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.
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
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
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,
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.