Iron Man: An Alternate View

Just about everyone I know who has seen Iron Man has loved the film. It certain seems to be a cinematic triumph, and possibly a hot contender for next year’s Hugo. But pretty pictures are not the be all and end all of a movie. Those of you who think that political analysis of books and movies is “reading in things that aren’t there” will not be happy with this review of the film (and those of you allergic to spoilers and who haven’t seen the film should avoid it too). For everyone else, it is a very interesting analysis.

My own reaction, having read the piece, is that had the film been more politically daring then fans would have lambasted it for not being true to the comic. Tony Stark, after all, is not exactly your typical social crusader. It is also possibly hoping for a bit much for such a high profile Hollywood film to do things that would infuriate your average Republican voter. Much of America is still in denial about military adventurism. But comics (and therefore hopefully films about comic characters) can tackle big issues. The success of Iron Man has pretty much guaranteed that there will be a sequel. Here’s hoping that the producers are a bit braver next time around.

15 thoughts on “Iron Man: An Alternate View

  1. Ultimately, she doesn’t review this movie in the nature in which it was constructed. This is an Iron Man movie, not a movie written by Michael Moore. The point of this movie was to tell the story of Iron Man. That Iron Man was written without female super-heroes is simply a truth. That Pepper Pott was true to the original work is a testament to the movie’s ability to update a story without gutting it’s original focus.

    While some people will only see stereotypes in the Afghani’s, what I saw was one megalomaniac (Afghani) vs. another megalomaniac (Stark’s mentor/partner) and Stark, finally coming of age as a responsible grown up somewhere in his 40’s. This story was very true to the original work (which was, after all, the point) and that they were able to comment on arms dealers and how much in bed with everyone everyone else is was consistent with the original work.

    Iron Man never worked with women as equals until after he joined the JL — that’s another movie and one we’ve been cued up to by that bit after the credits. To expect Iron Man, as a movie, to be all things political is to misunderstand the point of the movie.

    Ultimately, for some people, the movie isn’t worth while if some major force isn’t being trashed — and that’s sad really.

  2. Well, not everyone sees a book or a film in the same way. When you have a keen interest in a minority position you are often much more sensitive to how that position gets misused in popular entertainment. Not having seen the film, I can’t really say whether that review is over-reacting or not, but I’m prepared to accept the argument as genuine. And just as I don’t accept the position of that rant in The Guardian the other day that anyone who criticizes a women writer must automatically be sexist, equally I’m not prepared to dismiss anyone who finds sexism or racism in a movie as automatically a killjoy.

    And you know, it is possible to write a fun adventure that is also subtly political. You just have to want to do it. A good reviewer will be aware of whether you did or not.

  3. Ah, but my point is that this *was* subtly political. Perhaps too subtle for the reviewer in question, but there was blame aplenty laid about to those who deserved it — the arms makers, the sellers/buyers, the military for not doing a damn thing about it when they knew — there a great deal of political here.

    As for deciding that Pepper is somehow downtrodden — well, she’s no Wonder Woman, and she could use a touch more self-esteem, no argument there — but the line quoted “sometimes I take the trash out” was a very specific and direct response to be called an unnoticeable lap dog by Latest Conquest. The line was well delivered and appropriate for someone in the position of “in the boss’s employ” in any age.

    If one wanted to argue this film is sexist, one could argue that without much trouble — but to suggest that this movie didn’t make political comment (or didn’t go far enough) is to assume that all movies *must* be a soapbox and frankly, would have ruined the true-to-Iron-Man-comics work that this was.

    I prefer a movie that makes a subtle statement while remaining true to the original work when there’s an original work involved. If I want to see an overtly political movie, I’ll go to one of those — but Iron Man was never designed to do that. Nor should it have been. From my perspective ;>.

  4. I suspect that Tony Stark’s substantial character growth and change — which, if nothing else, is heading along the PC spectrum in the right direction — can only count for so much when the premise will always be that he is a human weapon, carrying out missions consistent with the attitudes of paying American customers who keep the franchise alive.

  5. It is an interesting problem. I think we are all agreed that Tony Stark and Pepper Potts are who they are, and there’s not much a film maker could do about that without changing the whole nature of the story. Therefore you look at how minor characters are dealt with. That tells you where the focus of the production team is. For example, it used to be OK to have a gay character in a movie, provided that he died horribly at the end. That’s now changing.

