May 7, 2008



YY 1/2


An arms dealer as a superhero? A unique, but ultimately disappointing concept. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) "has it all": he's a suave, good-looking, womanizing, mega-wealthy technical genius, making the world a better place by supplying the good guys (USA) with the best weaponry available against the bad guys (the Taliban). While in Afghanistan demonstrating and selling his latest super-missile to our troops, he personally experiences the devastation of modern warfare, specifically his own technology (the explosive that almost killed him was labeled "Stark Industries"). We would think that the "merchant of death"--who just seconds ago was flipping out one-liners like: "I love peace. I'd be out of a job with peace," and now has a glowing cylinder where his heart used to be--will have some kind of conversion. Not. Actually, Tony has no real transformation throughout the tale. (But maybe superheroes don't always have character arcs--maybe sometimes they're just good and well-intentioned from the get-go?) Tony only has a realization that his armaments are winding up in the hands of the enemy. He wants the system that he's a part of to be more "accountable" (as if arms dealers can actually keep track and control where their goods go). 

Three cheers for South Africa who recently turned away a Chinese ship with armaments destined for Zimbabwe. Kind of a no-brainer: hard to have a war without weapons. I found this entry in my venerable father's diary (April 1935)--wonder what ever happened to the bill!


"The U.S. Senate voted to keep us out of the World Court. A wise decision I believe. Let Europe fight their own battles, and let them pay us what they owe us for the last war. There is a bill pending now to take the profit out of war by making munitions manufacturers sell their products to the government in war-time without profit. This is a good bill. War, to my mind, is wholesale murder, national insanity and proof that we are not yet civilized. Governments give it romance, color, with bands playing, uniforms, big humanitarian slogans (which are all baloney), and make us patriotic by propaganda. The real true experience of the people, however, results in suffering, death, destruction, licentiousness, a breaking down of the social order and setting us back in all our activities that takes lifetimes to rebuild if at all."


Tony Stark sets to work developing an even better weapon in the form of a "Transformers"-like exoskeleton suit that enables the wearer (the soldier of the future) to fly and blast death-dealing streams of fire out the arms. Tony dons the red and gold armor-of-the-future and becomes "Iron Man."


Robert Downey, Jr., with his Al Pacino New York attitude and expressive, huge brown eyes, fits the part of Stark like a hand in a titanium alloy glove. The dialogue is rapid-fire, the special effects pop, the soundtrack pumps, the jokes are clever, but the tone is: war as merriment. War is inevitable--let's make lemonade.


To me, the movie had the flavor of war-porn for the masses. A now-familiar image of a fresh-faced, barely-out-of-his-teens soldier being blown up in a roadside ambush is sandwiched between Stark's last joke at the expense of peace and almost-torture scenes. I wonder what our Iraq/Afghanistan war vets think of a movie like "Iron Man"? I'm sure many would be unnerved by the realistic scenes and thundering gun battles. I wonder if they think war is this much "fun."


Tony Stark makes it clear that peace is not only "carrying a bigger stick," but USING that stick (so much for deterrence). If you were an arms dealer, wouldn't you agree?


In spite of himself, Tony hits the nail on the head when he quotes Jesus: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's." (The rest of the quote is: "And give to God what is God's.") He uses it in a not-really-related-to-anything context, but it is the crux of the issue. Both pro-war and anti-war advocates use this quote. Pro-war advocates say: "See? You have to give to Caesar your military service." Anti-war advocates say: "See? My relationship with my neighbor (and my enemy) does not belong to Caesar, but to God." Jesus, of course, was not talking about military service but taxes. He had been asked if people (the Jews in the Roman-occupied Holy Land) should pay taxes to Caesar. And Jesus says this: "Whose image is on the coin?" They answer: "Caesar's." Then he said: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's." So, the question is: whose image is man made in? If in God's, dare I take it upon myself to blow up the image of God, even if Caesar says so?


The women in "Iron Man" consist of a bright, muckraking journalist, who, nevertheless, cannot resist jumping into bed with Tony at their first meeting (we see her again briefly at the end), and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Tony's ever-faithful and capable, but inexplicably quick-witted-one-minute-ditzy-the-next-minute assistant.


Twice, a better use for all the money, time, technology and energy spent on weapons was almost guiltily suggested in the film. They both involved babies: making baby hospitals and baby bottles. I'd like to say, um, why not, Mr. Stark? Why can't healthcare be "inevitable"? Lest I be accused of conversing with a Marvel Comics character Murphy Brown/Dan Quayle style, it's just so scary, knowing us Americans (and young Americans) are watching this. We Americans who are so good at blending reality and fantasy in reality, and oversimplifying what cannot be even simplified. No one makes the case for nonviolence in "Iron Man." It's just good violence against bad violence. As a 60's folk song asked: "When will they every learn?" I guess peace just doesn't sell.


A rather random, but not unAmerican, scene has "Iron Man" flying from Malibu to a little Afghan town to blow up some ammo and save a family. Then back to Malibu.


In "Iron Man" on the screen and on "Iron Man" behind the scenes, the U.S. military collaborates (stay for the credits). As I watched a civilian (Tony Stark) in Afghanistan, it reminded me, eerily, of Blackwater Security in Iraq and other less visible players who are "running the world."


The larger issues are never framed. What does the USA want? What does the Taliban want (and why are they being so cruel to the Afghan villagers?) What are we fighting for here? I guess we're just supposed to know from reality.


The parts I fear most men will like: the swaggering, the bimbos, the invincibility, the destruction, the explosions, the gadgets, the projectiles, the superhuman powers, war. The parts I liked: the hard rock, the moral discourse, the jokes, the fast car and the good acting.


With social unrest and rioting over food prices and shortages, what we really need right now is a superhero who can fight world hunger.



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