Tony Stark, Marxist Superhero

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, for some reason, giant bunnies.

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.

Somehow that plan involves putting the president into an Iron man suit and suspending him fifty feet in the air. Look, a film can be a scathing critique of capitalism and also not make a whole lot of sense.

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.

Here’s a picture that isn’t silly, or weird, or random. It just… illustrates my point. Huh.

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.

The Dark Knights Fakes It’s Way to Moral Ambiguity.

Huh, this might be my catchiest title yet.

Look, I’m going to be upfront here. The Dark Knight is not a bad film. I first saw the film when I was 19 and 19-year-old me thought it was the bomb.

This is 19-year-old me. I was going to make a joke about how little I knew back then, but man, this look is pretty dope.

Even now, I don’t think it’s a bad film necessarily.  Like, it’s a competent action film. But watching it now there’s something… troubling about it.

“I’m just a dog chasing cars,” the Joker says.

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with,” Alfred says. “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Those are cool-sounding quotes. Like, Nolan knows what he’s doing when he’s writing. It’s no wonder 19-year-old me was blown away.

But, the thing is what those quotes are saying is quite simple.When the Joker says he’s just a dog chasing cars, he means that being a jerk is just in his nature. He’s just like that. And the world has people like that, Alfred says. Some people are evil and they can’t be reasoned with because their evilness comes from a rot at the core of their being. This is why you need people like Batman.

This a simplification. Of the world I mean. The world isn’t like this.

Look, I’m not saying psychopaths don’t exist, or that it’s not ok to have villains who are psychopaths and just evil. In fact, as far as inexplicably evil psychopaths go, Heath Ledger’s Joker is incredibly charismatic. But The Dark Knight wants to have a simple story about good and evil and also make a complex film that riffs on current events.

Let me explain. A lot of internet ink has been expended on how Batman is basically George Bush and the Joker is Al-Qaeda. I buy this. I’m on board with this. For you weirdos who don’t obsessively follow the deep comic book analysis sites, I’ll do a quick rundown but to be honest, I’m mostly basing this off Cracked again.

Actually, for those keeping track, this is the same article that inspired my very first blog post. I guess that article really blew my mind.

Since I guess we’re doing this now, here is a picture of me, roughly around the time I read that post. Seven years ago, for those keeping track. This probably is a pretty accurate representation of my state of mind,

Anyway, the gist of this argument is this. Basically, the Joker is unpredictable and randomly blows shit up, like Al-Qaeda. Batman has the support of the government, like George W. Bush. In the end, a pivotal reason reason why Batman is able to catch the Joker is that he turns every phone into an echo-locating listening device, which is exactly what George W. Bush did to catch Usama Bin Laden. And for those really keeping track, yes, I did this exact joke structure in that first post as well. Uhh, getting back to the main point, there’s even a bit where Batman flies to Hong Kong to do a bit of extraordinary rendition. You know, like W. did.

So the film wants to say something profound about the world while also being a simple story of good versus evil. The effect of these two impulses is a message saying that the world can be reduced to a simple story of good and evil. And this is problematic.

This picture has nothing to do with the article, but by now I’ve gotten lost in the rabbit hole of old facebook photos. This is a pretty weird photo right? Anyway, last one, I swear.

What this does is that in the middle of these explosions, the film sends a message about how to deal with terrorists. This message tried to be the gray, morally complex thing that the film is aiming for, but it doesn’t actually work.

Think about the two most questionable things Batman does. He flies to a different country an extradite a foreign national and listen in everyone’s phones. To it’s credit, the film indicates an awareness, at least, that these things are morally questionable. Is it ok to infringe of privacy in the name of safety? The film asks. What about flying over to foreign country we don’t have legal jurisdiction and kidnapping a foreign citizen? Is that ok? Maybe they’re not ok, the film implies.

But then, when it comes to it answering these questions, the film comes down squarely on the side of “yeah, no, those things are totally fine, keep doing them.” Because doing the morally questionable thing is what allows Batman to win. In the end, making the tough choice is what saves the day.

Yes, it’s ok to invade people’s privacy in the name of security, but only if you feel really, really feel bad about it.

This was actually on my Tinder profile for a while. For some reason, it didn't work out so well.
Ok, I lied when i said the last picture was the last one. Buuut, this picture is totally relevant because I, uhh – hey look behind you, it’s an eagle! Another close save.

Also, another thing. This gets a little lost in all the explosions, but there’s another aspect of the film that is downright astonishing from a today’s perspective. Basically, the situation is that Gotham is a super-corrupt crime heaven. Harvey Dent’s plan to stop this is essentially to use a legal loophole and lock up all the criminals. Incarcerate them on a… massive scale. Incarceration en masse, if you will. I feel like think about this hard, we can probably come up with a catcher term.

Anyway, the film is 100% on board with this. It is the solution to the problem of criminality. Harvey Dent, the film assures us, is A Good Guy, at least until he turns evil. The film wants to leave no doubt about. He was One of the Good Guys. And massive imprisonment is what Harvey wants. He’s all about that. His entire plan for solving the crime problem in Gotham is “lock everyone up.”

Fine, I guess at least one of my pictures has to have something to do with the article. Whatever.
And also to look smoulderingly handsome, but that’s such an integral part, it goes without saying.

And it’s kind of crazy to think about, but the whole dramatic arc of the film hinges on this one fact. This is why Batman takes the fall in the end, to allow the city to lock up all the criminals, because if everyone finds out that Harvey Dent turned evil, they won’t be able to lock everyone up. The film, super for real, believes that the way to solve the crime problem is to lock everyone up. I feel like this is a pretty snowflakey blog, so y’all should be clued in, but if anyone was wondering, mass incarceration  isn’t great.

So, in a very 2008 way, the film wants us to consider the troubling dilemma, “is it ok to restrict liberties to ensure freedom and security?” But like the question raised by that other DC property, this is pseudo-dilemma. It’s the dilemma you pose if you have already decided on the answer. Because in the real world, it’s not at all certain that more intrusive surveillance actually prevents terrorism, and it is certain that mass incarceration doesn’t reduce crime. So the film pretends to be asking these Difficult Questions and tackling these Weighty Themes, just like Man of Steel, but the starting premises undercut any pretense of complexity. In this case, the starting premises are that increased surveillance is effective against terrorism and that mass incarceration reduces crime. If you couple that with the premise that some people are just evil for no reason then you have starting premises that are definitely going to lead to some places like fascism.