So Iron Man 2. By now, it’s just kind of an accepted fact that it’s just the worst, so I don’t feel I have to go into why that is. It’s bad I get it. But like a fool I’m still going to defend it. Basically I’m just going to ignore the attacks everyone is making and instead defend the film from the attack that almost no one is making. Because I hate being accessible? Maybe. What almost no one (but not actually no one) is saying is that the film is an a tribute to everyone’s (no one’s) favorite (not actually a) philosopher and all-round grumpy person, Ayn Rand.
You can find articles arguing for that here, here and here. What I’m going to argue is that this interpretation misses a lot of the nuance of the film, which actually works as a deconstruction of the Randian ideal. And actually, I’m going to go even further than that and argue that Marvel’s most capitalist hero is actually a full-on defender of the role of government in… well a lot of things. Some thing anyway.
But I can see where the criticism comes from. In fact, you can see it in the very first scene. For those who don’t feel like re watching two hours of tedium (or even like, ten minutes), that scene is all about Tony Stark defending his right to keep the Iron Man suit and not have to give it to the government so they can repel foreign invasions. And it’s true, the scene has a lot of parallels to a similar court scene in Atlas Shrugged, which I guess is about this character, Hank Rearden’s right to not to have to give up his Iron Man suit so the government can use it to build railways or whatever (full disclosure: I haven’t actually read Atlas Shrugged. But come on, who wants to do that? Have you guys seen atlus shrugged? It’s a friggin tome! And anyway, I read the sparknotes summary. Well, some of it.). Both Rearden and Stark are super-rich genius inventors who have invented this amazing new way of making Iron man suits. In both cases, the government wants to take away their invention (remember: Iron Man suits) and use it for the public good and in both cases the protagonists argue that the public good is best served by keeping the Iron Man suits in private hands. Both Rearden’’s and Tony Stark’s speeches basically amount to “you want my stuff, well you can’t have it” and focus on the sacred right of property. So there’s a pretty convincing link between Stark and Rand.
Then there’s this whole capitalism thing. Obviously, there’s the fact that Stark is super-rich corporate executive and did I mention he has a lot of money? He does. Also, there’s the fact that the courtroom scene ends with Stark saying something like, “I have successfully privatized world peace. You’re welcome.” Look, I never said this film was subtle. So, I guess it’s not strange then that people look at the beginning of the film and see the similarity between Tony Stark and Ayn Rand, and go “yep. That’s pro-capitalist all right. Nothing could possibly disprove that”.
Except, that’s not exactly true. First, it’s important to note that Iron Man 2 and Atlas Shrugged differ in where they place the speech. In Atlas Shrugged, it’s near the end (or somewhere, whatever, space is relative right?), right before the government collapses in an explosion of Iron Man suits (because they’ve taken them all. Moral of the story: don’t take all the Iron Man suits. They explode) but in Iron man 2 it’s actually the first scene. The Hubris scene. In fact, the entire rest of the film is spent showing that pretty much all of what Stark says in this scene is false. Tony says no one else is even close to building a similar suit, but in the next scene we are introduced to evil Russian, Whiplash who has built a similar suit. Tony says he’s never going to give the suit to the government, but later on, he does just that. And if we go back to Atlas Shrugged, the outcomes are completely different. In Atlas shrugged, everything goes to hell because the government wants to take the suits (remember, they explode). In Iron Man 2, when they are denied the help of the premier inventor, the government goes to his inferior rival, which is the catalyst for everything bad that happens. So basically, everything goes to hell in Iron Man 2 because Tony Stark won’t help the government.
Then there’s the case of Stark’s illness. In the courtroom scene, Stark claims that he can sustainably protect America from outside threats. This is not true. If he dies, which the film goes to great lengths to make us believe he will, he won’t be able to protect anyone. And, in fact, what’s killing him is his own invention. Although it might be tempting to make the connection to the unsustainable way we are treating the planet, even I have to admit this is a bit of a stretch. But, remember, the explicit connection between Tony Stark and privatization was made already in the courtroom scene (that whole, privatized world peace line). So, if Stark is capitalism, and Tony Stark has a problem in his heart, then I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the film implies that capitalism has a problem in it’s very heart.
And speaking of that illness, let’s think about how Tony deals with it. For a superhero famed for his resourcefulness, he deals with his impending doom incredibly poorly. He shuts out his friends, he drinks, and he behaves just generally irresponsibly. In the end though, he solves the situation by creating a new element which doesn’t kill him. Yes, this is incredibly stupid, but if we look past stupid it is, the way it happens is pretty revealing. On his own, he flounders he can’t do it. Instead, it takes the intervention of SHIELD and a message from Howard Stark from the past to help him solve the riddle. How does Tony’s dad know he’s going to need a new element in 50 years? How does Nick Fury know that Tony’s dad knows the secret? Best not to think about these questions. What is interesting to think about, however, is what Howard Stark and Nick Fury represent. As head of SHIELD, Nick Fury, clearly represents the government.
Howard Stark, Tony’s father, is maybe trickeir to parse, but I think that probably the simplest reading is that his role is meant to further emphasize the fact that Tony didn’t build himself up from scratch. His wealth, his power, and now even the idea for a new element that saves his heart, was handed down to him, essentially given to him. Are these interpretations a bit of a stretch. Maybe. But remember, these are choices made by the filmmakers. They didn’t need to have Stark be helped by SHIELD or his father. In fact, the film would probably have been better if it didn’t involve these elements. Instead, the plot jumps through unnecessary hoops to work in these interventions, I take this as evidence that the film really wants be saying that the free market, as embodied by Tony Stark, can only be effective through the help of government intervention, as embodied by SHIELD, and the legacy of earlier innovators, as embodied by Howard Stark.
And if you look at the ending, it’s not Tony Stark working by himself that take down Whiplash. Instead, it’s Stark, working in close coordination with Rhodey – the government soldier who, despite all of Stark’s grandstanding in the opening scene, is actually given an Iron Man suit. Private enterpise assisting the government to take down problems. So, using this analysis, a surprisingly consistent message has emerged. Private enterprise owes a great deal to the government, and as such has an obligation to contribute to the good of society. While this isn’t exactly a radical idea (if I ever get around to doing an analysis of Iron Man 3, I’ll show that film is way more radical) it’s a far cry from the Randian ideals that a lot people attribute to the film. Shame it’s still kind of a terrible film.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the main characters’s name as “John Reardon” not Hank Reardon.
Correction 2: An earlier version of this post described the plot of Atlas Shrugged as being about trains and metal and some other bullshit. This was clearly wrong.