(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit all 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” First up: Iron Man and the foundation of Marvel’s messy political outlook.)

At Comic Con 2006, Marvel Studios promised an unprecedented four-franchise shared continuity, set to cross over in The Avengers. Thirteen years later, we’re waiting (im)patiently for Iron Man to recover from his cosmic loss alongside Captain America, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and Black Panther, among others, as we head toward a 22-film culmination: Avengers: Endgame.

Not only have the aforementioned characters become mainstays of popular culture, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has long since become the highest grossing film franchise in history. It began with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man in 2008, a film that feels downright modest by modern blockbuster standards, but one that was tasked with crafting a political backdrop to launch heroes yet unseen.

As the foundation of a boundary-breaking, landscape-shifting series, Iron Man is worth lauding. Though, as one of many Hollywood films subsidized by the U.S. government, its relationship to military power is worth further scrutiny, as it impacts both the film’s political outlook, and its character-centric story.

A Stark Difference 

Marvel wouldn’t be where it is today without Iron Man. While secret identities were still a staple of the genre, the soon-to-be A-lister shattered the cookie-cutter big screen superhero by revealing his alter ego to the world, albeit to satiate his own ego. More pertinently, Marvel wouldn’t have gotten here without Robert Downey Jr.

In 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby sought to create an antithesis to the youth movements of the era, turning a capitalist, industrialist and weapons manufacturer into a lovable fixture of Marvel Comics. Forty-five years later, Tony Stark’s first film appearance was born through a similar creative stubbornness, as director Jon Favreau fought all opposition to get Downey Jr. into the classic red & gold.

An actor whose past drug problems were likely to prepare him for the role in the long run — though the character’s trademark alcoholism was eventually swapped out for P.T.S.D. — what made Downey Jr. the perfect Patient Zero for Marvel was his unique ability as a storyteller. Not only was much of his dialogue improvised on set, but Downey Jr. brought to the action genre an oft-overlooked talent: the ability to turn even rote exposition into development of character, be it with a look, a smirk, or by disguising insecurity behind sardonic quips.

In the film’s Afghanistan-set opening scene, Stark rides alongside American soldiers in their camouflage Humvee. His aura simultaneously attracts and alienates. He has the shine of a playboy billionaire, and a detached allure that arrived just in time for the social media boom and the ensuing age of irony. His humour is to-the-point, despite the emptiness it masks. From the get-go, long before he builds his rudimentary Mark I suit, his first layer of armour is the person he projects himself to be. He is untouchable, yet he commands gravity, attracting everyone in his orbit. However, he’s cut down to size by a real-world attack of his own making.

The military unit protecting Stark is bombed. Soldiers hired to accompany him are killed in action. Stark himself is kidnapped by Middle Eastern militants, and he becomes a victim of weapons bearing his own name. His key change as a character is catalyzed soon after thanks to a similarly captured scientist, Ho Yinsen (Shaun Toub). A humble physician from Gulmira, Yinsen is framed as Stark’s equal and opposite. He uses technology in a way Tony “The Merchant of Death” Stark isn’t usually known for, building a device to save Stark’s life.

Yinsen’s battery-powered magnet keeps shrapnel from reaching Stark’s heart. This effect mirrors Yinsen opening Stark’s eyes to the plight of war-torn regions, often at the hands of Stark Industries weapons, as if to ask:

What darkness lies in the heart of Tony Stark, and can it be exorcised?

Fantasy Hero, Political Reality 

Iron Man shifted Stark’s comic origin from ’60s Vietnam to modern Afghanistan, allowing for a more literal, more contemporary articulation of America’s military industrial complex. This approach was embodied not only by the film’s villains, but its hero.

Superhero movies had been picking up steam for nearly a decade, but Iron Man was the first to set its story against a recognizable geopolitical reality. Stark visits the Middle East to sell deadly weapons to the U.S. military, weapons he openly compares to the Manhattan Project, which his father worked on decades earlier. Charming as Stark is, his outlook here is detestable, and he’s forced to face up to it once he’s kidnapped, bearing witness to how and where his missiles are actually used.

“Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy,” Stark tells a reporter early on, who rightly responds: “That’s a great line, coming from the guy selling the sticks.” At the beginning of the series, Stark profits, albeit unwittingly, from selling to “both sides” of the wartime equation, something his villains (Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer and Aldrich Killian) are guilty of in every Iron Man film.

At its core, the first Iron Man is a tale of an American war profiteer having a change of heart, symbolized by the arc reactor in his chest, a glowing promise of untold possibility. It’s a hopeful idea on the surface, centered around a man who sees his weapons fall into the wrong hands and acts accordingly. He contends with his legacy by shutting down the weapons’ division of Stark Industries, before taking on the mantle of an armed vigilante. But herein lies the problem with Tony Stark.

While he works to get his weapons out of “the wrong hands,” be it the Ten Rings militants or the man behind the curtain, Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane (to say nothing of the U.S. military, to whom Stark has been more than happy to sell), there’s nothing delineating the wrong hands from the right ones. To Tony Stark, the egocentric futurist, the right hands remain his own.

The film’s final battle, fought between Iron Man and “bigger Iron Man” (the comics’ Iron Monger) is an attempt to contrast Stark’s newfound righteousness with the warmonger he once was. However, this climax still pits two titans of weapons technology, Stark and Stane, against each other for ideological control of weapons of mass destruction; their conflict plays out in the form of two weaponeers trying to out-weapon one another.

We know how Stane would use his legion of iron suits — the same way he uses all weapons, selling them under the table to profit from a never-ending war — but the film never positions Stark as an alternative, or as someone who might better the status quo. He employs distinctly U.S. military tactics like unsanctioned foreign intervention. He hands out extrajudicial murder like candy, and he puts civilians at further risk. In fact, Stark’s impetus for intervening at all is the mention of Yinsen’s hometown of Gulmira, making his mission one of reckless revenge, rather than an altruistic act. That this is never contextualized as anything but heroic leaves a sour taste, when one considers the destructive real-world implications of America’s presence in the region.

However, the conflation of super-heroism with real-world U.S. militarism might not be accidental. The film’s geopolitical backdrop — proxy wars, a destabilized Middle East, and America’s general military industrial complex — is framed only as a product of private capitalism and foreign militia, rather than U.S. government policy (let alone policy that Stark enables). In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, violence is something the U.S. military merely responds to, rather than something it causes. This is by design, though the details of this design weren’t made public until Pentagon documents were released under the Freedom of Information Act five years later, including a Department of Defense agreement that locked the film in to a military-approved script.

Which brings up a pertinent question: Is Iron Man military propaganda?

Continue Reading Road to Endgame >>

Pages: 1 2 3Next page

Cool Posts From Around the Web: