Retrograde “Iron Man” Hits the Big Screen


Superhero movies attract an eager audience whether
they’re good, bad, or ugly. But these days, filmmakers aim to make such
surefire blockbusters works of art; hence, the trend of hiring Oscar-worthy
actors like Christian Bale, the late Heath Ledger, and, most recently, Robert
Downey, Jr., to don the new generation of power suits and brood convincingly
while they kick butt.

It’s a shame that the re-worked, edgier superhero genre has
little place for women or people of color, relegating them to the same
second-tier status one might have expected in vintage films.

Iron Man, which
dominated the box office in recent weeks, is an egregious
offender
. In a zippy two hours, the film trots out a
host of boring and offensive clichés
: the trustworthy yet bland black
buddy, the endlessly servile love interest, and the insidious band of
turban-wearing thugs. Sigh. And this is a movie that critics loved.

The undeniably winning
Downey Jr. plays Robert Stark, a weapons-manufacturer-cum-robotics genius, who
undergoes a change of heart–and invents a super-suit–after a near-death
experience in the hills of Afghanistan. Some high speed air chases, a nemesis
with his own metal suit, and the requisite one-liners follow.

But Downey’s charm seems to come at his friends’ expense. Terrence Howard’s character, Rhodes, is a top military officer who
watches over Stark with a constant shake of his head. When Stark starts zipping
around clad in metal, taking justice into his own hands, Rhodes makes up a
story to placate military personnel and sends the all clear. Essentially
Stark is the "magical
black friend
." He doesn’t yell about his buddy’s hi-jinks and
unreliability; he merely frowns, mutters, and gets over it. (Given the classic comic book plot trajectory, Howard’s character should soon be playing a much
more badass part in future films, but for now, his role deserves critique.)

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is also nauseatingly
one-dimensional. Literally Stark’s assistant, she serves him day and night,
with drinks and devotion. She maintains his schedules, and kicks his disheveled
one-night stands out of the house. Pepper also produces a frightened whimper whenever Starks asks her to do
something dangerous, because she’s worried about his possible death. Naturally, he develops a crush on her.

When she has to steal information off a computer and is confronted
by the villain mid-download, Pepper manages to survive by using a bewildered
look and smiling, not by sophisticated maneuvering. And as the tension mounts
towards the film’s climax, watching her totter in heels to help save the day is
unnerving–at least they could have given her some boots. (Some have radically
disagreed
about Pepper.)

Pepper’s sketchy presence, like those of Katie Holmes and
Kirsten Dunst in the Batman and Spider-Man franchises, actually makes
the movie worse. These talented filmmakers need to figure out what to do with
their heroines. Here’s a hint–don’t have them naively fall for wicked love
interests, get used as bait by the villains, or serve the hero coffee.

Iron
Man
‘s primary villain is a white guy in a suit, played to perfection by Jeff
Bridges. But its under-villains are a gang of standard-issue Arab
stereotypes: turbans, eyeliner, et al. They’re baddies, but not smart enough to
be baddie masterminds. The level of violence Stark has provoked by providing the military with
weapons rightly puts him in a moral quandary, but the movie seems to
imply that his moral doubts kick into gear mostly because the dark-skinned
baddies got their hands on his stockpile.

These enemies are countered
by a noble, presumably Afghan doctor who saves Stark and then dies for
him. With women and minorities sacrificing themselves for him left and right,
no wonder Stark is a bit of a depressive.

Finally, as Dana Stevens notes, Iron Man’s sensor-gadget,
which saves civilians from death but punishes their captors, is a jingoistic
fantasy:

He takes out all
the bad guys, leaving the grateful good guys standing. It’s a clever and
viscerally satisfying gag …but it left me with a bitter aftertaste that lasted
for the rest of the movie. How much collateral damage have we inflicted by
trusting just such "smart" weapons to make moral decisions for their
users?

Is it tired to keep complaining about militarism,
sexism and racism in the kind of crowd-pleasing, diverting movies which clearly
pull in a hefty number of women and minority viewers anyway?

