When I think of “woke” movies, Iron Man is not the first movie that comes to mind. Woke movies are socially conscious. More than that, they are aggressively fictionalized to best illustrate their social justice message. Thelma & Louise, The Help, the rebooted all-female Ghostbusters, and Marvel’s Captain Marvel, among many others, are more easily recognized as woke than Iron Man. As I remembered it before sitting down to write this article, Iron Man was the least woke of all the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). If anything, it was unapologetically anti-social justice and all that goes with it. At least, that is how I remembered it.
Last night, I played Thor:Ragnarok on one of my three monitors while working on the other two. I never liked the movie but decided to have it on because I liked the music. With my headphones on and my eyes focused on the other two monitors, I thought I could enjoy the music without being too annoyed by the movie. What happened is that I realized that Ragnarok was not the movie I remembered. See my previous review here to see why. That got me thinking about the other MCU movies. I decided to watch them all over again, in order, while working on other projects. “Maybe”, I thought, “I’ll have a different opinion of these too.” I did. Iron Man, while thoroughly enjoyable, is not the movie I remembered.
I first saw Iron Man at the most beautiful theater I’ve ever been to in my life. And this is from someone who saw “Castaway” at the plush director’s guild screening room in Hollywood. It was at the Metropolis theater in Antwerp, Belgium. It had state of the art projection, screens, seating, and sound. I don’t know how a better theater experience could have been produced. Even better, I hadn’t seen a single preview for the movie. I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t even know that Marvel Comics had formed their own movie studio to make it. It was the first movie featuring a Marvel character where every aspect of the production was controlled by people who fully understood the underlying intellectual property. I loved the movie from the moment it started. I loved the aggressive music, Tony Stark’s hilarious lines, and his unapologetic willingness to get things done no matter what he had to do. Robert Downey jr’s Tony Stark is one of those portrayals that, like Humphrey Bogart’s “Sam” in Casablanca, or James Earl Jones’ Darth Vader, could not have been done by anyone else. Tony Stark, thanks to Downey jr, is a Hollywood creation that lives outside the film in the minds of everyone who saw it as an unforgettable personality archetype.
I’ve seen Iron Man at least ten times. Tonight, for the first time, I spotted a bit of woke social justice warriorism. I didn’t expect to find any. Odds were that something was there. It was written and produced by Jon Favreau, who famously hates President Trump and all things conservative. On the flip side, Downey jr had supposedly become more conservative after leaving jail, and co-stars Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow have been coy about their political affiliations. Regardless, that didn’t stop Downey jr from appearing in an anti-Trump political ad made in 2015 along with other co-stars from later MCU films. Maybe this was one of those movies, like Forrest Gump, that escaped Hollywood’s media censors. Maybe Stan Lee’s vision for an action-packed movie managed to squeeze out all the politics that might have otherwise infiltrated the script. Iron Man himself has always been a character associated with the military and thus conservatism. The filmmakers may have hewn close to the character, to avoid adulterating yet another Marvel property as other studios had done.
In the opening sequences of Iron Man, Tony Stark is established as a billionaire playboy. He is egotistical, sexist, domineering, aggressive, careless, and self-absorbed. He has been given everything the world has to offer. No matter what it is; money, women, gadgets, art, or ideas, he treats everything as his toy. He is flagrantly wasteful. Stark seduces women without a second thought, throws away creative genius on fixing up old cars, money on expensive paintings, and drinks as much as he likes without consequence. Clearly, at least in his own mind, he is invincible. At the same time as he is crass, he is genuinely charming. He doesn’t realize that his female Army driver in Afghanistan is a woman, then makes a point of telling her how attractive she is while simultaneously bragging about other conquests to a male soldier in the back of the “funvee”. Tony Stark is genial but he also has a dark side. He is an unapologetic “Merchant of Death”, as reporter Christine Everheart describes him. In the very next scene, Everheart wakes in Stark’s bed and examines all the comforts his home has to offer, all paid for with the blood of innocents. Stark might be friendly and persuasive but his honor is stained.
