Movie superhero versus arms industry, sort of

Iron Man
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges
Screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby

Reviewed by James Crafti

Jon Favreau’s comic book adaptation Iron Man is one of only 10 films ever to have grossed US$100 million in its opening weekend. ABC TV’s At the Movies reviewer Margaret Pomeranz gave the film four-and-a-half stars, commenting on its “not so subtle subtext of condemning the US arms industry”.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a capitalist playboy who has inherited Stark Industries, a company most of whose profits come from weapons sales and manufacturing. His employees take care of every aspect of his life, and he has no concern about any disruption in theirs. While there are many unlikeable aspects to the central character (at the start of the film), his gung-ho attitude towards his role as an arms supplier is the centre of the film’s satire.

As Stark introduces his new missile, the Jericho, to the United States military in Afghanistan, he tells them that, while some say “a good weapon is one that you never have to use, I believe it is one that you only have to use once”. After he fires the missile, which breaks into a multitude of smaller missiles, exploding an entire Afghan mountain range, Stark raises his glass to “peace”.
The banter between journalist character Christine Everheart (played by Leslie Bibb) and Stark exposes the absurdity of the arms industry. Stark: “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.” Everheart: “That’s a great line from a guy selling the sticks.” Stark: “My father helped defeat the Nazis. He worked on the Manhattan Project. A lot of people, including your professors at Brown, would call that being a hero.” Everheart: “And a lot of people would call that war profiteering.”

Stark dismisses Everheart’s criticisms as the concerns of a journalist who graduated from a lefty university. His attitude changes when he is captured by the terrorists in Afghanistan and finds stockpiles of Stark Industries weapons in their hands. Coerced by the terrorists to develop a missile system for them, Stark instead develops the Iron Man suit, a powerful body suit that allows him to escape.

Returning to the United States, he announces that he is shutting down the arms section of Stark Industries: “I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability.”

While the movie points to the hypocrisy of the US arms industry, which sells weapons even to the enemies of the US, it does not take issue with Washington’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Rather, the film naively seeks to separate the military from the military-industrial complex, as though under-the-counter arms deals between manufacturers and terrorists like al Qaeda are the reason they have weapons, rather than the US government’s conscious support for Osama bin Laden and Afghan terrorists throughout the 1980s (the CIA-organised jihad against the Afghan “communist” regime and its Soviet backers).

The current US-led imperialist occupation of Afghanistan is presented as a righteous cause. The terrorists, while not explicitly named as al Qaeda, speak several languages (indicating they are foreigners, rather than Afghan resistance fighters, who apparently do not exist). They target unarmed civilians (despite heroic US attempts to stop them), and their leader has the comic book bad guy trait of being an egotist whose motive is his desire to rule. Stark is perfectly content with the weapons being in the hands of the US military and himself being a billionaire playboy with a conscience (in the form of the Iron Man suit).

Like other comic book adaptations, Iron Man cheerily picks from decades of comic history as well as updating them for a modern audience. The comics began in March 1963 with Stark being captured by Vietnamese national liberation fighters (the “Viet Cong”). Comic historian Bradford W. Wright summarises Iron Man’s early history in his book Comic Book Nation, observing that “as Tony Stark, he serves a vital function in America’s military-industrial complex, both as a weapons inventor and as a defense contractor. As Iron Man, he foils Communist agents and battles Soviet supervillains in a symbolic Cold War contest of power and will.”

Creator Stan Lee recalled in 1975 the early Iron Man with a degree of regret: “Most of us genuinely felt that the conflict in that tortured land really was a simple matter of good vs. evil.” As the anti-war movement developed, so did the writers’ political consciousness, and by 1971 they decided to have Stark shut down the Stark Industries weapons division in response to pickets outside his factory. Iron Man’s writers were still liberals, balancing the character’s new anti-war stance with his criticisms of anti-war activists who were “preaching peace while resorting to violence”.

The Iron Man comics took eight years to shut down Stark Industries’ weapons division, something that was done within the abridged history of the first Iron Man film. However, the comic books eventually developed a much greater understanding of imperialist capitalism than was presented in the film. In 1975 (the year the US military finally pulled out of Vietnam) an Iron Man comic entitled Long Time Gone had Stark looking at himself and pondering the war: “And what about you, Tony Stark? Once you were do or die for America and mom’s apple pie! You didn’t do much soul searching back then did you. As Iron Man you beat the Commies for democracy without ever questioning just whose democracy you were serving... Or just what those you served intended to do with the world once you saved it for them! Vietnam raised all those questions, didn’t it Tony? Like: What right had we to be there in the first place?”

The superhero genre is often a pointer to the writer’s political outlook. During the 1960s and ‘70s there was vigorous debate about whether comic hero characters should go to Vietnam in the comics’ letters pages. Years of antiwar campaigning led to a popular sentiment that kept Captain America (a comic hero continued from World War II) out of the Cold War and pulled Stark out of it.

There are already plans for Iron Man sequels. At the start of this cycle of films, Stark is already taking a stance against the arms industry. The question is: By the next one, can we get him to condemn Washington’s current imperialist wars like he did in 1975?