Given the alarmingly sexist
and racist
undercurrents rearing
their heads
in this presidential election, it’s not illogical to look at America’s number one movie and
see a reflection, and perpetuation, of prejudices that just won’t die. At this very moment, voter ID, anti-choice,
and anti-terrorism
policies continue to treat these biases as though they are reality, and that’s
more frightening than any onscreen villain, even one in a mammoth iron suit.

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  • harry834

    "How much collateral damage have we inflicted by
    trusting just such ‘smart weapons to make moral decisions for their
    users?"

    All the more reason for audiences to be enamored with that imaginary dream scene: of targeting the perpetrators while leaving the victims unharmed. It’s the kind of rescue that could only happen in fiction. In the heat of a die-hard situation, that would be a blessing.

    But yes, also a fantasy. I expect real-life "smart" weapons to always fall short in terms of preventing casualities.

    Superhero movies: good for entertainment, bad for real-world war planning

  • amanda-marcotte

    I’m probably just talking out of my fannish love of how fun this movie was and looking to defend it, but I didn’t get the same vibe off the Pepper/Tony thing that others did.  I thought their "romance" was portrayed as ill-advised but understandable considering that they’re both social malcontents who have become close almost by accident.  Apparently, in the comics, Pepper marries the guy that Jon Favreau plays in the movie.

     

    My comic fan friends say that it looks like the terrorist baddies are actually going to be the primary villains in the next movie.  Their name hints that they’re the group that was the primary villain in the comics.

  • http://secondinnocence.blogspot.com/ invalid-0

    I live in Atlanta, so the majority of the audience at the showing I was in was African American. In the scene where Rhodes sees a second ‘super suit’ and pauses, the audience thought he’d get to take a bigger part in the action and cheered. Yet, he says something along the line of ‘not this time,’ and his role at the end of the film is limited to stopping one of the army guys from making a telephone call. You could feel the disappointment that this character was going to maintain his token capacity.

    I really do think that this movie portrayed our own culture’s sexism and racism – particularly since it is supposed to be a ‘fun’ movie. The film uses the actors in stereotypical ways (sexy women at beck and call = successful man) as short-hand so it can keep the action fast paced. And, while I’m sure the comic does a better job, most viewers won’t have read this series, so the films have to be entirely responsible for what they portray.

    • invalid-0

      the “not this time” comment is because later on, in the comic book mythology, he DOES take over as Iron Man for a while.
      It’s nerdy I know.

  • invalid-0

    I went with my family – my husband who is a massive comic fan dragged me along (I’m not a superhero comic fan) with our kids (6 & 9 yo). I was astounded by the level of old-school stereotypes but could sort of see past them for the excitement. Robert Downey Jr. was fantastic and I’ve always loved his biting, sarcastic, yet self-deprecating style.

    Maybe it was my own fault for bringing my six-year old girl – the daughter of a feisty, feminist mother and a fire-cracker in her own right – but she was astounded at the level of sexism. She is a down and dirty, bad ass little girl who embraces anything and everything with no regard to boring gender-typing. But, jeez, she was appalled at the female characters. I’m a fan of quoting my children in comments here on the site so here it goes: After the movie she said in the car to all of us, “That movie was SO sexist! All the women were just there to make sure the guys were happy and they didn’t do anything else besides look pretty!” When we asked her what she would have liked to have seen she perceptively said, “Nothing different in that movie. I just want to see Wonder Woman movies, but not with her dressed in that little outfit, and other movies where the women are the heroes. ”

    How much clearer direction can we get? Is that too much to ask to provide to girls??

    On the other hand, my husband struggled. He LOVES superhero comics and I”m glad he does and he is by far the most respectful, least sexist men I know. He was fascinated by our responses and asked many questions to get an idea of why we felt it was sexist. I really don’t want to “ruin” his love of comics and he clearly has not been negatively affected by the level of sexism.

