Monday, 5 January 2009
Part way through Iron Man (this spring’s biggest hit), Obadiah Stane reminds Tony Stark that Stark Industries built its innovative energy device, called the “Arc Reactor”, to “appease the hippies” (i.e. it is an instrument of peace designed by a company which specializes in designing and manufacturing the world’s most advanced and deadly weapons). The fact that the Arc Reactor itself becomes an instrument of death in Iron Man is therefore “pretty ironic, man”. But even more ironic is how the filmmakers fill their film with irony and yet don’t seem to realize it themselves.
Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau, is full of clever writing and wry humour, with many wonderful lines superbly delivered by its two central actors, Robert Downey Jr. (who plays Tony Stark to perfection) and Jeff Bridges (great as the “baddie”, Obadiah Stane). Some examples will show how these lines challenge us to think critically about the weapons industry.
Before his “conversion” experience in a cave in Afghanistan, Tony Stark is naively casual about his role as a weapons designer, saying things like: “My old man had a philosophy: Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy,” to which a journalist responds, " A lot of people would call that war-profiteering.” Stark’s answer: “I guarantee you the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I'll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals.”
This is good stuff, and it continues when Stark returns from captivity in Afghanistan as a new man: “I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability… so, effective immediately, I am shutting down our weapons program”. Wow! And when Stane reacts to this news with comments like: “Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you?” we can surely be forgiven for thinking that we are watching a film that is using irony to condemn the American weapons industry and the whole military-industrial complex. Unfortunately, such thinking would be premature.
For no sooner has Stark stated that he is shutting down his weapons program when he begins work on Iron Man, the ultimate weapon. Again, there are hints to suggest the film’s writers see the irony here. When Stark’s assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), sees the “iron” suit, she challenges Stark, saying: “I thought you said you were done making weapons”. He responds: “This is a flight stabilizer. It's completely harmless.” A funny scene follows, showing how untrue this statement is, but the fact remains that the Iron Man suit is full of weapons, as recognized by Stane later in the film, when he tells Stark: “Isn’t it ironic that you who wanted to destroy weapons have built the world’s deadliest weapon?” Indeed, it is very ironic. And all the lines quoted above suggest the writers are aware of the irony. But to say the film itself sustains little of this irony would be an understatement.
Quoting my daughter: “On the surface, Iron Man seems to be the tale of a man who discovers the error of his ways, repents and starts on a journey of redemption.” But Stark’s journey is short-circuited by inconsistent writing (I understand there were two sets of writers), which prevents him from seeing the irony of his own deadly use of weapons. The audience, likewise, is expected to applaud Stark’s use of redemptive violence. And a film that begins by challenging the weapons industry is left suggesting that weapons are okay in the right hands; the problem only arises when you sell them to the wrong people (guns don’t kill people; people kill people). Not only will Iron Man not cause anyone at the Pentagon to lose sleep, by the end we are wondering whether Iron Man will soon be working for the Pentagon.
Contrast this film with the brilliant The Iron Giant (animated film from 1999). The costume, powers and weaponry of the “iron man” are almost identical, but The Iron Giant really does challenge the military-industrial complex (along with the myth of redemptive violence), and it does so consistently. If only Iron Man, which is otherwise a well-made, well-acted, funny and enjoyable superhero film, hadn’t allowed the final irony to be that the most ironic film of the year was not ironic enough.
Because I enjoyed the film and especially the lines quoted above and the acting of Downey, Jr. and Bridges, I gave this film a very lukewarm ***+, but I was probably feeling too generous. My mug is up, but the stuff inside could taste a whole lot better.