Superhero Summer has officially begun with lots of booms, and, if Iron Man is any indication, it looks like it’s going to be a better season than 2007’s Summer of the Three-quels. Iron Man is a wryly funny entry into the superhero genre that manages to raise moral questions without being pretentious about them.
To me, Superman is an overgrown blue Boy Scout; give me a darker, more complex guy (or gal) to save the world. Batman fits the bill, but Iron Man, a.k.a. mogul and weapons engineer Tony Stark, is about as morally questionable as they get. A sequence near the beginning of the movie establishes his irresponsibility, his endless series of one-night stands, his affinity for alcohol, and his flippancy about the uses to which his missiles and guns are put. Watching this, we know to expect a change in him—a change ironically brought about when, in Afghanistan, he’s almost killed by one of his own weapons and subsequently captured.
His fellow captive, a doctor, saves Stark’s life with a magnet that keeps the shrapnel embedded in his chest from reaching his heart. This is about the only technology in the movie that receives any convincing explanation, but that’s okay. “Arc reactor”—the technology that powers Stark’s upgrade on the doctor’s magnet, as well as eventually powering his clanky super-suit—is one of those phrases like “sonic screwdriver” that you just need to learn to accept if you’re going to emerge from this sci-fi film without a headache.
Stark’s captors are a renegade group in Afghanistan (as opposed to Vietnam in the original comics) whose position in geopolitical conflict is about as vague and complicated as that of real renegade Afghan groups. Somehow, however, they’ve gained access to a pile of Stark weapons—and they want Stark to build them a copy of his biggest, most destructive missile yet.
It’s not entirely clear why Stark refuses (or more accurately, refuses, and then, after torture, pretends to agree while secretly building a big metal suit instead of the missile), given that it’s not exactly a new idea to him that his technology is used for evil purposes. Is it that he’s just seen fellow Americans killed by his own weapons? That he himself was almost killed by them? Is his natural contrariness merely urging him to take what looks like a principled stand? This is one moment that could have used a little more clarity, but I think the writers have deliberately chosen not to bludgeon viewers over the head with Stark’s moral transformation.
One of the best things about Iron Man is how believable Stark’s transformation is—believable in part because of its incompleteness. After his return to the U.S., he retains many of the same character traits—impetuousness, a tendency towards obsession, and a bit of selfishness—that defined him before his capture. The difference is that he’s now trying to put those character traits to the service of good ends. It makes sense that, given how new he is to this whole “noble purpose” thing, he would make lapses in judgment along the way. Though he declares that his company will no longer manufacture weapons, he’s still uneasy with the knowledge that terrorists and other bad guys still have his weapons. So what does he do? He builds a new, improved metal suit to allow him to singlehandedly destroy the weapons. How typically American.
My thought at this point was “Dude, that suit is a weapon. Do you want that to fall into the wrong hands?” Fortunately, the writers seem to have had the same obvious thought, and it propels the latter half of the movie. And, yep, the inevitable comparison to atom bomb technology occurs.
Movies often seem to follow synchronous tracks to me, picking up on themes perhaps reflecting the larger cultural zeitgeist. For example, Serenity and Batman Begins, released within a few months of each other in 2005, both dealt with misguided attempts to eradicate human sinfulness. Oddly, I’m now seeing a common theme between Expelled and Iron Man: the realization that ideas (whether scientific or more philosophical) are not morally neutral. Unlike Expelled, Iron Man seems to at least nod to the complexity of how an idea – say the invention of that mysterious “arc reactor” – can lead to human suffering or death. It helps that Iron Man has a villain who, in a tighter connection than Expelled’s attempted Darwin-Hitler chain, uses Stark’s good technology for bad ends. But I think there’s the lingering feeling, too, that Stark isn’t completely devoid of responsibility for how his ideas are used. The movie doesn’t attempt to solve the conundrum (thank goodness!), but it does at least make us think about it.
Much of the credit for the thought-provoking nature of Iron Man probably goes to Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance as Stark. Of course, the audience’s knowledge of Downey’s troubled past and his road to recovery may cause us to read more nuances into the redemption theme. Ultimately, under all the smooth, red-and-gold metal, Iron Man is the tale of a guy who’s just started to learn what’s right and still struggles to put it into practice.
Biblical allusion tracker! In an early scene, Tony Stark accepts a business award in Las Vegas, only to hand it to a guy costumed in a toga, tossing off the line “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” I laughed. It’s an interesting choice of reference, though, given that Christians weigh this passage (Matthew 22:21) when trying to decide their moral responsibility with regard to the government’s actions. Then again, maybe I’m thinking about it too hard.