There has been a lot of talk about how summer movies are all testosterone driven flicks with big guns, fast cars, and nary a spark of interest for women. I have ignored most of it because of the assumption that women do not consume science fiction and fantasy films, they are not gamers, and they could not possibly know who Speed Racer is, after all the biggest star in that old cartoon was the race track itself. Hmph. I am just as versed on obscure Tranzor Z references as I am on limited edition La Perla and Cosa Bella, thank you very much.
I was particularly interested in Iron Man because of what I thought would be its insightful and ironic look at the current war in the Middle East and the arms trade business. Established “thinking man’s” actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Gwenyth Paltrow, accompanied by supporting roles by known leftist Jeff Bridges and Oscar & Golden Globe nominated Terrence Howard, all gave me high hopes about this film’s potential critical gaze on current wars and their ties to imperialism, consumption, and engendered conflict. The preview, where Downey Jr. jokes with star struck young American soldiers who are instantly battle hardened when a mortar hits their “fun-vee,” also lent itself to this interpretation. The footage mirrored many of the more serious documentaries and documentary style films critiquing the war and its impact of late. What made me excited about the comparative footage was that Iron Man has a much larger audience than the documentary set.
Here’s the thing, that was the only part of the film that had anything intelligent to offer up about the war and the lifestyle afforded by arms trading, the rest unfolds like a racist, sexist, romp on a fast track to unimpressive pseudo-intellectualism about war and gender. Though many have focused on the action sequences, which are undeniably well done, this film is ultimately irresponsible and jingoistic in a time of huge losses and atrocities for a war(s) we have no real way of ending or redressing on any side.
Authors note on the use of Middle Eastern, Middle East, Afghan, and Afghanistan:
Authors note: This film is set in Afghanistan. For those who have not forgotten, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 and has been waging a “conflict” there ever since. Western audiences are not likely to equate the setting nor the actors with Afghans unless they know this, instead reading the film as intended: set in the Middle East and starring the current enemy of the West/U.S. “muslims” and Middle Easterners. I have written the text to reflect both the reality, that these are supposed to be Afghans and the jingoistic codes these images signify which is the Middle East and Muslims. Since we are technically at war with both Afghanistan and Iraq, these conflations, which the film makes and which I mark in my review, should make sense to most readers.
The film is peopled with untranslated Middle Easterners/”Afghans” wielding huge weapons at their own people, women, children, and of course N. Americans with an unquestioned lust for blood. They are likened to Genghis Khan not by a U.S. foreign policy maker but by the M.E./Afghan leader of the group, Raza, himself. He waxes poetically about empire building on the backs of others and lording over everything, not once but twice as the film unfolds. Though purists will argue that this is a reference to Mandarin, a nemesis of Iron Man in the comic books, Mandarin’s name is Gene not Raza and he is not Afghan nor Middle Eastern. Nor would this argument get us out of the orientalist gaze of the film, it would just shift which part of the world we were aiming it; considering Afghanistan is also considered part of Asia, for regional purists this is not much of a shift. The actor playing him has also said he is not Mandarin.
By updating the character and the storyline to the current war gave dir. Favreau the opportunity to update the ideology of the comic book as well. And while many are able to excuse Favreau’s regional updates they seem utterly unable to imagine the accompanying socio-political updates that Favreau staunchly avoids. Either this film is faithful the comic book, at which point the question becomes why update something steeped in xenophobia and sexism, or it veers from the comic book, in which case updating the setting without addressing the underlining issues as well as the racism and sexism that remain in the new film are legitimate issues to confront here. For those who just want to watch things blow up and stare and female eye candy, this review is obviously not for you as Favreau does both exquisitely.
For non-purists, Raza will largely reference the image of Khan as a heartless warrior responsible for statements like “The greatest happiness it to . . . chase [your enemies] before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” (footprint tours 2001). And lest his constant pursuit of newer and more deadly weapons and speeches about Khan fail to warn us, Raza also tortures an informant, threatening to place a hot coal in his mouth and burn out his tongue in one unnecessarily prolonged scene, and orders massacres of villages peopled with children screaming for their fathers in others. These massacres, and Stark’s capture, are executed by his second in command, named, of course: Abu. There is no attempt to contextualize their violence or elevate their characters beyond stereotypical megalomania and bloodlust.
