him and trying to keep him inbounds and on the straight and narrow (good luck).
He’s the guy Tony relies on to do good. To pick up the slack when Tony screws up (and he always does).
On board, Tony turns the sober atmosphere into a booze cruise, complete with airline attendants shimmying around stripper poles.
They meet up with some U.S. military personnel and Tony makes a pitch to the U.S. generals to buy his company’s new missile.
It begins with a question;
“Is it better to be feared, or respected?”
This is exactly the question that bothered Niccolo Machiavelli. His book ,The Prince, focused on rulers maintaining power through fear, love and respect.
Later in the film, the leader of the 10 Rings organization will tell Obadiah,
“You paid us trinkets to kill a prince”
Machiavelli concluded rulers don’t need love at all, and that it was better to be both feared and respected, but if you had to choose one or the other…
Well he was a master of political subterfuge and backstabbing, you can imagine which one he picked.
Tony picks both. Classic.
Back at the demonstation, Tony waits until the missile explodes on the hillside before announcing its name;
A name with plenty of biblical implications. One of the more notable ones, from The Gospel of Mark, tells of Jesus visiting the town of Jericho and curing the blind.
Another tells of Joshua leading the Israelites into battle against the city and destroying the walls with the Arc of the Covenant.
The new missile proves it’ll bring the walls a tumbling down. They open up the bar and hit the road.
We cut to Tony as he’s having the shrapnell removed from his chest by a prisoner in an Afghani cave. He wakes up in a cold sweat, finding his wounds mended and a car battery strapped to his chest.
Before we can get the details, a group of armed men enter the room and begin speaking.
Not in English. Without subtitles. No plot convenient terrorists here. These guys are strictly legit.
It’s a small detail that pays huge dividends when fleshing out your characters.
Don’t believe me?
Just ask Daenerys.
Language is often used as a representation of power.
When it is revealed that Obadiah is the real villain and mastermind of the attack on Tony, he demonstrates this swing in power by speaking in one of the 10 Rings leaders’ native languages.
When Yensin, Tony’s fellow prisoner and voluntold assistant, describes how the 10 Rings speak a bevy of languages, it is both realistic, showing the writers did their research, and good writing. It gives the villains a new dynamic.
These are a hodgepodge group of soldiers from many nations. They are also intelligent enough to operate as effectively as they do, aided by their multilingualism.
According to Yensin, these men speak Arabic, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, Mongolian, Farsi and Russian.
When representing Middle Eastern soldiers in film, there are often examples of depicting these men as savage, crude and primitive. Examples of what academics call “Othering”.
Leave it to a Marvel movie to strive for a semi-accurate portrayal of a military group operating in the Afghani desert.
When Tony wakes up in the cave he is totally reliant on Yensin to understand.
This lends to Tony’s feeling of captivity. His lack of control. He has no power because he can’t understand what is going on.
Yensin explains that these guys want Tony to build them a Jericho missile of their own.
Tony refuses. And is tortured. In a water bucket.
So Tony breaks, and they give him the deal. He makes the missile, they let him go.
But they won’t, and everybody knows it.
Tony gets to work.
And we get our first suit up.
One of the things I liked about the film was the patience they were willing to demonstrate with the development of Tony’s character.
The first interpretation of the Iron Man armour looks more like the Iron Giant in Ken Dryden’s hockey mask.
More emphasis is placed on the test flights, the assembling of the tools and even the materials than the suit itself.
He dissembles a missile in an Afghani cave the way you or I might dissemble a shop vac. Up until this scene, all we’ve seen from Tony is the billionaire, playboy. With his hands on his own product, we see a man who can walk the walk.
The suits gadgets and gizmos take a necessary backseat to the genius Tony demonstrates in constructing it. That construction runs parallel to Tony’s personal progression.
It makes the emotional payoff of seeing the finished product of the Iron Man armour in flight, fighting bad guys and looking good doing it, that much more significant.
We’ve undergone the journey from scrap metal in a cave, to 3-D holograms, sentient AI and advanced robotics factories, sculpting material from leftover satellites.
We started with a guilty pleasure driven narcissist, set in his conviction that he is doing the right thing, or rationalizing it with admirable charm, to a flawed man of purpose.
Tony’s press conference post release from captivity, Burger King in hand (score 1 for seemless product placement), has a moment where he announces
“I had my eyes openned”(Blindness cured?).
“I saw young Americans killed with the very weapons I had built to protect them”, he says.
This film walks a fine line.
At once, glorifying the U.S. military while indicting its industrial complex.
An awfully nuanced theme for a film to tangle with. Let alone one based on a comic book.
Tony returns a different man, but not necessarily a better one.
Not a hero.
It would be one thing to have Tony come back from captivity and have him set straight on the right path, his mind’s eye clear from the experience, and be unwavering in his pursuit of justice and what is right.
Instead, we see a man come to grips with the destiny he has manifested for himself. He has to navigate the demons he has made in his previous life, not just sweep them under the rug or repulsor blast them off the earth in a revenge tour.