    So the things that interested me about that review was where it examined the treatment of minor characters. Two things stood out. Firstly there are only two major female characters. One is Pepper, and you can’t do anything with her. The other is portrayed negatively. Secondly there is the accusation that the American villain is portrayed as having reasons for what he does, whereas the Afghan villain has no redeeming features whatsoever. As I’ve said, I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t know whether those accusations are correct. But they are the sort of questions I would have been asking about the film, had I gone to see it.

  6. “I haven’t seen the film” — fair enough. I do suspect it’s worth at least a matinee (though, from my perspective, it’s worth full price) to take a look see.

    As for the minor characters, at least from where I stood, the “reasons” the American character gives are a load of hooie (he’s just a greedy bastard — there’s no flag waving that I bought here — and it’s not that the actor is bad) and the Afghani character is pretty clearly the same sort of man — perhaps with slightly more reason (he’s a warlord) within his culture. Frankly, both men are clearly irredemable Bad Guys. The only difference is that the American is able to wear the cloth of civility rather better — but that’s more about training and opportunity than any internal “better” reason or nature.

    As for writing off the Good minor character that actually takes the bullets for Tony to allow him to escape and *do* something good — that’s just wrong. Picking and choosing the minor characters that one wishes to pay attention to is a bit disingenous. The character of Yinsin is making a point. That this author chooses to dismiss it because it didn’t somehow work for her shows a bias that runs throughout this review. That he is a physician displaced by the war is a very clear message (hell, he has lines to that effect). That this *whole movie* is a pointed message that Tony’s actions (and by extension ours) have effects and he needs to wake up to this is missed by this author amazes me. We see the Human cost of war clearly in the eyes of the children and families that this warlord threatens — how the author missed that I have no idea.

    I have to say, I enjoyed the hell out of this film — it’s a good adaptation of the Iron Man story and the acting is strong. But then I don’t generally go to Adventure Flicks looking for Meaning. Yea, I could have done without the pole-dancing stews — but I think the director was trying to make a point at just how debauched our dear Tony is Before.

    Is it perfect? No film is. Is it slanted in some way? Most films are. Could it have been a stronger political/feminist vehicle? Of course — but that’s not what the point of the movie was. I guess I don’t think every movie made needs to be a strong political/feminist statement for me to enjoy it. If that’s a personal requirement of the viewer, this movie won’t be as fun for that viewer.

    But let’s be fair — Comics, more often than not, (and certainly mainstream ones) objectify men and women as a basis for the bloody industry. Both the men and women must be Big and Strong and Gorgeous and Never Afraid (at least Golden Agers — it’s not till much later that they all start questioning themselves :>). Wonder Woman, as the best, most active female member of Golden Age comics embodies this. Because she was female, she was allowed to question her course — the men aren’t even given *that* much humanity. To expect a Comics flick to somehow reflect deep thinking and “proper politics” and “feminist reasoning” is rather like expecting a Worldcon to look like SanDiego Comic Con — they’re simply different animals. Even if the outside world can’t always tell.

  7. I’m very much hoping that I will get to see the film, but it will probably have to be on DVD (unless it happens to be on the plane when I fly over for Worldcon). It should be interesting.

    What I hope I won’t do, however, is dismiss someone else’s view of it as “biased” simply because it didn’t agree with my own. People have biases for reasons, and I can think of plenty of examples of where I’ve been furious about a particular book or film because of its treatment of a particular character or issue and other people have dismissed my concerns on the grounds that the material was “harmless entertainment.”

    Also I’m not prepared to accept the argument that comics are allowed to present sexist and racist material simply because they have always done so. I can quite see that from a strategic point of view this specific movie needed to be fairly true to the comic. But comics can and do tackle meatier themes. Indeed, you can argue that much of the success of X-Men is founded on the way it appeals to kids who get bullied at school for being different. If you argue that comics movies are immune from criticism for unwholesome politics because they have to appeal to a mass market then you are effectively arguing that those unwholesome politics can never be countered. I’d much prefer to argue that mass markets are precisely where the political message should be targeted, because you can do far more good that way, even if you do have to be fairly subtle about it.

