From the beginning, the MCU has addressed issues that parallel the conversations happening in our real world society. Many people write off popular culture, especially things like superhero movies, as being only entertainment, but the popular culture of a society is both a mirror and a road map for societal values.
Throughout the film, the creators of Iron Man question the role of security and freedom in society. Through a commentary on peace, responsibility and taking action, in both the individual and collective sense, the film encourages and guides the viewer through a contemplation of the real-world events the film mirrors.
Less than two minutes into the movie Tony Stark disparages peace. When one of the soldiers escorting him to his weapons demonstration throws up a peace sign in a picture, Tony states: “I love peace. I’d be out of a job with peace.” This draws attention to how we discuss peace. It is something we all want, but no one really works towards.
Tony knows world peace would put him out of business, but at this point he can laugh at it because he thinks his company is one of the “good guys.” In fact, when talking to the Vanity Fair reporter about his business, he says “My old man had a philosophy: peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.” This is the philosophy that can be seen in US foreign policy since the Cold War. Tony’s rhetoric in the beginning of the movie mirrors United States policy and much of the post-9/11 rhetoric that had led to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This new Tony is singularly obsessed with taking responsibility for his company’s actions, and fixing them. He tells Pepper “I’m not crazy Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.” To him the actions of his company, the collective of which he was a part, are his actions. Tony draws a distinct line between himself and his company after his return. He is no longer his company, and he states as much. He wants to distance himself because he does not agree with the group actions.
Tony’s response to finding out that Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges’ character) and Stark Industries have been selling to the enemy under the table is to take action. As viewers, the parallels between real-world foreign policy and Stane’s policy should not be ignored. The war in Iraq was fought against the same regime we fought in the nineties, and started on what turned out to be many false pretenses. Tony tells us that the individual must take a stand against the collective actions we disagree with. When he can no longer work within the system, he goes outside.
Tony Stark is not a super-powered hero. That fact is very important in the context of this movie’s politics. He is just a person. He is a person who is willing to do everything in his power to stop what he knows to be wrongdoing and who leaves very little room for argument about whether it is the right thing.
As the movie concludes, Obadiah Stane becomes the big villain. Where Tony is willing to put himself and his company in line with the greater good, Stane is looking for nothing more than money and power. Mostly power. Stane is a stand in for those in positions of power in the real-world who’ve become corrupt or blinded by greed. They rarely seem to have the greater good in mind when they make decisions. They have power, and they want to keep it and acquire more of it.
Iron Man was released during a period of disillusionment for the American people. The wars we had gotten into following the attacks on the World Trade Center were taking longer than people believed they would, and it was becoming clear that leaders had lied to get into the war in Iraq. Stane had spent Tony’s entire adult life lying to him about the goals and actions of his company. Stane’s appetite for power is shown so clearly when he take’s Tony’s arc reactor and asks: “Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?”
This is a question that raises not only the ideas of intellectual property, but what belongs to the collective as opposed to the individual. It can be assumed that most people believe the job of the government is to protect the safety and freedom of the collective citizens. Iron Man begins to raise the question of how much trust we put into institutions and if they are really worthy of that trust, whether it be the government, private military contractors, or any institution with the vast resources that allow it to hold so much sway over millions of lives and global politics.
Marvel chose to begin their cinematic universe with a story about an individual taking responsibility for the mistakes made by a group to which he belonged. They chose to make a movie about a man who stands up against terrorists, but also against allies that are doing things that do not fit into his definition of right. In doing so, Marvel called attention to the state of the real world.
When Iron Man was released, the United States was waging a “War on Terror” that was quickly losing public support. Iron Man is a mirror to show the world the mistakes we were making with a very clear call to individuals to claim our power and stand up against the collectives and institutions perpetrating harm. This beginning also sets up the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that would continue to explore the balance between security, privacy, and freedom.
Iron Man, Paramount Pictures, 2008
Iron Man, Paramount Pictures, 2008