I’m not asking for a completely sympathetic image that glosses over the real role of warlords in prolonging and exploiting conflict in Afghanistan and elsewhere; saying any group of people is all good or all bad is an unprovable position. However, presenting flattened out stereotypes of “Middle Easterners”/Afghan people as blood thirsty war mongers is the kind of war propaganda I had expected to be dismantled by this film not reinforced by it. It is irresponsible and ultimately plays into anti-Arab sentiment, which extends to Afghanistan and the Gulf, that has put many Arabs and non-Arab Muslims at risk for violence and abuse in their neighborhoods, jobs, and public spaces.
Worse, an easy counterpoint to such a narrative, would be to provide a balanced array of regional characters and a context for the violence around them. Thus there would be no excuse made for the war lords who take advantage of wars for their own power in any war zone while also not making an entire race of people out to be both violent and responsible for their own destruction.
Yet the only counterpoint to these violent, power hungry, marauders, in Iron Man, is a single man from a different ethnic group than their captors who is already in captivity when Downey Jr.’s character, Stark, is taken hostage. His part is quite small and he is dead before the first quarter of the film is over. As a hostage himself, Yinsen is already established as some how other to the dominant narrative of Middle Eastern identity we are being fed by this film; like the villagers who are attacked later, who are nameless and largely faceless, he is portrayed as an “ethnic other” not an alternative view of the region’s people as doctors, family members, innocent civilians, etc.
Yinsen saves Stark’s life twice during the hostage situation. The first time, he saves Stark’s life by using low-tech medical intervention to save Stark from his own weapons. He explains to Stark that he learned the procedure trying to save villagers, pointing out to Stark that the weapons he designed take a week to kill a person as the pieces of sharp shrapnel make their way through someone’s internal organs. This is one of the only commentaries on the nature of Stark’s weapons and like the other comment later, the onus for the human rights violations these weapons inflict is placed largely on the shoulders of the Middle Easterners themselves since: 1. Stark is being held hostage until he builds one for his captors and 2. the plan is to use the weapon against villagers to claim territory not to fight on equal footing with the army (which has its own problematic issues). It takes a very keen eye to note that Yinsen is a physician displaced by war, another missed opportunity on the part of the film makers to tell us the story of the human cost of this war.
The second time Yinsen saves Stark’s live, he does so by giving up his own. He of course dies at the hands of the Afghani captors. Yinsen’s last breaths are spent telling Stark that he had always planned to die for him and telling him not to waste the opportunity. (It should also be noted that early statements released by actors and the director about the film claimed that the actor playing Yinsen had been cast as Mandarin. If the film branches into sequels and this storyline is pursued, it would leave the only sympathetic non-Western character completely undermined.)
In the Service of the King
The racial narratives extend to Howard’s character, who at least manages to live through to the end of the film. Lt. Col. James Rhodes, Howard, spends the bulk of the film literally standing around waiting on Stark and then acting petulant when he does not show up. Stark snubs him at an awards show – Rhodes goes to the Casino and throws his award at him. Stark makes him wait at attention at the entrance to his private jet for three hours before he shows up – Rhodes spends the flight literally whining like a dejected child. And in a scene that made me think back to Yinsen’s death, Rhodes rushes to Stark’s home lab to save his life only to end up standing there, calling after Stark, “How can I help?” as Stark rushes off without a hint of a thank you.
Tho Rhodes does in fact help save Stark’s life at the end of the film by putting his own career on the line, it is shot in such a way that all the credit ends up going to Pepper Potts. Worse, his aid is illogical (to say more would ruin the plot, tho you’ll figure it out five minutes in anyway). Even the machine’s role in saving Rhodes is more pronounced.
Ultimately, Rhodes is reduced to a whinier, darker, version of the machines that Stark surrounds himself with throughout the film. Interesting, some people have said that slavery came to an end because of the rise of machines and an MTV ad once compared slaves to “obsolete machines,” and before you say I am taking it too far, remember that insipidly inaccurate Will Smith version of I Robot? It too compared the plight of machines to those of black people. All of these comparison are ultimately dehumanizing as is the fact that Rhodes drops everything to rush to Stark’s rescue only to be outdone by a giant automated tweezer.
The automated creatures hand him things, build his machines, act as foil to his jokes, and even save his life. They are much more sympathetic than the marginalized humans in this film b/c their endless service is expected.
