Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010): Futurism and the Ever-Expanding American Frontier

Iron Man (2008)

Iron Man PosterWritten by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway based on characters by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Leiber and Jack Kirby

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man 2 PosterWritten by Justin Theroux based on characters by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Leiber and Jack Kirby

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson

Having recently seen Thor on the big screen – and also having recently started to read some of Matt Fraction‘s run on Invincible Iron Man – I was keen to return to the Iron Man films, both to revisit Marvel’s initial set up for their Avengers film and also one of the most enjoyable comic book adaptations released in Iron Man.

Favreau‘s film functions as the obligatory introduction to the character for the audience who may not have been privy to his decades long history in the comic book medium and, as such, occupies itself with setting out its characters and relationships before delving into the sensational action of the film’s third act. Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark, billionaire industrialist, technological wunderkind, suave ladies’ man, with an ease and charm, despite his ostensible self-involvement and arrogance. Here, as in Thor, the film benefits greatly from perfect casting and Downey Jr. brings Stark to life in believable terms with his own effortless screen presence and wit.

Tony Stark is a Rolling StoneThe film begins in a sort of cold open, showing Tony being attacked in a military convoy before taking the audience back 36 hours to show how Tony lives previous to being perforated by shrapnel. This gesture allows Favreau to establish the film’s supporting characters while still gripping the audience from the very beginning of the film; the audience is shown Tony’s business partner and erstwhile father figure Obadiah Stane, played by Jeff Bridges, and his best friend Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Terrence Howard, and his indispensible personal assistant Pepper Pots, Gwyneth Paltrow. These three characters circle around Tony and regulate his irresponsible behaviour to a manageable level as he shirks showing up to receive an award and beds a reporter. The film works back to the moment Stark was attacked and the follows him during his time as a prisoner tasked with creating weapons for a terrorist organization known as The Ten Rings.

The film treads very carefully with its politics here. The group are all ostensibly of middle eastern descent but are motivated by power and money rather than any religious affiliation; Stark is given an assistant to aid in his work, another scientist from a nearby town that was laid to waste by the Ten Rings. The group also functions to explicate the moral dilemma faced by Stark, and, through him, the American industrial complex and ideology of progress. Creating technology, or weapons, to generate wealth alone without a sense of responsibility or culpability for where these items end up is problematic and the Ten Rings organization makes explicit the mercenary and immoral tendency of a capitalism whose bottom line is profit alone. Faced with the concrete manifestation of the negative aspects of his ideology, Stark crafts the first incarnation of his Iron Man suit to aid in his escape from captivity.

Suit Mark 1The suit has its genesis explicating the tensions inherent in the same American vision of individualism that is often taken for granted; Stark succeeds because of his personal merit, intelligence, and ability as an individual – a tacitly conservative, insofar as Stark comes from a very affluent background and is American and not an immigrant himself – embodiment of the American Dream that one can succeed and achieve their dreams in America based on who they are more than what class they may be from. The Iron Man suit is both born from and in response to the qualities that make him intrinsically American.

The suit is also essentially American in the manner is redefines and makes concrete the new horizons functioning as The Frontier for contemporary America. Following the end of expansion westward in American history, the American myth of the Frontier complicates itself, moves away from being a literal pushing of American boundaries and insinuates itself into other, more abstract ideas. The insatiable progressive movement of technological advancement becomes an inexhaustible territory for the American mind to plumb; Stark’s position as a technological innovator places him at a point of contact where the ever-expanding future gestures back toward a more conventional role of frontiersman.

Stark’s role of frontiersman is also reiterated in his engagement with combating the terrorism enabled by his own weapons technology. The spread of the American Way, ostensibly a Christian Democratic agenda, is parceled in with Stark’s attack on the Ten Rings; terrorism is set upon because it has acquired the physical products of American technological advances without having the implicit moral and decent intentions for its deployment. The liberation and enlightenment of other nations to the American way has become another front on which the horizon of the frontier expands. Having freed itself from the shackles of English monarchy into a democratic society, the US pushes its ideology, if not its boundaries, forward and out into the world; the frontier, again, becomes something more abstract and ideological rather than a concrete and geographical, empirical concept.

