Scratch the surface of any popular superhero, and you’ll find what we want to be. Superman was the perfect hero for the 1940s; patriotic, all-powerful, and serenely confident in his own self-righteousness. Come the 1960s and the advent of inward reflection, and you get Spider-Man – a man bound by worries and a thousand niggling debts, but somehow able to surpass them (most of the time) to become something greater.
It’s been forty years since we’ve had a relevant superhero since then. Vietnam and Iraq II have drained America’s collective self-confidence, making us a little afraid to be proud, and the rise of the individual has left us without a collective center. When you have a thousand microtargeted magazines and cable shows, is there really one America any more? Or just a million Balkanized subsections?
But I think, thanks to the wise eye of director Jon Favreau (who also directed Swingers and Elf), we finally have a superhero for the new millennia. Someone who embodies what most of us want America to be.
For Tony Stark is America – arrogant, lavishly rich, hopelessly sexist, and blithely unconcerned in his morality because he has a long legacy of being right and he will always be right. He’s sold weapons like his father, making cutting-edge tech that cuts deep into the enemy.
Yet for all of that deep amorality he holds, Tony is strangely charming. You want to like him because he’s also insanely clever and quick with a quip. He seems reachable, even if he’s completely disinterested in people as anything but tools. But in the end, he’s just another gun for hire….
…until he winds up hostage in the hands of the enemy in Afghanistan. The terrorists, too, love Tony Stark’s guns, and they want him to build a missile for their own nefarious purposes. And in a distant cave, Tony Stark instead opts to build a weapon of his own.
There have been parallels drawn between Tony Stark and Batman for years – they’re both multimillionaire businessmen who are only superheroes because they’re smart and dedicated. But while Batman Begins handwaved all the hard work it took to create the Batmobile and Batman’s “wonderful toys,” Iron Man takes the souped-up Mythbusters route. Tony Stark is a Do-It-Yourselfer, a hacker who spends way too much time in the basement fine-tuning his suit. You are constantly reminded that the technology he works with comes from a long line of failed experiments, constant tweaking, and upgrading; the suit itself is a constantly moving nightmare of gears, cogs, and screws.
And when Tony Stark finally realizes exactly what his arrogance has cost him, he has the Jerry Macguire moment where he finally Gets It. He’s doing harm, and he can no longer write it off… And in that fine American tradition, he’s not paralyzed by guilt, but rather galvanized by it.
Tony Stark is going to fix this. And in an imaginary world, he can.
The glory of Iron Man is that Tony Stark single-handedly does what America is incapable of. Spider-Man, lovely though he is, rescues Americans in New York City. Superman makes some vague passes about helping the world, but really he mostly works between West American Coast and East American Coast.
Tony Stark, on the other hand? He’s America’s good instincts. Rather than saving Americans, who are doing fine, he flies to Afghanistan and saves the poor bastards who are being herded and shot down by terrorists. He’s not out to make his own world safe – he’s trying to help people he doesn’t even know.
It felt relevant. Up until now, I’d never realized how masturbatory all the other superhero films felt, saving us from the mostly-imaginary evils of muggers and bank robbers - who’s ever seen a bank robbed? They’re heavily guarded, they don’t need Spider-Man to protect them. And supervillains are completely imaginary.
But Iron Man is striking at the worst thing we can imagine these days. And he’s doing it not here, saving fattened old America from a bomb, but where he can help a few downtrodden folks out from under from the boot of an Afghani warlord.
The core value of America is “We want to help.” Problem is, we’re remarkably bad at gauging what needs fixing these days. But in superhero land, Tony Stark is everything America wants to be – powerful enough to get the job done, wise enough to choose the right targets, and moral enough to try to make up for his past failings. He’s going to save the world, because unlike the collapse of the Bush administration, he knows precisely how to enact a plan.
(This works, incidentally, because the terrorists are dumb as dirt, too brain-dead to recognize that the various pieces of a walking suit of armor look nothing like a missile casing. I’m really hoping they reenvision The Mandarin, Iron Man’s classic old villain, as a warlord with brains and Tony’s vision.)
Like America, Tony’s not perfect. He’s still too quick to go off on his own, a rebel who doesn’t work well with others (and sometimes pays for it). He’s supremely disinterested in the larger picture. And he’s bad at sensing the motivations of his enemies.
In the comics, Tony Stark has become everything that’s bad about America – our arrogance, our willingness to oppress with technology, our terror of terror. But thankfully, Robert Downey and Jon Favreau flipped that to make Iron Man the movie into a statement of hope and joy. We can win…. If we acknowledge our mistakes.
Because in the end, the story of Iron Man is the story of a very talented jerk who’s trying very hard to become something better. And maybe it’s just me, but I can empathize.