  8. Ah — before I run off to lunch, let me respond a little here.

    First — I have to apologize if i gave the impression that I’m willing to give a pass to a comic movie because it’s a comic movie — that wasn’t the point of my last paragraph — I was trying to point out that comics have a particular nature and can only be stretched so far. That said, if it’s still offensive, it’s still offensive. This particular movie simply didn’t hit me that particular way.

    As for her bias — calling out her bias is not the same as dismissing it. There’s not a reviewer alive (myself included) that doesn’t bring a bias to the table. My particular issue with her particular bias is that it apparently led her to dismiss, out of hand, the rather important “minor” character of Yinsin. I’ve no idea why a man who gives his life for another is considered unimportant in her estimation, but that’s a fairly big issue in terms of character developement for a movie — and in particular for what it does for the Tony Stark character.

    I don’t call “sexism” or “racism” or other “isms” that come out in movies “harmless entertainment” — there’s a reason we don’t show the old “mammy” films anymore. This movie just didn’t hit me as “celebrating sexism” or even finding it “ok” — Tony starts out as a slimeball and we’re shown that. By the end of the movie, he’s becoming something better and we’re shown that too. To expect that his conversion to A Better Man is complete that quickly is, to my mind, asking for it all to be tied up in a bow and presented to us in a 2 hour package. I rather like that he’s only “on the road” to becoming a better man. That he’s not there yet, which seems to be a good chunk of her complaint, doesn’t bother me.

    I think, ultimately, that this reviewer and I disagree at base with definitions of sexism and racism (or “groupism”) — and that’s a somewhat invisible part of this discussion. I suspect we also disagree with how a story should unfold and that’s another part of it.

    As for watching this particular movie — I have to admit, the spectacle portion of this flick is much better seen on a large screen — the story will, I imagine, unfold just as well (or poorly) on the small screen ;>.

  9. Hmm, I’ve just gone back and read the review, and I’m finding it hard to see anywhere where it complains about lack of moral progress for Tony Stark. A large number of the complaints are about the treatment of the Afghanis, and about the general glorification of war. Where she complains about sexism, it isn’t that Tony is a shit, or that Pepper is a doormat, but that those attitudes are not critiqued anywhere. I think on the latter point you might argue that the movie does a pretty good job of showing how disfunctional Tony and Pepper are, and there’s no need to rub it in. But on the former point, if the reviewer is right that the movie portrays the Afghanis as bloodthirsty monsters while whitewashing the role of the US military then that would be something worth complaining about. Having not seen the film, I can’t say whether she’s right or not, but what impressed me about the review was that it concentrated largely on the supporting characters.

    You are, of course, quite right that every reviewer has their own biases. That’s why I try not to use the word. After all, if every review is biased, how does it help use the word to describe any particular review? When I see someone complain that a review is “biased” it is often because the complainer believes that there is some absolute standard against which the work should be judged, which just happens to coincide exactly with his own viewpoint, so I tend to bristle when I see someone use the word.

    The Yinsin thing is hard for me to comment on having not seen the film, but the general issue is pretty clear. Both movies and comics tend to suffer badly from the sidekick syndrome. It is the role of the white male to be heroic, and the role of the sidekicks (women, people of color, gays, rustic hobbits, etc.) to die nobly in the cause of helping the white male be heroic. That’s something that will always raise eyebrows.

    In this particular case it sounds like she might be over-stating the case. Firstly, Yinsin doesn’t die at the end of the movie, but rather part-way through where his sacrifice can actually be shown as having a good effect; and secondly because, as the reviewer herself admits, Tony only manages to succeed with the help of his friends, who don’t die in the cause of helping him. But long term I’d like to see the franchise make good on that by showing that when the bad guys have been defeated the world doesn’t go back to being as it was, but becomes something better. You can do that more easily in movies than in comics, because a movie franchise won’t last more than a handful of films, whereas a comic has to keep going for years.

  10. Moral progress: I suppose it’s implied more than stated — when one complains that a movie skims the important issues and is sexist by it’s presentation, one sort of implies that there’s no point where the movie either a) shows a growth away from that or that b) the movie presents that as “good” — neither of which is true for this movie.

