Before we embark upon the unvarnished hero-worship of Man of Steel, let us take a long, perhaps last look at Tony Stark, the apotheosis of an era of superheroes who are defined as much by their faults as their virtues. Like all superheroes, Stark represents the best of humanity – courage, cunning, and physical fortitude – but the Iron Man films never gloss over his faults and moral failings. We admire Stark’s talents and are drawn to his charisma, but his hero’s journey finds him constantly at odds with his own selfishness. In other words, the real enemy is within. It was his act of self-sacrifice in the climax of The Avengers that completed this journey, but Iron Man 3 finds him in a familiar place, trying to temper his worst impulses while caring for the people he loves.
As the film opens, Stark is doing battle with the Mandarin, a terrorist who bears a close resemblance to Osama Bin Laden. After one of Mandarin’s suicide bombers blows up his bodyguard, Tony issues publicly challenges him, who reciprocates by blowing up Tony’s house, destroying his lab, and putting his girlfriend Pepper in jeopardy. Once again, Tony’s arrogance has been exposed as weakness, and he must rebuild.
For Stark, the internal struggle that prevents his self-actualization is not just a character flaw but also a reflection of the times; the movie superhero has of late been primarily used to explore the American character in the post-9/11 era. In the 21st century, Batman, Iron Man, and Spider-Man don’t just battle criminals; they fight terrorism, and the focus of these films on their heroes’ flaws is a reflection of America’s complex perception of itself. In The Dark Knight, Batman wrestled with the ethics of the War on Terror. Spider-Man reminded us that “with great power comes great responsibility.” And Iron Man, in the first film, only decided to use his talents for good when he saw how his weapons were being used by the Taliban against innocent Afghanis. We are a nation divided by politics and region, and few of us are certain of our role in the geopolitical arena. Today’s American superhero is not a pure and certain force for good. He has doubts, and so do we.
But Iron Man 3 represents a shift towards a less complex view of war and American power, and this shift is conveyed primarily through the way the film depicts villainy. The film’s black-and-white attitude towards the Mandarin’s villainy – he kills innocent women and children and executes a man on live television – reflects a neoconservative, reactionary morality that would have been better suited for action movies of the 1980s, when clear-cut, foreign villains movies like Die Hard and Red Dawn were used to buttress Reagan’s calls for higher defense spending. It’s not completely unexpected; the film’s director, Shane Black, wrote some of that era’s biggest action films, including Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout.
But Black is clever enough to update these themes for our times, and, after a stunning and hilarious reversal that I won’t spoil here, a new villain emerges in the film’s second half that offers a more complicated picture of crime, terrorism, and heroism. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, doing his best Val Kilmer), a scientist with a dangerous but impressive weapon at his disposal, ends up having a large role in the Mandarin’s plans. Killian is not an evil man but an innovator whose greed and talent often gets the better of him. He’s a lot like Stark, in fact, except that Stark is less controlled by his weaknesses.
Killian’s presence gives Iron Man 3 a more modern perspective on villainy, but Black maintains his staunchly conservative perspective throughout, especially his animus for the federal government. This is typical of Reagan Era action movies, in which a rogue cop always does a better job at catching criminals than the authorities. The film’s final third paints the President of the United States (William Sadler, a veteran of Die Hard 2), as weak and ineffectual, and another high-ranking member of the executive branch as terribly corrupt. It is a thorough indictment of government, as only Stark, the man who once claimed to have “privatized national security,” can save the day. Oh, and Black throws in a pretty strong anti-science message in there, for good measure.
But does this mean Iron Man 3 is actually politically conservative, or does it just pander to the lowest common denominator? We’re all always mad at the president, and depicting him as a weakling is not necessarily a political comment. I think we can call the politics of Iron Man 3 deeply conservative, although not necessarily partisan. Further, it’s not clear that this return to the Reagan Era depiction of heroism and villainy means anything. It may signal a shift away from the period of national soul-searching that followed 9/11, or it may only be the influence of a filmmaker whose creativity was honed in the Reagan Era. Only time will tell, but the truth will have significant implications that go beyond the future of the genre.