Women also fill this servant role throughout the film. We are afforded with an endless parade of nameless eye candy in the first few minutes of the film meant to establish Stark as a womanizer, including flight attendants who do poll dances for him on his private jet. Any critique of his womanizing is both undermined by the two recurring female roles in the film, which are little better, and the fact that he never really stops taking advantage of them even if he does not take anyone to bed in the latter half of the film.
Brown graduate and prominent journalist, Christine Everhart, played by Leslie Bibb, arrives on the scene full of righteous indignation about Stark industries’ role in war profiteering which she brings up every time she speaks in the film. After some odd banter about her education in which Stark refers to her as Mrs. Brown (hmmm), the interaction degenerates to a “steamy” sex scene. Her critique and intelligence are consequently completely undermined by the fact that she falls quickly into bed with Stark moments after he counters her “How many hours do you sleep at night?” with “I’m willing to spend hours figuring that out with you” (or something similar and equally insipid). She of course wakes alone, Stark having long since gotten bored with her. For the rest of the film, her statements about his company’s role in oppression (which are minimal at best) are followed quickly by references to his snubbing her after sex reducing her to a scorned, self-righteous, ex-lover. Or as Pepper Potts, played by Paltrow, puts it when she carefully ejects her from Stark’s mansion the morning after “I do whatever Mr. Stark needs, including occasionally taking out the trash.”
As if that catty comment wasn’t offensive enough, given that both women are educated professionals largely being taken for granted by Stark, Potts follows Stark around like a lovesick puppy. We are supposed to forget that she dutiful brings his coffee, does his one night stand’s dry cleaning, buy’s her own birthday presents b/c he can’t be bothered to remember when it is (and yes they do discuss this in the film: twice), and probably wipes his butt when not on camera, because she does so while critiquing her own role. There is nothing enlightened or feminist about being self-aware of one’s willingness to be objectified by someone who expresses very little reciprocal emotion. And there is certainly nothing empowering for women in a character who has the nerve to demean and mock other women for falling for that same man’s charm.
(Granted, Stark does make some attempt to express feelings for her in the later half of the film, but she quickly shuts him down. While the scene is meant to show Potts’ ever critical eye toward her role as super hero hag, it reads as the masochism of a woman who does not think she deserves love. Hence she falls in love with a man who won’t give her any and yet demands so much of her time that she “has no one else.” – yes that is a real quote. Or the intelligence of a woman who knows she is not, ultimately, going to get love but hangs on. Neither read is very appealing for women’s sexual and emotional liberation, tho again we are supposed to read the scene that way.)
On the bright side, Potts and Rhodes are ultimately the ones who save Stark’s life at the end of the film. She not only saves him twice but also alerts the authorities to the major plot in the film, even if she does so in a skirt that gets shorter and shorter (seriously) and a pair of high heels designed to show off her long legs at every angle. (And yes, I own shoes just like them, but I would have torn them off at the first sight of a giant metal monster chasing me instead of speed dialing Stark to make sure he was ok.)
The demeaning of women and their roles in this film goes so far as to incl
ude sexist banter about a female recruit assigned to protect Stark. When he hears the woman speak he is incredulous that she is a woman, saying “I thought you were a man.” and blathering on about how that is a good thing b/c “Isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing here?” Ummm no. We want women to be taken seriously in the military not transform them into men. Worse, after he realizes she is a woman he also adds “Can I admit you are turning me on right now?” and as he begins to flirt with her, she is genuinely flattered (!) and it is her attention to his flattery that takes her eyes off the road in hostile territory and opens up their tank for attack. Literally, as she is looking back smiling at him, the Afghan militia comes over the hill and bombs them, killing one of the soldiers and ultimately leading to the entire units death. How’s that for respect for women in the military? The message: Don’t put those women in charge because all it takes a wink and a nudge and they will be puttin’ on the lipstick instead of paying attention to sniper fire . . .
Ultimately, the film does have a few minor moments where it takes a critical eye to the war effort and the role of arms trading in the military industrial complex. Most of that critique has been discussed above and all of it falls flat.
Stark’s partner, predictably, is double trading and an equal if not worse megalomaniac to Raza. Yet the film is peopled with [white] counterpoints to his behavior making him seem like an individual gone awry rather than representative like Raza. Given that he is white, he would hardly be taken as representative anyway, since racial hegemony works to pathologize the actions of non-white people as indicators of an entire race’s moral fiber not the other way around. The male members of the military, from the top down, are all seen as sympathetic despite the fact that they are the ones funding Stark’s research that produces a series of hideous weapons. They even refuse to fund a particularly heinous tonal device b/c of its humanitarian implications, which we are told repeatedly throughout the film. These are the same guys who engage in waterboarding and ran Abu Ghraib?
