Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Superheroes, Conservatism, and the Failure of Iron Man 2

I was going to write a general review of Iron Man 2 but I don't think I'm up to it, I just don't care enough about the movie. It's not anywhere near as good as it's predecessor, but at the same time it's not offensively bad like Transformers 2 or Spiderman 3. I don't have anything positive to say about it but there's no room to really have fun ripping into it. Iron Man 2 is just a painfully average mess of a movie that suffers from the same narcissism and self-indulgence that it portrays in its hero. The film has many interesting elements that unfortunately don't work as a final product, and it left me feeling... meh. Go see it, chances are that if you're reading this you either already have or will no matter what I say. If you're looking for a decent review check out the one at io9, it's the best I've read. This one over at The Washington Post isn't bad either.

All that said, while Iron Man 2 fails to inspire either awe or vitriol, it does provide the perfect context with which to bring up something I've been thinking a lot about lately: conservatism in superhero movies.

The Dark Knight is one of my favourite films, but I also think it's an incredibly right-wing movie. It's portrayal of Batman identifies superheroes as necessarily conservative and even fascistic entities, benevolent overseers that know best and act accordingly. In the movie Bruce Wayne takes the law into his own hands and goes to whatever lengths he deems necessary to impose his personal concept of justice on the inhabitants of Gotham city. While The Dark Knight explores the idea of superheros with a liberal sensibility, it eventually directs the audience to accept and even feel good about Batman's role. Don't get me wrong, I cheer right along with the crowd each time I watch the cinematic masterpiece, but the greater implications of its politics leave me vaguely unsettled. The fact that it ultimately justifies Batman's actions is particularly disturbing as a case-study in effective propaganda.

Iron Man 2's greatest flaw is that it asks whether or not superheroes should be allowed to act the way they do but then fails to explore the question in any meaningful way. The film opens with Tony Stark at his most narcissistic and flamboyantly right-wing: he talks about how he's "tired of the liberal agenda" while hanging an Obama "Hope" styled portrait of himself; later he refuses to turn the Iron Man technology over to the US government and flippantly tells the nation to trust him because he has "privatized peace." Stark cartoonishly symbolizes American conservatism with his brash self-confidence and determination to bear arms and be in charge. Just as Batman's selflessness and good intentions make it easy to accept his crusade in The Dark Knight, Robert Downey Jr.'s unbelievable charisma makes it's easy to buy into his rhetoric in Iron Man 2. At least until things start to go wrong.

Stark quickly succumbs to alcoholism, his god-complex, and unexpected adversaries. In Iron Man 2 the hero reaches his darkest hour, and the problem is that he never really comes back from it. The characters and the filmmakers certainly pretend that he makes a triumphant third-act return to form, but there's nothing to substantiate it; Stark is still the same old narcissist with little to no appreciation of the consequences of his actions, only by then it doesn't seem so forgivable in the context of his heroics. While the US government does attain his technology in the form of War Machine, Stark continues to do as he wishes using the Iron Man suit. By the time the movie wraps up the negative aspects of Stark being a superhero outweigh the benefits, and it's hard to stomach the idea of trusting him with such a potent weapon. In the end Mickey Rourke's prophecy rings truer than anything else in the movie: "If you could make God bleed then people will cease to believe in him."

The Dark Knight explicitly questions Batman's actions through the character of Lucius Fox, but ultimately all is forgiven because the end justifies the means. Iron Man 2 strives to achieve this sense of righteous balance but fails, leaving us with an overpowered egomaniac on the loose. Their relative merits aside, both films raise interesting questions about the very notion of super-human individuals. Can a liberal democratic society accept superheroes? Is there a way to rationalize their unique actions and freedoms? Is there room for democracy in the world(s) of superheroes or are the concepts antithetical? These are not new issues in the superhero genre, but the sudden popularity it has been given via film invites a reexamination. Never before have comic book heroes seemed to exist so tangibly within our contemporary reality, and so we are forced to ask: would we really want them to?

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