Here is a weird fact: Iron Man 3 is one favorite superhero films. I have an unhealthy fascination with all the Iron Man films – yes even the second – but the third was always my favorite. It makes some fantastic points, and it is heartbreakingly close to making a genuinely clever systemic, anti-capitalist critique of the world. It fails, obviously because it is a superhero film and superhero films are the worst (more on this soon). Even so, I like I can’t fault it for trying and even though it fails, it fails in an interesting way.
Plus, it has scenes like this. This is funny!
So, I’m going to get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, Tony Stark is a weird figure to point out as a Marxist superhero. He’s super rich and he makes money owning things and selling things. But as I pointed out in my first ever article, he’s not a self-made man. He inherited most of his wealth, and, as I also pointed out, he got a large dollop of help from the government. And he’s not a ruthless capitalist. When he realizes that weapons kill people, he stops making weapons. He steps down from the business of making money to focus on philanthropy full time. In that way, he’s more like George Soros or Bill Gates, if those guys’ idea of philanthropy involved fighting aliens in mechasuits.
And the thing is, all of Iron Man’s villains are also millionaires, just like Tony, and they all sell weapons, just like Tony used to. If Tony Stark is the good millionaire, they illustrate what a bad millionaire looks like. And invariably, what a bad millionaire looks like is a capitalist who doesn’t have any compunctions other than making money. Unlike Tony. So what the films are teaching us is that people with money have a responsibility to pay something back to the community, or they are assholes.
Iron Man 3 is where the series really steps up the critique. Like all the other Iron Man films, three features a foreign terrorist threat, but it’s a fakeout. Instead, the real villain is the aforementioned evil millionaire. It might have been a while since you watched Iron Man 3, so I’m just going to remind you of the plot. The bad guy, Killian, wants to sell a thing that makes soldiers awesome, but the thing keeps exploding, so he hires an actor to go on TV and claim he is the Mandarin and he ordered the explosions as part of a terrorist attack. So instead of being an evil dude who kills people to make money, he just wants to make money, and the killing is sort of incidental.
It might seem like I’m splitting hairs here, but I’m not. Because, more so than his previous villains, the thing driving him is capitalism. Capitalism is driving the company to cut corners and increase production. And then hire an actor to pretend to be a terrorist and then orchestrate a coup to place a puppet on the presidency. Basically, in the film, the terrosist threat is literally a fake conflict meant to obscure the damage done by profit-seeking companies. I mean, like, how much more on the nose can you get? Maybe not a lot.
Into this mix, however, the film implicates a third player: the media. The film spends a lot of time showing us the behind the scenes process of filming the Mandarin videos. It’s easy to forget with all the exploding Iron Man suits, but the final fight is meant to be a carefully staged terrorist attack. The plan is to make it seem like the president is killed by the Mandarin and then install the vice president as a puppet for the corrupt oligarchs.
In other words, the film literally calls out the narrative of the threatening terrorist as a cover for the capitalist take-over. The simple story of the good guy fighting the bad buy is a distraction cooked up by the capitalist system – including the media – to obscure the real damage the system is doing.
The second part of what makes this an interesting film is the Iron Man suit. The film seems to be somewhat conflicted about what the suit represents. On the one hand, it is obviously Tony Starks super power. Without it, he’s just your average genius inventor playboy philanthropist. With that established, two things seem to be true about the suit for Tony.
On the one hand, it is a place of refuge. He flees to it after his first panic attack. A panic attack brought on by memories of a foreign assault on New York – with images very reminiscent of 9/11. And building more and more suits is also explicitly called out as a way for him to find solace after that attack.
On the other hand, as much as the suit is a cocoon, it is also a source of isolation. The suit – and by extension, the super-power – is preventing him from having a meaningful relationship with others and with himself.
Having the suit wrecked in the middle is presented as moment of revelation, a chance for Tony to get back to his true self. By the end, Tony realizes that the suit is preventing him realizing his full potential and he destroys it because he’s awesome all on his own.
And I think I might lose you a little bit here. Buuut what is the suit? It is a weapon. And it is an industrial thing. So I think it’s pretty fair to say that the suit is Tony’s last link to the military industrial complex. Yeah, I dropped the MIC word. With that in mind, Tony’s reliance on the suit after the New York attack plays out as a kind of mirror of United States turn towards the military industrial complex after the 9/11 attacks. If we stretch this metaphor even further, then, what the film is saying is that just like Tony is misguided to turn to his suit, America is misguided to turn to the military industrial complex.
And yet. For all these valiant attempts to make smart points, the film can’t get out of the constraints of the genre, or the constraints imposed by the marvel studio system, though I expect those two are essentially the same thing. The film devolves into the simple narrative that it seems to want to critique. Aldritch Killian becomes just another bad guy for Tony Stark to punch. The Iron Man suits swoop in and save the day. The final fight is just one big spectacle that distracts and contradicts from all the other points it was making. Because it is a super-hero film, it has to hit those beats and in doing so, it becomes a worse film.