Iron Man is all about how Stark redeems himself. He transforms from a careless and ignorant war profiteer into a woke crusader for peace and disarmament. The transformation occurs in a lonely desert cave, officiated by the character who saves his life, Yinsen. Yinsen was captured and forced to serve the evil warlords of the Ten Rings terrorist organization. The Ten Rings owe at least part of their success to Stark weapons, which they have somehow acquired without Stark’s knowledge or permission. Yinsen points out the toll in human life caused by Stark’s weapons, making it clear that Stark is as responsible for those deaths as the people who unleashed them on Yinsen’s people. Stark never questions this. He doesn’t say, “wait a minute. I had no idea. You can’t pin that on me.” Yinsen tells Stark that he must escape to make things right. Will he die a prisoner and allow bad men to use his designs against the innocents of the world? Or will he use his brilliance to prevent further harm? The answer is obvious, if he is to recover his moral compass, he must survive and deal with the mass exportation of munitions and murder for profit. In these scenes, Tony Stark is judged guilty of the sin of being a weapons designer and manufacturer.
Yinsen is killed by the terrorists. His memory becomes the talisman that drives Stark to re-evaluate his life. He commits to reverse course, to be “woke”, to never again allow his creative genius to be used for immoral ends. He returns to the US and cancels all weapons manufacturing at Stark International. The company loses money but he doesn’t care. He ignores a pretty girl who approaches him at a conference, “remember me?” she asks, “sure don’t” is the reply. When Christine Everheart provides hard evidence that Stark weapons were used in a recent terrorist attack, he takes her seriously. No longer a playboy, he is now devoted to fixing the problem of weapons proliferation. His solution is ironic. He creates an advanced weapons system, the Iron Man armor, and uses it to kill indigenous peoples identified as terrorists. Now, instead of simply being unaware that his company was exporting weapons to the wrong class of client, he has taken it upon himself to dispense vigilante justice. He flies to where he is needed and literally kills people in person. He feels no guilt about this, nor should he. They were bad people.
The point however, is this: Stark was cleaning up his own mess. He had to kill the bad people because he had empowered them. He empowered them by designing and manufacturing weapons. There was no direct link between Stark’s design work and the ultimate sale of those products to bad people but he is made to look culpable regardless, just as gun control activists seek the right to sue gun manufacturers for all deaths caused by guns. The gun manufacturer doesn’t provide firearms directly to street criminals, yet they are vilified as if they had. This doesn’t happen with knife designers, hammer designers, banana distributors, or people who manufacture screwdrivers and heavy bookends, yet all of these can be deadly weapons also. If the Iron Man story was translated into real life, it would be as if the owner of Smith and Wesson had decided to take an arsenal of guns to the streets and shoot every street criminal he found to expiate his guilt. Any person who respects the rule of law won’t lose any sleep over the deaths of murderers, whether terrorists or criminals, so there is no reason for annoyance when Iron Man saves all those innocent victims with over-the-top violence. It is sleight-of-hand however, to suggest that he is personally responsible for their victim status or obligated to save them.
What the Iron Man movie does is to rob Tony Stark of his integrity by forcing him to regain it through vigilante justice after submitting to false claims of culpability. Stark could just as easily have decided to investigate the problem of ne’er-do-wells on his staff and deal with it without pretending to be responsible for their actions. I understand the argument of negligence, that he should have known and therefore he was responsible. In this case, there was a broad conspiracy designed to prevent Stark from discovering what was going on. For that reason, it is no more fair to accuse him of war crimes than it is to accuse General Michael Flynn of perjury for lying about lying to the FBI by pleading guilty to a false charge due to illegal coercion.
Iron Man remains a classic movie of the superhero genre. More than that, it is one of the best. Downey jr’s portrayal of Tony Stark is hilarious and exciting. Despite all that, I wish he hadn’t so easily accepted responsibility for Stane’s crimes. By doing that, he lost his independence. He became subject to the claims of his critics, who insisted that he was a bad man because he designed high quality weapons. He wasn’t. One of Stark’s most endearing traits is his confidence. I did not like seeing weakness on this issue. This one facet of the Tony Stark character was the only one I didn’t believe. If nothing else, Stark was honest, right up until he was brainwashed into thinking he was a criminal.