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

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

null(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
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,

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.

One thought on “The Dangers of An Empty Suit: Marvel Comics’ War on War Continues”

  1. 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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