Torturing Iron Man
The Strange Reversals of a Pentagon Blockbuster
by Nick Turse, TomDispatch.com
Robert Downey Jr. has been nearly universally praised for a winning performance as playboy-billionaire-merchant-of-death-genius-inventor Tony Stark, head of Stark Industries, a fictional version of Lockheed or Boeing. In the film, Stark travels to Afghanistan to showcase a new weapon of massive destruction to American military commanders occupying that country. On a Humvee journey through the Afghan backlands, his military convoy is caught up in a deadly ambush by al-Qaeda stand-ins, who capture him and promptly subject him to what Vice President Dick Cheney once dubbed “a dunk in the water,” but used to be known as “the Water Torture.” The object is to force him to build his Jericho weapons system, one of his “masterpieces of death,” in their Tora Bora-like mountain cave complex.
As practically everyone in the world already knows, Stark instead builds a prototype metal super-suit and busts out of his cave of confinement, slaughtering his terrorist captors as he goes. Back in the U.S., a born-again Stark announces that his company needs to get out of the weapons game, claiming he has “more to offer the world than making things blow up.” Yet, what he proceeds to build is, of course, a souped-up model of the suit he designed in the Afghan cave. Back inside it, as Iron Man, he then uses it to “blow up” bad guys in Afghanistan, taking on the role of a kind of (super-)human-rights vigilante. He even tangles with U.S. forces in the skies over that occupied land, but when the Air Force’s sleek, ultra high-tech, F-22A Raptors try to shoot him down, he refrains from using his awesome powers of invention to blow them away. This isn’t the only free pass doled out to the U.S. military in the film.
Just as America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to bring various Vietnam analogies to mind, Iron Man has its own Vietnam pedigree. Before Tony Stark landed in Afghanistan in 2008, he first lumbered forth in Vietnam in the 1960s. That was, of course, when he was still just the clunky hero of the comic book series on which the film is based. Marvel’s metal man then battled that era’s American enemies of choice: not al-Qaedan-style terrorists, but communists in Southeast Asia.
Versions of the stereotypical evil Asians of Iron Man’s comic book world would appear almost unaltered on the big screen in 1978 in another movie punctuated by gunfire and explosions that also garnered great reviews. The Deer Hunter, an epic of loss and horror in Vietnam, eventually took home four Academy Awards, including Best Picture honors. Then, and since, however, the movie has been excoriated by antiwar critics for the way it turned history on its head in its use of reversed iconic images that seemingly placed all guilt for death and destruction in Vietnam on America’s enemies.
Most famously, it appropriated a then-unforgettable Pulitzer prize-winning photo of Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s national police chief, executing an unarmed, bound prisoner during the Tet Offensive with a point blank pistol shot to the head. In the film, however, it was the evil enemy which made American prisoners do the same to themselves as they were forced to play Russian Roulette for the amusement of their sadistic Vietnamese captors (something that had no basis in reality).
The film Iron Man is replete with such reversals, starting with the obvious fact that, in Afghanistan, it is Americans who have imprisoned captured members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban (as well as untold innocents) in exceedingly grim conditions, not vice-versa. It is they who, like Tony Stark, have been subjected to the Bush administration’s signature “harsh interrogation technique.” While a few reviewers have offhandedly alluded to the eeriness of this screen choice, Iron Man has suffered no serious criticism for taking the imprisonment practices, and most infamous torture, of the Bush years and superimposing it onto America’s favorite evil-doers. Nor have critics generally thought to point out that, while, in the film, the nefarious Obadiah Stane, Stark’s right hand man, is a double-dealing arms dealer who is selling high-tech weapons systems to the terrorists in Afghanistan (and trying to kill Stark as well), two decades ago the U.S. government played just that role. For years, it sent advanced weapons systems — including Stinger missiles, one of the most high-tech weapons of that moment — to jihadis in Afghanistan so they could make war on one infidel superpower (the Soviet Union), before setting their sights on another (the United States). And while this took place way back in the 1980s, it shouldn’t be too hard for film critics to recall - since it was lionized in last year’s celebrated Tom Hanks film Charlie Wilson’s War.
As Inspector Lohmann pointed out the other day, the comments at Common Dreams are worth reading, and the first few on the above article posted there are no exception:
kelmer May 21st, 2008 12:10 pm
Its fun to watch Rambo 3 these days since it has Rambo fighting alongside Osama Bin Laden’s mujahadeen.
kivals May 21st, 2008 12:21 pm
I try to keep my 11-year-old son informed (for an 11-year-old) on political and foreign policy matters, and so I was not surprised that when he returned from seeing “Iron Man” with a friend he claimed it was about the stupidest movie he ever saw and mentioned some of the same problems brought up in this article. If a well-informed 11-year-old can see that, why do US movie critics refuse to? What audience are they speaking to?
And if you want a deeply felt, realistically cynical anti-war story about the military, its logic, its hardware, its affect on society, and yes, wearing a mechanical suit to make you a super solider, I recommend The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.