Watching Tony wrestle with the company that bears his family name, chafe against the true nature of its intentions, and suffer the same pitfalls that plagued him before the cave, like his hubris and rashness, and propensity to be an all-out drunken, degenerate douche bag, make his story far more compelling.
In appearance, he leads a similar life to the one he left behind. Only this time, the conclusions he draws from his experiences are completely different.
Instead of believing in the power of the big stick and the might = right mentality, he gains an appreciation for the people who’ve stood by him, the ones he loves and sees how he’s been detrimental to them.
It’s a complicated character arc that bears fruit in this story and sets the table for his motivations and psychology moving forward into the subsequent films.
He remains a billionaire, playboy, genius, philanthropist. Protective, guilty and slightly haunted, until his final breath.
Always trying to atone for his past sins. Never feeling truly comfortable with the state of the world, determined to play his part in fixing it.
Partly because he fucked it up, and because the people he loves live in it.
But all that would be for nought if it wasn’t for the symbolism attached to it.
Tony’s final suit is powered by the arc reactor he built in the cave. Forged with Yensin, the Afghani doctor to whom, while dying, he promised not to waste his life.
It is with that arc, that heart, the one Pepper had inscribed and preserved to prove its existence, that Tony goes to do battle with Obadiah.
The journey to this point is no smooth cruise.
You see, when Tony gets home he has Pepper help him replace his arc reactor. This one is brand spanking new and can power more cool toys.
But what’s really important is the meaning behind the act.
He literally has a change of heart.
The fact that Pepper is the one to help him do it just makes it all the more meaningful.
She is literally holding his heart in his hands.
When she asks him what he wants her to do with his old heart (arc), he tells her to destroy it, telling her that he’s not the nostalgic type.
Only, after he is betrayed by Obadiah, Tony saves himself by plugging in that same arc (heart) he’d discarded.
For an industrialist who designs weapons, robots and other tech, emotions aren’t part of the game. He’s a material man in a material world.
And doing great in it.
That is, he was, until his time in the cave spent with Yensin. There Tony asked Yensin if he had a family.
When Yensin returned the question, Tony said no.
“So you are a man who has everything, and a man with nothing”
No sharp comeback from Tony. No classic retort. Only a wry grin to show Yensin and us that he was right.
It is with that heart, the heart of a new man, the heart literally engraved by the woman he loves, that Tony powers his suit and goes to confront Obadiah.
There Tony faces the last of his demons. The monster he made upon his return.
The heart (arc) powering Obadiah’s suit (The Iron Monger) is the heart that Tony took on his revenge tour of his companies’ weapons. A product of the double-dealing Stark Industries and Obadiah made behind his back. The 10 Rings then used these arms to attack Yensin’s former home.
The Iron Monger suit itself is a grotesque, lumbering beast of a machine. Obadiah tells Tony after he leaves him paralyzed and dying on his couch,
“It’s not as… conservative as yours”
The suit is the representation of the military industrial complex that Obadiah personifies throughout the film. From the get go, it is made clear to us that this is an arms dealer.
He’s got all the telltale characteristics; the ostentatious suits and interior design, the enormous cigar, the domineering manner. In every interaction he is constantly in command, encroaching on everyone’s personal space, dictating power through his speech, posture and physical contact (a la Tywin Lannister).
Shocked in the aftermath of Tony’s press conference, upon his return from captivity, when he announces to the world that he plans to shut down the weapons department of Stark Industries, Obadiah responds to Tony with,
“We’re iron mongers Tony. Weapons manufacturing is what we do”.
And it was true. The suit Tony built on his return, the life he’d lead in search of his redemption for his past transgressions, the arc that powered it, were built with the same desire Obadiah has;
To make the most powerful weapon.
With his new suit, Tony thought he had made the key to his salvation, only to discover he had failed once more.
In a slam dunk representation of betrayal, Obadiah reaches across the couch and rips the arc out of Tony’s chest.
It is with this heart, the one mistakenly born out of a desire for power and revenge, that Obadiah powers his Iron Monger suit.
It took Obadiah’s betrayal, his appropriation of his arc and former suit, for Tony to realize that he hadn’t made the key to his salvation.
All he’d built was a bigger stick.
So with his heart once again in the right place, Tony goes forth to do battle with his surrogate father. Both wielding their latest toys. Both powered by a cause.
One, motivated to be the biggest swinging dick on the block.
The other, driven by a desire to undo past wrongs.
The Hero Emerges
Tony’s decision to sacrifice his own life to defeat Obadiah and spare the world of his mistake is what cements his status as a fully-fledged hero.
He completes the task that he set out to accomplish when he flew out of that cave.
He defeated his demons, made right by his promise, and fixed his mistakes.
No longer an Iron Monger.
An Iron Man.
Que the music.
In what must go down as his greatest cameo in a superhero movie, Stan Lee is mistaken as Hugh Hefner.
As you were.