    But, ultimately, we’re going to need to provide many more counter-examples of superhero/fantasy women to help embolden our girls.

    Nice work, Sarah.

    Amie Newman

    Managing Editor, RH Reality Check

  • invalid-0

    Iron Man was a great, entertaining, and fun movie. Sure there are the usual stereotypes, as this is a movie based on a comic book of a certain time and age. This does not excuse the stereotypes, but it doesn’t mean that Pepper Potts or Rhodes embody those with willing devotion. Favreau pushed his characters to be something more than the 2 dimensional comic book pages would allow; they didn’t just stand by and watch. They engaged, they chose their roles and challenged their friend and boss. While there are issues with the generalized “middle eastern bad guys”, I found the characters and the actors who played them refreshingly intelligent and sexy. Who says Pepper Potts can’t both be devoted to Tony Stark and a freaking tough lady? I’m just sayin’… Strong women don’t always have to be the put up your dukes type, or the slinky sexpot villain. They can be behind the scenes running the whole show. We can’t change the entire film industry, but with movies like Iron Man we can take a step forward, a step away from weak women and sideshow african americans and create characters with depth, charge, and presence.

  • invalid-0

    addresses the fact that, ultimately, Pepper Potts was there ONLY to make sure Tony Stark was happy, sexually desired and as a beautiful face & body. Similarly, Rhodes was there as a less interesting, less heroic, stabilizing force for Stark and nothing else.

    But where are the women as heroes? NOT the “I’m beautiful, will be there always for you, stay in the background when I need to and be out in front when I need to” female characters. And where are the Black men as heroes? NOT the “I”m funny and wacky/from-the-streets/stoic and quiet” black male or female heroes.

    There are barely any. And that’s without mentioning Asian characters, Asian-American characters, Native American characters, Indian characters, Latina/o characters…

    The point is that Tony Stark was a sexual, intelligent, commanding, successful, angry, sad, courageous, devoted, and kind hero – and was the FOCUS of the movie. Everyone else was there to serve him. Not a problem except when there are no movies where it’s the other way around – where Black women or men, white women, and men & women of a variety of ethnicities are the HEROES and are as nuanced a character as Tony Stark was.

    Amie Newman

    Managing Editor, RH Reality Check

  • invalid-0

    however, I think they do get points for that last scene where Stark mentions ‘that one night’, and she describes it as the night they danced, then he left her there and never came back. I thought that was a good end for the two of them in the movie.

  • invalid-0

    Oy vey…get over it. It’s a fun comic book movie. Stop looking into everything for some ‘racist’ stuff. It’s fun popcorn fare. Rhodes in the next movie becomes Warhammer. A more badass Iron Man with more weoponry. Oh, and did any of you liberal pinko commie jerks stay for after the credits? Hmmmm….anyone….there’s this little clip after the credits that show Samuel Jackson recruiting Stark for the Avenger Initiative. SAMUEL JACKSON A BLACK MAN IS THE HEAD OF THE ENTIRE SUPERHERO ORGANIZATION.
    Get over it commies…you go make your movies…WE AMERICANS MAKE OURS with our AMERICAN COMIC BOOKS. Oh too bad it doesn’t fall lock step in line with your commie philosophy. I see right through you.

  • the-watcher

    I honestly have no idea where this obsession comes from that you righties have with communism. Everything you don’t like is either "commie" or "gay," even though many things we on the left believe in have nothing to do with economics or sexuality.

     

    There’s a real tightrope to walk when you create a comic book movie. You have to please the fans, who grew up on comics created in the 50’s and 60’s (or earlier) and in their original incarnations, they espoused those values. I’m uncomfortable with the old sexism and racism that came out of popular media back in the day, and I support efforts to update it. You don’t have to throw out the conventions wholesale, just update them. Witness how Lois Lane has gone from largely just a damsel in distress to a strong, confident reporter, and a three-dimensional character with her own plotlines and who is capable of handling herself.

