We seem to have come full circle when it comes to the special effects-driven spectacle movies. The law of diminishing returns has been rearing its ugly head more and more (see Transformers 2), and now even during moments of maximum CGI, explosions, and booming subwoofers, you can’t help but chuckle at it all. Maybe some of us are just aloof and snooty, or maybe we’re simply recognizing the vacuum behind the spectacle, or, better, the fact that it’s all just a bunch of colorful light projected onto a screen with nothing but dust and air a half-inch behind it. (Since that’s all that’s happening in terms of physics, there’d better be more than that happening in terms of ideas.) Not all spectacles are so vacuous, of course. Even some of the comic book movies have taken pains to have a point to them, whether dark or redemptive or both. Other epic films in the vein of a Lean or a Kurosawa are richer and fuller than the “best” “intellectual” “art-house” “indie” stuff playing at your local café/theatre. There was a point (there were many points, actually) in the middle of Iron Man 2 when you realized that, for the movie to be remotely coherent, it had to end with the permanent dismantling of the Iron Man suit/weapon/prosthesis. Of course, that doesn’t have a chance of happening. The sheer ridiculousness of the climax has Iron Man, his new sidekick, and countless drones remotely operated by an evil Russian mastermind duking it out with guns firing and rockets blazing smack in the middle of an area with an insanely high concentration of civilians. The firepower going off, both friendly and enemy, is so excessive and aimless that even the context of a comic book movie can’t forgive the fantastic lack of a single person getting hit. For this film to have even the minutest resemblance to reality, it has to acknowledge the fact that violence is bad, Iron Man should only be used defensively, and there’s some kind of blurry line between Iron Man having the right to this weapon and no one else being allowed to use it. It does these things, and so achieves the bare minimum semblance of reality
So many of these famous comic book heroes were born out of ages quite different from our own; the translation into the contemporary situation is where things get problematic. Nearly every comic book character that is famous outside of the hardcore comic book world (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, etc.) was born during the 30s, 40s, or 60s. So that’s Depression, immediately post-Depression, and Cold War eras. Many of the earliest comic books began to thrive in the 50s, thanks to television and that quintessentially 50s mindset in which you’ve got your good guys, your bad guys, and nobody else. It seems nearly ironic that these characters have been so popular in the last 10-20 years especially, at a time when we are far more pessimistic than the worst cynic of the 50s. “Hope” was briefly popular recently, but then the majority of those activists quickly forgot what that hope was, and down went their savior’s approval rating. So, for these comic book characters to thrive in the movies, they have to blur the boundaries between good and bad, which they’re all too able to do. The result is a bunch of non-heroic heroes, exactly the kind that people want these days. Superman hasn’t been popular for a long time; his comeback has been deemed a failure, whether Bryan Singer is to blame for that or not. Most people find Superman boring, excessively good, non-human, unrelatable. Could be. Interesting that Heath Ledger’s Joker character in The Dark Knight was so hugely popular. It appears that excessively evil, non-human, unrelatable characters are anything but boring compared to their good counterparts. For Batman to defeat him, he had to become evil, albeit briefly (violating privacy via cell phone sonar, etc.). This is a digression, to be sure…a lament that we live in a world in which badness is so much more interesting than goodness, even when pure goodness is spectacularly defeating badness.
Point being, the Iron Man movies have worked hard at relating to the contemporary situation in the world. It has to do with weapons of mass destruction, technology, danger coming from the Middle and Far East (read: classical Orientalist fears), and the problems with capitalism (while also strongly reaffirming capitalism). It’s set to appeal, however, to the repressed in contemporary, politically correct society. He may be fighting for peace, but none can deny that Iron Man does so by blowing up a lot of stuff (and maybe people?). Further, he’s rich. He lives in a mansion/compound in Malibu and owns his own company. He’s a misogynistic ego-head. He’s all about the American male’s wildest fantasies. He’s a “genius,” of course, filled with the kind of intelligence that lazy people everywhere would love to have: the natural kind, where you’re really smart without having to work at it much. He’s great at one-liners that make everyone around him feel small and stupid, but since we’re positioned alongside Tony Stark in these movies, we don’t have to worry about that. We get to enjoy being part of his insane ego frenzy. The sequel did feature an uncomfortable scene in which Stark danced around drunk wearing the Iron Man suit, following which he continued to make an ass of himself by destroying much of his home. It seems like this is the narrative low point for the heroic character, fitting easily into the traditional hero cycle. Still, Tony isn’t vilified so much as pitied. He’s living it up not because he’s “bad” at all, but because he thinks he’s dying and is trying to make the most of what life he has left.
So really, one wonders how many of the American viewers (if not others) know exactly what they’re enjoying when they go see this movie. We all know how easy it can be to turn off one’s brain while in a movie theater, but when something like this so clearly clashes with the dominant ideology and somehow maintains popularity, you have to wonder. The really odd thing about the first Iron Man is how popular it was overseas, including in some Asian countries. Granted, South Korea is sympathetic to the US, but the anxieties over anything not full-blown, read-white-and-blue, bacon-cheeseburger USA are too strong to miss. The bad guy in the first Iron Man started out to be an Afghan fellow, but he’s pretty easily silenced in the first one-third of the film. Then, a white guy (played by Jeff Bridges) shows up and just as easily steals his technology, paralyzes the guy (albeit temporarily), and amplifies the technology into something way less stone age. Idea here is, those dark-skinned Easterners can’t even be proper villains without American aid. That’s repeated in the sequel. Mickey Rourke plays the evil Russian in another great Prince of Persia-like example of gringos playing foreigners because we apparently just like them better. (In reality, this probably happens because audiences would be incredulous that a famous American actor playing the hero could really be challenged by anyone other than another famous American actor playing the villain. They could save a lot of dough by hiring a no-name, real-deal foreigner, but who would buy that?) On top of that, the villain fails to do much of anything until he’s rescued, salvaged, and then placed into indentured servitude by a rich white guy with the same basic personality as Tony Stark minus a few degrees. This unoriginal, repetitive trope (sorry, bad word) is becoming so tiresome that one wonders how audiences can keep paying for it.
One last word: Scarlet Johansson is completely awful in this movie. A-trocious.