So with news of Iron Man 3 swirling about the vast series of tubes, as well as the growing number of spinoffs and sequels the franchise has spawned, it seems like as good a time as any to get out some stuff that’s been rolling around my braincase. I want to take us back in time to the halcyon summer of 2008. The idea of comic book blockbusters this big was still something ephemeral and fanciful. While it was The Dark Knight that shattered all the records and became the movie everyone remembers from that year I’m going to focus instead on the frontrunner of the also-rans. Iron Man was pretty hot on Batman’s heels, and I would argue that over the last few years it is Iron Man that has had the greater cultural penetration. Some of this is due to Iron Man having having an additional sequel over Batman and several spinoffs bearing its imprint, but I don’t think that accounts for all of it. The Dark Knight was a sequel to the successful Batman Begins, and the sixth Batman film adaptation in twenty years. I’m not saying The Dark Knight wasn’t good, just that it wasn’t starting from square one either. Iron Man was a freshman effort with a protagonist not all that well known outside the comics readership, in contrast to Batman’s longstanding icon status. This in mind, Iron Man‘s own towering success is not only more impressive but also raises the question of how it managed to get its hooks in the popular culture the way it did. Well, I think I can tell you.
Heroes resonate with people in times of crisis. Superman was two Jewish boys’ vision of the tzadik-hador amidst the Great Depression, the transformative New Deal, and the approaching Second World War. Four years ago things may not have been as apocalyptic, but with an imploding economy brought on by decades of excess and foreign wars in need of clarity and direction Americans were ready for a hero. I don’t think its a coincidence at all that later that same year Americans decisively acclaimed Barrack Obama to the White House.
Still, why though? Why Iron Man? Why Tony Stark? Well, as presented in the film Tony Stark in many ways an avatar for the American sense of self. In the first part of the movie Stark is narcissistic, insensitive, greedy, hedonistic, and revels in the callous calculus of war. In essence, Tony Stark is what America at some level fears it has become. We fear we have squandered our moral mandate from the promise of the post-war years, just as Stark has squandered his father’s legacy. We secretly fear we are the fatted, self-absorbed sybarites that anti-American propaganda portrays us to be, just as Stark flagrantly disregards the needs of others for his own comfort and gratification. We fear that we have become trapped as Stark has by the blowback of our own excess, and like Stark we have to wonder if we deserve it.
It’s not all dark though. Tony isn’t an indictment of American identity, he’s a redemption of it. He realizes how he got where he is and understands not just that he needs to change, but that he ‘wants’ to change. This is only part of it though. Important also is ‘how’ Tony Stark changes. He doesn’t simply renounce his works and become a hermit. Rather, he accepts what he is and chooses to use that to do the right thing. He isn’t ashamed of his wealth and success, but he opts to channel it into something worthwhile. He doesn’t destroy the weapons he’s made, but he takes responsibility for them. He doesn’t become a pacifist, but attempts to become a more conscientious warrior. As Iron Man he returns a moral agency to war that had too easily become lost in the haze. He fights the way we want to fight; with the strength of an army, the precision of a laser, and the clarity of a single righteous conscience. Iron Man is our idealized America, the other side of the coin to Tony’s (and our own) flaws.
In Iron Man Americans saw a cross section of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we could be. It spoke to something we didn’t even know we were searching for. People like to pigeonhole Iron Man into either a conservative or a liberal label, but the truth is it’s not either. It neither condones nor condemns the American self image, merely articulating it with warts, aspirations, and all.