An iron fist in a velvet glove

Iron Man, the latest Marvel superhero story to get a big-screen outing, captures the crisis and contradictions in ‘humanitarian militarism’.

Philip Hammond

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Ever since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster conceived of Superman as a counter to the Nazi Übermensch in the 1930s, superheroes have always had an ideological meaning. The most recent comic-book hero to hit the big screen, however, seems to embody the search for meaning in contemporary US foreign policy.

Iron Man, the latest Marvel comic to be turned into a blockbuster, reworks a theme previously explored in the Spider-Man series – that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. The idea echoes an influential strand of thought about how American military muscle ought to be used in the post-Cold War era of ‘ethical’ foreign policy. This time, however, it is given added piquancy by the film’s overt military context: Iron Man does battle, not with a Green Goblin or a Doctor Octopus, but with terrorists in a cave in Afghanistan.

Our hero, Tony Stark (played with panache by Robert Downey Jr), is an arms manufacturer whose company supplies the Pentagon with high-tech weapons for use in the war on terror. If that strikes you as an unlikely hero-figure, you’d be right: at the beginning of the film Stark personifies all that liberals love to hate about macho America. He is brash, arrogant, and thoroughly irresponsible. When he wins an award, he doesn’t bother to turn up for the ceremony. When a female reporter confronts him about the ethics of the arms industry, he beds her and then dumps her the next day.

Personal charm and fabulous wealth allow him to get away with such bad behaviour most of the time. Stark’s sole buddy, US Air Force Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Terrence Howard), is the only one who confronts him about his fecklessness. As the two travel to Afghanistan to demonstrate Stark Industries’ new missile system, Rhodey urges him to mend his ways. But as they prepare to leave it is obvious that Stark won’t listen: he dismissively waves Rhodey away, telling him to ride in the ‘hum-drum-vee’ not the ‘fun-vee’.

As in his personal life, so in his business. Stark’s military philosophy, which he traces back to his father’s work on the Manhattan Project, might be described as pre-emptive deterrence: make a really big weapon, use it once, and, he assures the top brass, the bad guys won’t dare to come out of their caves. The flaw in this logic is brought home to him in Afghanistan when he realises that terrorists have somehow gained access to his missiles, using them to attack the Humvee convoy in which he is travelling.

The terrorists take him captive and make an Iraq-style hostage video – but Stark manages to build a prototype Iron Man suit that enables him to escape. Equally importantly, while he is a prisoner Stark has a moment of moral revelation. He sees that his hedonistic lifestyle has been devoid of meaning and that his patriotic business dealings have had unintended consequences. On his return to the US, he announces that Stark Industries will cease manufacturing weapons while he tries to work out a more ‘responsible’ direction for the company.

When an incredulous Rhodey derisively asks Stark if he has turned ‘humanitarian’, Stark has no answer. But in secret he is working on a new project, redesigning and upgrading the Iron Man suit. Once perfected, this allows Stark to answer the question with deeds: as Iron Man he returns to Afghanistan, locates the terrorists’ HQ, and blows up their stockpile of Stark Industries WMD. He also manages to prevent a Srebrenica-style massacre when he comes across a village where, with evidently sinister intent, the terrorists are separating out the men from the women and children. Iron Man successfully avoids causing any collateral damage and takes out the bad guys while saving the civilians they are trying to use as human shields. A one-man ‘revolution in military affairs’, Iron Man is the humanitarian-military fantasy – of precision weaponry in the service of ‘ethical’ objectives – come true.

The only problem is the baddies. The terrorists belong to an al-Qaeda-ish group called The Ten Rings. As an organisation, The Ten Rings is even less plausible than Stark’s apparent ability to design and manufacture a miniaturised power reactor in a cave, using scrap metal, while under constant CCTV surveillance. These ‘foreign fighters’ include Arabic, Pashto, Farsi, Russian and Hungarian speakers with no discernible motivation in common aside from a cartoonish desire for world domination. In a sense, however, this implausibility is one of the film’s more realistic touches.

Without wishing to give the plot away entirely, it transpires that the terrorists are mere stooges and that the real villain of the piece is US corporate greed. This is realistic, not, of course, because the wacky 9/11 conspiracy theories are true, but because the conflict the film dramatises is a real one: it is essentially the US elite at war with itself. Just like in real life, there is no plausible set of baddies against whom to practice hi-tech humanitarian militarism. From Saddam to Milošević and back again, hate-figures have generally had to be puffed up in the media like pantomime villains. In the absence of the Soviet threat, the US elite has spent the best part of two decades struggling, like Tony Stark, to find a ‘meaningful’ direction for post-Cold War foreign policy.

The point of ethical interventionism, which Iron Man tries to rehabilitate after the debacle of Iraq, was always to make Western societies feel better about themselves. As a feel-good action movie, Iron Man does the job as well as it possibly could under the circumstances, helped by super-cool special effects and an enjoyable will-they-won’t-they relationship between Stark and his prim personal assistant, Miss ‘Pepper’ Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

In the comics, Iron Man’s arch-enemy was Mandarin – a super-villain of Chinese descent who, surely not coincidentally, wore ten rings. Assuming that the search for plausible baddies will continue, it will be interesting to see what they come up with for the sequel.

Philip Hammond is reader in media and communications at London South Bank University. He is the author of Framing Post-Cold War Conflicts published by Manchester University Press (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and Media, War and Postmodernity published by Routledge (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau, Marvel Studios) is on general release.

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