     

    It may be possible to argue that Sarah understates the roles of Rhodes and Pepper here (as I personally found them to be slightly more well-rounded and integral to the plot than Sarah appears to have), but I also agree that there was potential to have done a little more with them.

     

    Bottom line, however, Mr. Hate Communism (or can I just call you I?), is that I’m kind of disturbed by your whole attitude. The words I read through your snarling, mouth-foaming anger indicate that you simply don’t care about feminism or racism. You’re not going to defend Rhodes
    and Pepper’s characterization as whole people because you don’t WANT them to be. You actually wish for more stereotyped characters, more white, saves-the-day he-men. You simply have no problem with this as the norm, and the young girls and minority teenagers who long for heroes of their own can just be damned. Is that about right?

  • invalid-0

    Did you WATCH the movie Watcher. There was no racism or sexism in the entire film. Rhodes was the head of the Strategic Air Command. Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury character is the head of the entire Superhero organization. Pepper saves Tony Stark.
    When you create a work of fiction, you can use your characters as a creator anyway you see fit. Did you not see Tony Stark learn from the errors of his ways to use his intelligence to right a system? Wasn’t the main villian a greedy white man? Hmmm…again, did you actually watch the film?
    You lib/commies always look and read into strong male character driven movies for racism, sexism.
    This film is faithful to the original source material. It’s a work of fiction that the film makers and writer chose to stick too. You can’t fault a film for that. And the reason I call libs today commies because libs before were champions of freedom of expression. NOW, you look to slight and censor and belittle an artist vision because it doesn’t follow lock step in what you like or dislike. When the cartoonist in Denmark (?) were under fire for satirizing Islamic Terrorist, their lives were threatened and liberal voices did not once come to their defense as freedom of speech.
    I see right through you.

  • invalid-0

    When you say ‘where are the other ethnic heroes’ that’s up to the artist. Meaning, if there’s an artist/director out there that wishes to do that…there’s nothing stopping them…don’t fault the creator of one character ’cause he doesn’t fill the ethnic bases. It’s his vision to do as he/she wishes. Now as far as ethnic heroes…ever seen a Bruce Lee movie…hmmmm? I guess you forgot. He’s only the GREATEST MARTIAL ARTIST/Hero in film history, that’s all. Ever heard of Jackie Chan (look to his early films for great heroic action). There both asian by the way. Ever seen Blade (Wesley Snipes). Lead character with great powers battling evil vampires. I guess you missed that one.Have you seen I AM LEGEND with Will Smith. Ah, guess you missed that too. Shall I continue…ok, Rhodes in Iron Man (head of Strategic Air Command-later becomes WarMachine-more badass Iron Man), Sam Jackson as Nick Fury (Head of the Superhero Initiative Avengers) as well as him playing a noble/heroic Jedi Mace Windu in Star Wars and FroZone in the Incredibles(he helps save the Incredibles). Lando Calrissian in Star Wars. Female heroes, Jessica Alba as Invisible Woman in Fantastic Four, Xena, Elektra, Dark Angel, Buffy the friggin Vampire Slayer (did you not see ALL the lead strong female characters in that? They even had a west Indian Slayer who kicked butt). Morgan Freeman (as scientist/inventor) who helps Batman develop his weoponry/gadgets. The Xmen movies-strong females characters in that. Man, you missed a whole lotta’ strong female and ethnics in the superhero film history genre. There’s a ton more, but I’d never stop typing.
    Advice, stop reading the commie newspapers and go rent some of the above movies for strong female and ethnic characters.
    I see right through you.

  • the-watcher

    When you say ‘where are the other ethnic heroes’ that’s up to the artist. Meaning, if there’s an artist/director out there that wishes to do that…there’s nothing stopping them…don’t fault the creator of one character ’cause he doesn’t fill the ethnic bases. It’s his vision to do as he/she wishes.

    Yes, so why don’t more of them wish to break the mold?

