The Irony of Power: A Review of ‘Iron Man’

When Toni Stark gets abducted by terrorists, one might be tempted to expect this: that the movie will be usual anti-terrorist film, complete with the them-versus-us, they’re-the-bad-guy-we’re-the-good-guy theme.

But Ironman doesn’t have such simplistic politics. Its take on terrorism is more nuanced, perhaps more accurate, and surely more progressive.

Far from (uncritically) celebrating America and demonizing terrorists, Ironman shows the complicity between the two. The weapons industry actually finances terrorist activities. It’s the bad guy behind all the butchery. And if this is certainly the case in real life, then the war on terror is more complicated than it is, not the black-and-white affair that politicians paint it to be. Anyway, into this mess comes Toni Stark. He takes on both bad guys: the terrorist ring and the more sinister weapons industry.

But Ironman is less about terrorism than that industry. It is truly a formidable institution, a lucrative business and a powerful player in international politics, not least in the war on terror. And for much the same reason, it is also alarming.

Power is a recurrent theme in American film, not surprising for a very powerful nation. Many American movies admire and depend on the brutal efficiency of its institutions, but they also fear them, not least because the very same power that protects them can be turned against them. This is what happens in The Recruit, where Al Pacino goes rogue, only to be taken down, to our relief, by Colin Farrell. The Terminator and The Matrix are also all about power gone wild and about how to tame it and keep it in check.

And for Ironman, it is Toni Stark who does just that. He is our defender against megalomaniacs like Obadiah. But this is ironic too, for while he is the hero, he is in a way the villain as well. After his epiphany in Afghanistan, he decides to shut down his company and rid the world of weapons, but gives the planet its most powerful one: himself as Ironman. Of course, he didn’t become Ironman just so he could. He simply wanted to change things for the better. And no doubt this is one of the movie’s ways of saying that he is not a megalomaniac like Obadiah.

This irony exemplifies a general ambiguity of power. To rid ourselves of it, we need the very same stuff. It’s a vicious, self-perpetrating cycle, and it is no doubt the task of superhero movies like Ironman to keep this ambiguity in our favor, to keep power’s face benevolent, to assure us that it will protect us, and to cultivate in us the proper attitude to it. This is why for every Obadiah, Magneto and Doc Ock, we are thrown a Toni Stark, a Professor X, and a Peter Parker. For every irresponsible, power-hungry villain, we have a hero who believes that with great power comes great responsibility and that intelligence is a gift, to be used for the good of mankind.

But there is more to this than power. Behind the ambiguity lies a similar yet deeper one: that of progress, to which power is a correlate. We’ve advanced in genetics, a leap of knowledge that makes Spiderman, if not the X-men possible. We’ve made powerful weapons like the Jericho missile, which makes Ironman a reality. We’ve invented AI, which makes the Matrix, not least a nuclear war a reality. We’ve forged superchips, which make the terminators possible.

All these examples reveal the ambiguity of progress. It is our marvelous achievement, but it also contains the seed of our destruction. Our AI computers are our very own downfall. Our superchips lead to the end of the world as we know it. Our genetic advances are the blueprints of our extinction (think Peter Petrelli’s Bomb in Heroes). Behind our civilization lies chaos. Behind the light of progress lies the heart of darkness.

7 May 2008


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