Iron Man (2008) was a movie so popular that Disney bought Marvel outright. I was 11 years old when this movie came out, and that 11 year old boy thought there was nothing cooler than Iron Man. This film’s fingerprints can be found on films that have been produced almost a decade after its release. It spawned more sequels than any movie in the history of filmmaking. Which is why I decided to choose it as my first film to analyze.
Iron Man as a “Hollywood film“
Robert Mckee writes in his book Story that there are essentially two types of films: the Hollywood film, and the art film. Iron Man is by all accounts a Hollywood film. It has the big budget, the broad appeal, and the happy ending. In a Hollywood film change is always good. This is because in American culture we have coded change to be universally a good thing. For example, think of a politician who does not run on change. It was practically Obama’s slogan, and Trump was called by many a “change agent”. Without a doubt Tony Stark is a bad guy in the beginning, and does indeed change. However, changing doesn’t automatically make Stark a good guy like the filmmakers intended. He simply went from being passively bad, to be actively bad. The weapons he profited from did the destruction in the beginning, and in the end he is doing the destruction himself. The Hollywood films goal is to make an audience feel good when they leave the theater. Hopefully good enough to purchase merchandise. An Iron Man film where Iron Man faces consequences for his actions would not be satisfying. The audience would not leave the theater wanting Iron Man toys if he was arrested at the end for breaking international law. Thus Iron Man’s actions within the film need to feel justified. The problem is that this creates a situation in which audiences are constantly being fed the idea that anything can be justified. Breaking the law is “justified” if it is for “good”. Donald Trump is able to justify an insurrection because he frames himself as fighting injustice. The injustice being, getting less votes than his opponent. In Iron Man’s case anything Tony Stark does can be justified because he is the hero. As Marshall Mcluhan would say “The Medium is the Message”. The Hollywood films’ message is what the protagonist is morally just.
How might a non-Hollywood filmmaker portray Tony Stark? They might portray him not as a hero to look up too, but as a conflicted man who thinks he is doing the right thing. Iron Man’s actions would not be glorified, and would be shot in a neutral manner. The camera might not move in exciting ways, leaving us with still shots that allow us to contemplate Stark’s decisions
The Authoritarian Imagery of Iron Man
There is nothing more important to the authoritarian strongman than projecting strength. with that in mind let’s begin our analysis with Iron Mans design. Look at the Iron Man mask pictured above. Does it look like the face of someone who is there to help? No, it is a rather intimidating expression. The only expression the mask can make is that of anger. Iron Man does not show up to resolve conflict through diplomacy; this is evident in his appearance. His iron suit is not green, nor is it blue, it is red the color most associated with aggression. Iron conjures up images of strength. Think of phrases like “rules with an iron fist” and “the iron curtain”. Whether it is grand displays like the military parades in Russia and North Korea, or personal projections of strength like the violent rhetoric of Donald Trump.
The cinematography on Tony Stark is done in a way so that we are always looking up at him. This signifies two things to the audience. One, that Stark is powerful. Two, that he is worthy of our admiration. In my viewings of the film I was only able to find two shots in which the camera was above Starks eyeline. The film uses these camera techniques to admire Tony’s “might makes right” ideology.
In the image above Tony Stark is doing a Christ pose. This visual is used to signify that Tony Stark is making a Christlike sacrifice. This however is a farce. It is just selfishness posing as selflessness. He becomes a hero out of vanity; he seeks to change the worlds perception of him. Donald Trump has made several claims of sacrifice over the years, such as when he talks about how being president has cost him a ton of money, or how Vladimir Putin is seen to have sacrificed a personal life to lead Russia. We are to believe that we should be honored to have them as leaders; instead of them being honored to be our leaders.
What are we to take away from this exchange? If Iron Man is the hero in this situation, then what does that say about the US military and the institutions that created it. Iron Man is efficient, effective, and expedient. If that is true, then by extension the US government is inefficient, ineffective and inexpedient. However, what the film fails to show is why a government would act in such a manner. The US government cannot just invade a country on a whim within hours. Invading a country is an act of War and requires many steps. There needs to be preparation to get the refugees out safely; which will take building supply lines and building refugee camps. Not to mention that the US military has strict rules for engagement. Iron Man does not even show up with a method to transport the refugees out of their country. Stark comes down with a big show of force, and kills these men. Of course that is all that is needed. He doesn’t even stay around to help the refugees. Perhaps a man with his wealth could have helped organize a safe passage out of their country; just as Herbert Hoover had during WW1. Tony Stark is undermining our institutions and the film frames his actions as righteous. Within the scene he even tells the military “sounds like some one stepped in and did your job for you”. Undermining people’s trust in institutions is how authoritarians consolidate power. Iron Man alone can solve the world’s problems. This scene exemplifies everything that is wrong about superheroes as a concept.
If our media portrays Iron Man as a hero, and by extension a leader, what does that say about us? Every conflict he solves, is solved with violence. He undermines our institutions. Iron Man presents complex problems in the world, but provides simple solutions; might makes right. This film glorifies authoritarian themes, and masquerades them as morals that we should live up to.