If we believed this movie, only Afghans (which are synonymous with “terrorists” here) buy Stark’s indiscriminately violent weapons, like the dirty-like bomb that send shrapnel out in every direction to slowly kill everyone in the surrounding area. Even during the one demo Stark does for the U.S. military, we never actually see them buy in or deploy with them. Only Raza does that.
(If you missed Lord of War when it came out, rent it. Even if you do not keep up on how arms trading and increasingly “sophisticated,” ie violent, weapons has changed the face of combat and increased innocent deaths and permanent disabilities, problematic Lords of War will certainly show what a real critique looks like.)
The weapons themselves are largely sanitized. We only see them in action in the hands of the Afghans when human targets are involved. The rest of the time they are used largely to blow up mountains of sand in demos. The only N. American who wields a weapon at anyone (besides Iron Man – the hero) is Stark’s partner. Though the unit from the “fun-vee” have guns, they never actually engage a visible enemy. If we had seen them actually fighting, their actions still would have been justified because they were under attack. Not only that, but we would have once again been privy to the kind of scene that would make us question sending young men and women to fight in a war that everyone agrees we cannot win and against a people/s that documents prove had nothing to do with 9/11. And it is these simple slippages that point to how useless Favreau is at doing little more than chest pounding and there is a lot of that in this film.
Despite Potts’ two sentence criticism of using weapons to fight weapons near the end of the film, that is exactly what this film is ultimately about. Stark develops an Iron Man suit and uses it to swoop in and take out the bad guys which is to be expected. However, he intentionally encourages the villagers to beat Abu to death will little thought to what will happen to them when Raza arrives. Given the number of reports we have all been witness to about what happens to villagers or even translators caught in the middle, the film’s attempt to make this empowering not only glorifies the kind of vigilantism that is/was occurring on the streets after 9/11 against Arabs and Muslims, regardless of region, but also irresponsibly ignores the real human cost of conflict yet again. In fact, Stark’s little jaunt almost gets a U.S. airmen killed as well. He saves him at the last minute saying “actually he attacked me” in a childish “he started it” comment that seems to typify the thinking behind this entire film.
I left the theater disappointed in everyone involved in this movie. It was the ideal vehicle to critique the current war, arms trading, and war in general. Any attempt to do so is treated with short shrift and quickly undermined. Except in the rare occasion mentioned at the beginning of this review, it supported the troops in moments when they really should have been critiqued and undermined them in moments when they really should have been supported. The misogyny was never self-aware despite Paltrow’s dialogue and it often undermined the most intelligent women and female troops in the process.
Critics and fans have oohed and awed at the special effects and the sure brazen goodness of the Iron Man suit. And these are all great. However, we should all be concerned when such slick packaging is used to sell oppression particularly when some of that oppression is blatant war propaganda in a time of war.
If this is what critics meant by “the summer of men,” then yes, we women, and thinking men, really should find better things to do this summer than to spend our money on films that insult and demean us and everyone else. Robert Downey Jr. maybe Iron Man but I miss the days when he was a respectable actor. I won’t comment on what Howard’s part tells us about the disparity between the options available to mainstream Oscar nominees and marginalized ones. (Didn’t Halle Berry follow up her Oscar with Cat Woman?!) Oh well . . . I’m still going to Batman next month. At least that film promises to actually reflect on the impact of technology, the burden of heroism, and show empowered women . . . go figure.
First cartoon image – Raza Longknife. He is not actually a part of the Iron Man series but the Earth 616 comic which intersects with the X-Men. However, I think he looks a lot like the actor playing Raza and I wouldn’t doubt that Favreau got the name from here. In fact, it may be a very subtle reference to Stark’s later role in developing some weapons for the X-Men during his ongoing work with SHIELD. Artist for this image not provided. copyright Marvel Comics.
Second Cartoon Image – Mandarin. Iron Man cover. artist not given. copyright, Marvel Comics.
Third Cartoon Image – Iron Man: Director of SHIELD Cover #1 artist Christos Gage. copy
right marvel comics.
Injured British Soldier. Headley Court Rehab Center Images. (Released to document the increase in care after a profound lack of care for soldiers injured in the current war.) Copyright held by PA.
“Children of War.” Image from Iraq. copyright UNICEF