    Now as far as ethnic heroes…ever seen a Bruce Lee movie…hmmmm? I guess you forgot. He’s only the GREATEST MARTIAL ARTIST/Hero in film history, that’s all. Ever heard of Jackie Chan (look to his early films for great heroic action). There both asian by the way.

    Yeah, you forgot Jet Li. I sure am relieved to find that there three Asian action stars. I guess we can pack up the Freedom Buses and go home, we’re clearly done here.

    Ever seen Blade (Wesley Snipes).

    All three of them. They got progressively worse.

    Lead character with great powers battling evil vampires. I guess you missed that one.Have you seen I AM LEGEND with Will Smith. Ah, guess you missed that too.

    I can’t tell if that’s two sentences or three.

    Shall I continue…

    I’m sure I can’t stop you.

    Rhodes in Iron Man (head of Strategic Air Command-later becomes WarMachine-more badass Iron Man),

    Yes, well, we’ll see that when it happens.

    Sam Jackson as Nick Fury (Head of the Superhero Initiative Avengers) as well as him playing a noble/heroic Jedi Mace Windu in Star Wars and FroZone in the Incredibles(he helps save the Incredibles).

    Yes, Samuel L. Jackson rocks everything he’s in. So what?

    Lando Calrissian in Star Wars.

    Yes, please, pull out Lando Calrissian. He shows up in 1/3 of the way into the second movie in the trilogy and immediately throws Han Solo to the wolves. He then spends the last movie redeeming himself by playing a small supporting role in which he backs up the three white protagonists. Come to think of it, Leia didn’t do much that could be considered "heroic" either, unless you happen to be Cinnabon.

    Female heroes, Jessica Alba as Invisible Woman in Fantastic Four, Xena, Elektra, Dark Angel, Buffy the friggin Vampire Slayer (did you not see ALL the lead strong female characters in that? They even had a west Indian Slayer who kicked butt).

    That’s all you got? And Jessica Alba doesn’t count considering she was the only woman amid four white guys.
    So if I were to start listing male action heroes who play leads that I could think of, I’d have, what, less than five?

    Morgan Freeman (as scientist/inventor) who helps Batman develop his weoponry/gadgets.

    I guess we’re back on minorities again. Which is why you trotted out Bruce Wayne’s loyal token/sidekick as if it were some kind of example of breaking the racial glass ceiling.

    The Xmen movies-strong females characters in that.

    I suppose the X-Men films do deserve credit for gender equality, but it’s still a bunch of white folks plus Storm.

    Man, you missed a whole lotta’ strong female and ethnics in the superhero film history genre. There’s a ton more, but I’d never stop typing.

    Sure you would. And it would be a whole lot sooner than if you started trying to list all the white guy action leads in movies.

    Advice, stop reading the commie newspapers and go rent some of the above movies for strong female and ethnic characters.

    Sure. As soon as you put down your Ruby Ridge Magazine and go rent some Sesame Street DVDs. Seriously; your diction and grammar are so bad I can’t tell if you failed middle school or simply haven’t finished it yet.

    I see right through you.

    That’s funny, because you don’t know me. Nor do I know you, but when I think of you, I get visions of a beet-red 12-year-old boy clutching a Lobster Magazine and a rifle, hiding in his daddy’s secret bunker.

  • http://myspace.com/saynathespiffy invalid-0

    And the reason I call libs today commies because libs before were champions of freedom of expression. NOW, you look to slight and censor and belittle an artist vision because it doesn’t follow lock step in what you like or dislike.

    First of all, censorship doesn’t have anything to do with communism. What you’re talking about is totalitarianism. The two are very different. (Though there have been totalitarian communist governments). The cold war is over, get over the “commie” insult, okay?

    Second, how can we be against freedom of speech simply by employing it to speak about why they didn’t like a movie? Freedom of speech means the freedom to speak out against something you find offensive. It also includes the freedom to call a movie on its racism/sexism/classism.