Explodey WalkHaving returned to more soundly defeat the terrorists and having refined his armour, the film then makes more explicit that the root of the problem Stark faces lies not in a xenophobic “other” – viz terrorists from other countries – but, rather, that it flows from the heart of the American ideology. It is revealed that Stane has been supplying the weapons to the terrorists and was behind the kidnapping of Stark in the first place; the greed inflected shadow side of the pursuit of technological innovation for capitalistic gains manifests itself in Stane’s opposition to Stark and his new-found sense of responsibility for the end use of his company’s technology. This opposition, of course, ends in the only manner that these things can end: an extended action sequence in which two men in robotic suits punch and shoot one another with lasers until only one is left standing. Certainly a truly American way of settling an issue.

The film concludes with Tony Stark at a press conference explaining the robotic fisticuffs at his facility. In a gesture that speaks to America’s obsession with the proliferation and democratization of celebrity, Stark announces at the end of the film that he is, in fact, the titular Iron Man. This moment functions as the transition  into the second film, Iron Man 2, which opens with the broadcast of this press conference in Russia, being watched by a tattooed and gold-toothed Ivan Vanko played by Mickey Rourke.

VankoThe second film repeats the pattern of the first in terms of its manifestation of villains, however appropriately scaled up in true sequel fashion. Again, the villain is an other, from Russia, and operating independently, but whose antagonism is predicated on the creation of the technology of the suit; paired with Sam Rockwell‘s Justin Hammer, Vanko seeks to defeat Tony for historical slights to his family and also, in Hammer’s case, for business advantage. Again, the film’s villains explicate complications inherent in the American capitalist and individualist history and culture. Stark’s rhetoric, as well, intensifies the language of his own participation in the American way of life. When called before a senate committee Stark states that he has “privatized world peace”, rejecting the idea that he is obligated to share the Iron Man technology with the government; the suit functions as private property, sovereign against government interest. The terms of Iron Man’s operation here become explicitly and radically in the realm of the free market and the private individual. That Stark finds himself pitted against a relic of soviet Russia when he has defined himself and his invention in these terms is not accidental.

In addition to the external conflicts against Hammer and Vanko, Stark faces an internal conflict wherein the element powering the device that keep him alive is also poisoning him. The negative aspects of Stark’s pushing of the technological boundaries are no longer merely external and worldly, but also something that he must internally overcome; the moral lesson learned by Stark and dealt with externally in the first film becomes literally and physically internalized. The solution, oddly enough, comes from a more radical form of innovation: Tony must create a new element that was theorized by his father and embedded in blueprints and maps of the famous Stark Expo.

Starkly IngenuitiveTheroux’s script contrasts the legacies – something Stark has been concerned with beginning with his moral awakening in the first film – of both Tony and Ivan’s fathers. Each man’s father was responsible for the creation of the arc reactor that powers the Iron Man suit (and Tony’s heart), however, where Tony’s father leave a legacy of creation and progress, Ivan’s father leaves a legacy of bitterness and entitlement, as fair, or not, as his accusation that Stark built his wealth on the back of others. In a larger context this accusation echoes the historical construction of America, built on the labour of slaves and on the back of a rejection English forms of government; the conflict between Stark and Vanko becomes acutely emblematic – if racially abstract – of the complexities arising from the construction of America.

Rhodey returns in the second film, having somehow acquired the face of Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard, and here he functions more actively as a sidekick and foil for Stark’s character than in the first film. When Stark’s dalliance with alcohol and irresponsible behaviour becomes too much Rhodey procures one of Tony’s extra suits and, following an explosive scuffle, brings it to be outfitted by the military, ironically at the hands of Justin Hammer.

Once Stark remedies the issue with his blood poisoning – aided, as mentioned by his father, through the agency of S.H.I.E.L.D. – the film drifts into a protracted series of action sequences as Tony and Rhodey face the Hammer drones enhanced and controlled by Vanko and then Vanko himself, outfitted in a new and improved costume. The stakes feel less dire than the first movie, despite this film’s much heavier focus on the battles, due to none of the action possessing anything resembling the strange paternal relationship that Stark possessed with Stane in the first film.

Iron Man DonutTony and Rhodey receive medals of honour from the government for their heroic actions in stopping Hammer and Vanko, ending the film on the note of the government subjugating itself before the efforts of the individual – or individuals working in concert. Again, Stark’s proclamation that he has “privatized world peace” rings true; a single man pushing the boundaries of the new frontiers farther and more truly succeeds on his own merits and indebts the government to him in the process.  The second film succeeds insofar as it intensifies the issues raised in the first film, but contributes little that is new to the proceedings. Tony Stark becomes the man of tomorrow, and, as such, necessarily a man of yesterday and a man of the moment, radically individual, a true son of America in all of its contradictory and complex ideologies.

3 Responses to “Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010): Futurism and the Ever-Expanding American Frontier”
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