Archive for the ‘Comic Books’ Category

Iron Man II

May 12, 2010

Last night while watching Robert Downey Jr. channel an American fantasy of techno-capiltalist individualism while Scarlett Johansson efficiently dispatched teams of enemy goons with her deadly kneecaps, the downtown theatre was unusually full. My friends and I were sitting near the centre of the theatre, and were surrounded by a sea of mostly young moviegoers eager to see men in suits of metal armor blow things to smithereens and have fabulous parties afterward. Iron Man II was a testosterone-soaked celebration of the military-industrial complex that saw private big business wedded to military bureaucracy in defense of the American way of life. I didn’t expect much else from this film, but I never cease to be amazed at the unabashedly ideological messages that remain hardly disguised beneath all the superheroics and curvaceous female leads.

Modernist faith in technological progress was an explicit theme of the film, but was signaled in a minor episode in which the egomaniac playboy Tony Stark, in one of his many callous attempts to irritate his aid and love interest Ms. Pepper-Pots (Gwyneth Platrow), replaces a small Barnett Newman painting hanging on his wall with a comicbook art poster of himself as Iron Man. This telling gesture points out the continuity between the modernist vision of a utopian present break with the past, for which the abstract expressionist movement, with its focus on pure form as its sole content, provided a defining aesthetic, and the post-modern cyborg fantasy embodied in Tony Stark as a man kept alive by the same nuclear-like technology that also produces “world peace” in the film through American military dominance. The utopian social vision inherent in the high art of modernist painting and the lowbrow culture of popular comics are here revealed to inhabit an ideological continuum despite the film’s vindictive gesture of supplanting the former by the latter.

Are those fireworks, or exploding soldier drones?

Another strange eruption of the film’s unconscious occurs at the climatic scene where Stark and his sidekick “war machine” (Don Cheadle) fight the baddie and his army of robot drones. The battle begins inside the geodesic dome at the centre of the Stark Industries Theme Park in a synthetic “natural” landscape that includes rolling green hillocks, fake looking trees and a cascading creek. By the time the heroes vanquish the Russian antagonsit Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) and his army of drones, the synthetic pastoral at the heart of the modernist futurtopia (which is actually a nostalgic retro-futurtopia, as it is built on the a model provided by Stark’s father in the fifties) has been devastated by fallout from the battle. The entire structure is then blown up when the vanquished drones self-detonate in one last attempt to thwart the American dream, but the attempted sabotage is triumphally recuperated when the attendant explosions produce a tableau of fireworks that brought to mind images of Disneyland that any Western child who has grown up within the last forty years would recognize. (One couldn’t help but wonder at the intentionality of this gesture, given Disney’s recent purchase of rights to the entire Marvel franchise).

But the element that truly lent this cinematic experience an air of surreality came from outside the screen, from the audience itself in the form of a disabled man sitting near the front of the theatre, who, excited by the film’s many scenes of action, mayhem and high-living, seemed to want to signal his enjoyment by emitting long strings of repetitious syllables and guttural exclamations. These unusual sounds mingled with the action of the film, producing a form of meta-soundtrack that I found to be strangely fitting. For, in a movie that depicts patriarchal, technological violence coupled with a fantasy of capitalistic agency, this vociferous audience member provided the human counterpoint to the ideological obfuscations produced by the film’s highly conservative plot and genre structures. As the man’s interjections continued, people sitting in the audience started to get annoyed, even standing up in their seats to try to locate the source of the disturbance. There was an unsettling moment when the audience became aware of itself as a mass, and I feared that some sort of violence might break out. Then, a young man sitting near the left aisle said “Sit the fuck back down. Let the guy do his thing and enjoy the film”, a gesture which mollified both the crowd and the man making the noise, and which made me strangely proud of the assembled group. I wonder, now, if the the disabled man, like Tony Stark, was aided in his living by some form of technological prosthesis, and if this individual saw himself mirrored, somehow, in the battling figures wreaking havoc via technology on the big screen.

Perched inside the hole of a giant, roof-top doughnut, Downey Jr. as Iron Man feels right at home.

In the film itself, the figures that Downey Jr’s character performs are all prototypes of individualistic striving and achievement: from when the playboy millionaire decides to pilot his own race car, to when he appropriates the roll of DJ at his birthday party, to when he singlehandedly constructs a particle accelerator in his laboratory, Tony Stark is the model of the lone genius or solitary hero. The fact that he joins forces with a “sidekick” to defeat the bad guy, and that he actually makes gestures towards monogamous commitment with Ms. Pepper-pot does not really diffuse the fact that Stark is a sort of idiot savant, a roll that works to screen the extent to which his existence is buttressed by and dependent upon the help of others. But the film is full of supporting characters who belie Stark’s narcissism, and the primary difference between the corporate playboy hero Stark and the antagonist CEO of Hammer industries (Justin Hammer played by Sam Rockwell), lies not in their degree of dependence on others, nor on motivations or behaviour, but rather on Stark’s charisma, media savy and fashion sense against Hammer’s cloying demeanor and slightly frumpy business attire.

In short, the semiotic value structure of the film is coded in terms of taste rather than morality, with a championing of the lowbrow but “slick” post-modernist sensibility of Stark against the aristocratic, awkward and “artificial” sensibilities of Hammer. It is strange that Rourke’s Slavic, cockatoo-loving, tattooed character should be consigned to Hammer’s company as the embodiment of all that resists incorporation into the auspices of late capitalist society (the tribal, the Old World, the physically deformed), but as the coupling of the Barnett Newman painting with the comic book poster illustrates, these binaries work in their opposition to conceal a continuum that supports the whole ideological structure in the first place.