  • http://myspace.com/saynathespiffy invalid-0

    Thank you so much for this review! I had a hard time watching Iron Man because of all the sexism/racism/classism. My sister and I were joking about how messed up it was, which our friends were not too happy about.

    You didn’t mention that the one “good guy” who was middle eastern dies right after Tony doesn’t need him anymore. Or the part where an attractive female reporter comes up to criticize him for war profiteering and ends up sleeping with him because of his charm.

  • the-watcher

    You didn’t mention that the one "good guy" who was middle eastern dies right after Tony doesn’t need him anymore.

    This is in keeping with the Iron Man tradition. Originally, it was a Vietnamese doctor during the Vietnam war. The doctor died, leaving Tony to fight his way out. There’s no other way this could have been done without radically rewriting the history.

    Or the part where an attractive female reporter comes up to criticize him for war profiteering and ends up sleeping with him because of his charm.

    Well, that was the old Tony. Before his life-changing epiphany. Afterward, he treated women (including Pepper) with far more sensitivity.

     

    Now, it certainly doesn’t speak well of the reporter for falling into the role of floozy-of-the-night, but her character only existed entirely as a vehicle to show off who Tony is. If she were a more prominent character, she would be far more bound to make better decisions and appear more three-dimensional. Here, she wasn’t intended to be anything more than a throwaway character with a walk-on role.

  • invalid-0

    The Ihatecommunism fellow (along with everyone else) missed a great example of strong black comic characters: Spawn! The guy is nuanced, non-stereotypical in every way, and successful. As for stereotypical women and blacks in Iron Man, I think EVERY character was poorly written, and as a fan of the comic I was disappointed with the movie.

    Not that the writer’s being a hack invalidates your criticism…

  • invalid-0

    “You lib/commies always look and read into strong male character driven movies for racism, sexism.”

    Please don’t equate things with each other that are completely unrelated. Liberalism and Communism are completely different ideas and schools of thought. I assure you, many people behind the iron curtain were both racist and sexist, which liberals presumably are not. I consider myself a liberal, and I am in no way communist. Communism is based on ideals that simply don’t exist in reality. Plus, I like my religious freedom, thank you. Liberal is not communist. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING, YOU TROGLODYTE.

    “And the reason I call libs today commies because libs before were champions of freedom of expression. NOW, you look to slight and censor and belittle an artist vision because it doesn’t follow lock step in what you like or dislike. When the cartoonist in Denmark (?) were under fire for satirizing Islamic Terrorist, their lives were threatened and liberal voices did not once come to their defense as freedom of speech.”

    You didn’t know if it was Denmark or not, how the hell could you possibly know how liberals reacted to it? You make assumptions out of ignorance. Plenty of liberals came to their defense, as they do for many other offensive (I believe) people, like the artist who starved a dog, or that artist who supposedly gave herself a bunch of abortions in the name of art. Plenty of liberals also think it’s tasteless as hell, but aren’t arguing with the persons right to do/say what they did/said. I hate the so-called white pride movement but I support their right to spew hate to each other (unless it directly instructs/incites violence.)

    I happen to agree that this movie is just a comic book movie, and get over it. However, there is sexism and racism in the movie, even if only in small ways. Of course there’s racism and sexism, they pervade our whole world. It would really be nice if there were more female heroines that aren’t scantily clad, or more black heroes/heroines that don’t basically fill a stereotype. You can’t blame one movie for it, but if you want to rant about the unfairness of it all and get it off your chest, that’s fine. Freedom of rant.

    “I see right through you.”

    You don’t see anything. You are blinded by your hate.

  • invalid-0

    I completely agree with you, Aristotle, all the characters were abhorrent and horribly written by terrible racists who also enjoy keeping women in their place. I have not actually read the comic book, and walked out of the movie halfway, because I was so steaming with fury. The storyline was not even was not even weel written. Missiles that can kill terrorists, but not civilians? Come on. It’s a superhero movie. We deserve more realism. We’re both titled after Greek philiosophers, so our opinions have to be correct, right?