    Afghanis vs. US Military — while it may be my bias, it seems clear to me that both are presented as pretty thoroughly bankrupt. I don’t see the whitewashing she does, so it strikes me as odd to describe it that way. I also see the Afghani Warlord as equally bankrupt with the Partner/Mentor of Stark — for about the same reasons (if anything, the Afghani is given slightly better reasons than the power mad nutjob that we discover Stark’s mentor is/has become).

    Bias: ah — bad word then. Not sure what else to call it (assumptions not being a whole lot better) — but when i think someone’s issues have coloured their opinions to the point of seeing things I don’t think are there or missing things I think are very strongly there, I feel it appropriate to call that out — I’m not sure what to call that. It’s more than just “I disagree” — that happens often without seeing the world through completely different lenses. This was a larger issue — though from her perspective, I think this was a well reasoned review — I just think that perspective makes it hard to see the same movie I saw, even if we had sat side by side in the same theatre.

    Long Term: I would expect that we’ll see that long term, the world doesn’t go back to being what it was. In part, this is being true to the comic (Tony really does become a Better Person) – and in part, having him revert isn’t likely to play well at the box office :>.

  11. I think it is very clear that you and the reviewer saw a totally different movie. I also suspect that you and I read a totally different review. It happens, a lot. I try to find that interesting, and often it is. Sometimes I learn a lot from trying to see why someone else reacted to a work in the way that they did.

    By the way, why are you using British spelling for “coloured”? Is our cultural imperialism finally taking hold?

  12. I’ve seen this phenomenon myself and it’s interesting at least in part for the understanding of how minds work. I’m not as sure as you that the reviewer and I saw a different movie (though I’ve experienced that phenomenon certainly), but in this case I think it’s rather more likely that we approached it with our own biases so firmly set in place that we could only see the movie from behind our own filters. Perhaps that’s the same thing, I’m not sure :>.

    And I have to admit, from my particular bias, I don’t tend to see the world as assumptively “ist” — I suspect this author tends to and would think of me as naive — just as she strikes me as somewhat jaded. With those two very different starting places, almost any movie would strike us very differently. From that perspective, this is an interesting author for me to read :>.

    As for colour — I’ve been doing that since I was very young. I don’t remember exactly when I picked that particular bit up, but “our” was firmly seated in my writing by the time I hit high school — and something that some of my teachers thought was “quaint” and others made me do re-writes for. Amusingly, it wasn’t all English Teachers that wanted the re-writes :>.

  13. I suspect that whether or not you see the world as full of “ism”s or not depends very much on your background. If you happen to be a member of a group that gets discriminated against; if you happen to live in a redneck part of the country; if you happen to live or work out of your community; then you’ll be more prone to notice what goes on. I tend to give such people much more leeway than I do to, say, well-off white girls who yell “sexism” every time they don’t get what they think they deserve (although of course sometimes they are right too).

    I am astonished at how friendly your teachers were. If I’d used American spelling in school I’d have been in very deep trouble. (I use it now because most of my readers are American and because most of my clients are American.)

  14. “ism”s — I suspect you’re exactly right. My mom did all the big fighting for rights, so I didn’t have to. I was 19 before anyone every suggested to me I couldn’t because I was a girl (and yes, by that time, I found it simply amusing — and a bit ironic as it as a very dark skinned black man in the military making the comment in 1979 — kind of hard to take seriously even if he *was* a Drill Sergeant and I was in Basic Training…).

    And you’re right — I’m far more likely to cut someone who grew up repressed/oppressed slack for that then I am someone with what I think are the vaguely similar backgrounds you and I have. Of course, if one writes, one removes that slack-cutting — I can only judge based on words and what I *think* you’re saying ;>.

    As for my teachers — I was in a theatrical program in HS (and Berkeley the whole time) — and as long as I was consistent (if I started with British spellings, I better keep it up), most of the teachers were fine with it. But OH the comments I got on my first paper in grad school for the Rhetoric teacher — I didn’t do it again for the rest of grad school ;>.

  15. I will also note that being Jewish in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60’s and early 70’s (the formative years) was no hard thing either. Neither of my “minority” status’s have had (as far as I know) much of a negative impact on my life. That colours my reaction to people who tell me they lived in a major city and tell me how hard it was, whereas I have no trouble understanding those who came from smaller towns or regions that are known to be a problem for the individual speaking…

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