The Dangers of An Empty Suit: Marvel Comics’ War on War Continues

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by Seth Abramson
June 4, 2013 8:45 AM
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(Warning: This article contains spoilers for the film Iron Man 3.)

The implicit argument of every comic book and comic book-inspired movie is that the world outside comic books is a better place for having no superheroes in it, and a far worse place for having so many warmongers. Iron Man 3 is Marvel Comics’ strongest argument yet on both scores. True, the Iron Man films have always been conspicuously anti-war—Stark removes his privately-funded R&D enterprise from U.S. Defense Department involvement in the first entry in the now-trilogy—but Iron Man 3 is a uniquely instructive exemplar of Marvel’s war on war by way of Hollywood.  

In Iron Man 3, the United States, in the person of billionaire playboy and self-described “mechanic” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), has perfected the drone as a weapon of mass destruction. Whereas Stark actually had to be in his specially-designed metal-alloy suit to become “Iron Man” in both Iron Man and Iron Man 2, the man is now superfluous to the machine: Downey’s titular character has a veritable army of man-shaped drones (a metaphor that ought not be lost on us) ready to do his bidding at a moment’s notice.

In one particularly charged scene toward the end of the film, Stark says to his nemesis, of girlfriend Pepper Potts, “she’s perfect as she is.” As action-flick dialogue goes, this is pretty insignificant stuff, yet it’s also a good summary of the chief theme of Iron Man 3, which ultimately pits men who believe they’ve perfected machines against men who believe they’ve perfected humans. It’s no spoiler to say that neither pipe dream is realized in the end; the question is just how lifelike both the dream and its perpetual deferral really are.

Stark’s technological breakthroughs don’t fall very far from our own reality, given that just a couple weeks ago the real-life United States Navy launched a drone from a nuclear-capable aircraft carrier for the first time. This means that American drones can now officially drop cluster-bombs on anyone, anywhere, at any time, as if that weren’t already the case in practice. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration recently launched an initiative to map the human brain—in the same way scientists mapped the human genome several years ago—and in this well-intentioned effort there’s an eerie reminiscence of the baddies of Iron Man 3, who believe they’ve perfected the human body by (you guessed it) mapping the human brain to create an army of super-soldiers. In short, Iron Man 3 asks us to ponder the question: Is the perfect man any less dangerous than the perfect machine, and isn't Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) actually perfect just the way she is?

But Marvel Comics’ increasingly cerebral and interconnected film productions are wont to do much more, now, than simply throw mud at all corners of the global military-industrial complex. The presidential administration portrayed in Iron Man 3, which appears to be vaguely Republican (much is made of the White House doing nothing to investigate a major oil spill, an oversight an oilman president, say, might be wont to make) dresses up its Don Cheadle-cum-War Machine drone in patriotic colors, redubbing it The Iron Patriot, and it’s this obsession with re-marketing drones as a nationalistic imperative that nearly gets Marvel’s imaginary President Ellis blown to Kingdom Come. The message is clear: The more attractive-looking the drone, the more likely it can be used as a Trojan Horse for dangerous geopolitical initiatives and even more dangerous first principles.

Likewise, the villain of Iron Man 3 is not, as it turns out, a gnarly Ben Kingsley—whose primary job in the film is to look dirty, foreign, asexual, and (worst of all) old—but rather a blond, perfectly-coiffed Lothario who (as it happens) can literally breathe fire. Here, too, the message is clear enough: Dress up a villain in something like the clothes we’d expect a “winner” to wear, and it’s not much different from dressing up a nation’s foreign policy in those metaphoric clothes we expect “winner” nations (that means us Americans) to favor. Each of these premises is equally alluring; each is even—at the risk of taking the analogy too far—equally sexually intoxicating. Yet both are a threat. The upshot is that we don’t need or want perfect men or women, any more than we’d want perfect war machines. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t map the human brain, or strive to perfect certain strains of military-industrial innovation (recent advances in non-lethal weaponry come to mind), but rather that it’s the perpetual search for perfection and self-perfection that often leads us to destruction. This theory can be applied with equal force to men and women who judge others primarily by their physical appearance and voters who judge elected officials by how good a game they talk on anti-terrorism and national defense.

What Tony Stark ultimately learns in Iron Man 3—we’ll see if the lesson sticks in Iron Man 4—is that he needs to be more fully human, not more fully superhuman. He finally has the metal shards lodged in his heart removed so that he can once again function without the aid of blood-pumping machinery; he turns aside from his “mechanic” identity by destroying the fruits of his labors in spectacular fashion; he re-dedicates himself to his relationship with the already-perfect Pepper Potts by increasing their face-time and decreasing his log-times (after first paying for surgery to reverse artificial “perfections” performed upon Pepper by the villainous Mandarin); and he concludes, in a final voiceover, that he’s the “Iron Man” even if all his high-tech toys are taken away—something many a Marvel fanboy would dispute. In other words, Stark discovers that it’s not enough to turn aside from direct complicity with warmongers, what’s required of a strong and capable human is the ability to turn aside from the fallacy of perfectibility, too. 

This message is one particularly at odds with contemporary American culture, which convinces us more easily than we’d like to admit that there isn’t a single facet of our physical or emotional well-being we can’t perfect with a crash diet or a brain-boosting iPad app. Likewise, Marvel seems to take a dim view of the current penchant for political panaceas: The idea that a single political solution exists (whether in the form of a politician or a policy) for the complex problems of the nation and the world is one with little backing in any of the recent Marvel films. Indeed, it’s not too much to say that Marvel Comics is reminding us anew, with each successive film in the Avengers network of storylines, that the worst sort of war is the war we wage daily against our own fears of fallibility and failure, as it’s this sort of windmill-tilting that ultimately leads us down the path to ruin. Tony Stark’s realization that his desire to protect Pepper from alien invaders is fueling the destruction of both their relationship and his psyche—in the same way the fictional United States of Iron Man 3 fuels its own demise by up-jumping its fear of terrorism to ever more frenzied levels—is just the sort of thing Yoda always warned us about (“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate to suffering”).

Ironically, it’s a yearning after perfection that sells untold millions of comic books to young male and female consumers the world over, so we ought to read Marvel’s Avengers films as a particularly ingenious bit of reverse psychology. If we actually took the lesson of Iron Man 3 and its ilk to heart, we too would blow up our personal anxieties, demand real rather than Hollywood courage from ourselves and the many empty suits in political office, and plant a long, lingering kiss on the already-perfect lips of whichever Gwyneth Paltrow is presently brightening our days.


Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.


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1 Comment

  • Chris Gonzales | June 7, 2013 12:36 PMReply

    One thing a lot of people seem to overlook with this film is that Tony never explicitly states that he reversed Pepper's condition, only that he "fixed the problem". She may still have the augmentations but without any risk of spontaneous combustion. Just something to think about :)

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