Chapter 3: Political wish fulfilment and unintended consequences
As the presidency of George W. Bush limped to its end in 2008, the first Iron Man film, whereby the titular hero’s first case of superheroics is to drunkenly liberate a town in Afghanistan, was an oddly fitting example of wish fulfilment for the US. Particularly at a time when its populace appeared increasingly tired and wary of military engagement after seven years of war in that Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Iron-Man offered a mostly light and fun adventure, deftly mixed with pathos, romance and pithy one liners. It also lightly touched on the imagery and complexities of lurching Islamic fundamentalism around the world, here represented by a quasi secular criminal group from the Afghan hills called the Ten Rings.
The organisation, which works in cahoots with one of Iron Man’s closest friends to obtain his weapons, has a shadowy mythical mastermind as its leader. Yet the organization and its imdomnible leader is in later sequels revealed to be a front dreamed up by a rival industrialist to destabilise the US and install a puppet president.
After initially being a captor of the Ten Rings, Tony Stark’s superheroic invention allows him to return and free innocent people in an Afghan town from the clutches of a brutal local warlord. A simple, sci-fi solution to a complex, brutal real world problem.
In a true reflection our our modern multi-media age, the first movie ends with a press conference. Tony Stark’s final word are to ambiguously reveal to the world’s media that he is in fact Iron-Man, with the audience allowed to decide once again if he has revealed his identity in order to work as an individual private sector superhero to save the world in his own style, or to sate his ego.
Had Iron-Man been released ten years later, the first movie may have ended with the titular hero announcing his decision to stand for US president.
With most MCU characters having no real secret identity and acting as public figures, all their actions and endeavours come off as highly personal, often political acts. This in itself becomes one of the themes of the film’s sequel.
Although largely intended to set up the wider MCU and the creation of the Avengers, 2010’s Iron Man 2 opens in a destitute Moscow slum where a brilliant man who has just lost his entire world is watching the very same press conference that ended the first movie.
As he builds his own version of Iron-Man’s power source, his makeshift lab is adorned with media clippings from around the world of Iron Man’s impact of society. Here we discover during the films opening credits that Iron-Man has become Time Magazine’s person of the year in the MCU, while clippings also report how the hero has ‘stabilised East and West relations’ – truly a film from a different time.
This opening serves to set up an inevitable gigantic robot confrontation at the end of movie for Tony Stark to triumph against a superior villain.
Yet arguably, a much more interesting story runs in the background of the movie as a subplot where Tony Stark squares off both against the Russian comic book villain whiplash, and his sponsor, an unscrupulous US weapons dealer and business rival of Stark who is trying to reverse engineer Iron-Man’s technology for profit. This is itself a fairly common theme in the MCU. Corporations don’t kill people, individual contractors do.
Tony Stark also finds himself at odds with some elements of the US Government and the military industrial complex that he has long profited off. These public figures argue, perhaps fairly, that a private individual has no right to use high-tech weaponry without any form of oversight that normally applies to civilians, even as a superhero.
- Tony Stark: “You’re welcome I guess…..”
- Senator Stern: “…For what?”
- Tony Stark: “Because i’m your nuclear deterrent. It’s working, we’re safe. America is secure. You want my property, you can’t have it. But I did you a big favour…. I have successfully privatised world peace.”
Iron-Man 2 (2010)
By the film’s ending, a much wider group of superheroes destined to become the Avengers are teased. These include the incorgrous mix of a brash Norse god that exists in a hidden realm that lies literally over a rainbow and the master spy, Black Widow.
With the first Avengers movie arriving two years later, we had a range of relatively commercial and critically successful movies in the MCU such as Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. Both films were released in 2011.
Over the course of the standalone Captain America movies, our titular hero has now been living in our modern world for a number of years after being frozen due to heroically sacrificing himself against the nazi supervillain Red Skull.
Thawed out some seventy years later – this is a superhero movie remember – his second movie, The Winter Soldier (2014), finds Cap increasingly isolated and disillusioned with the compromises and complacency of political discourse and US foreign policy in the intervening years.
In order to reflect this, the Winter Soldier has the quasi-governmental defence organisation SHIELD, an organisation that started the Avengers themselves, revealed to have been transformed gradually over a number of decades from within to become a fascist organisation. The transformation, long hidden from the audience and the heroes of the MCU, is successful on the premise of ensuring lasting, domestic peace, albeit it by eliminating possible threats, as well as whistleblowers before they emerge.
Captain America, true to form, foils the plot to launch Iron-Man enhanced technological superweapons that will eliminate an algorithm defined kill list of undesirables and potential superheroes, yet Shield itself survives, with the goodies back in charge.
Yet by the end of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, the idealistic title hero, a fictional representation of the real world ‘moral imperative’ to defeat fascism during World War 2, goes on to become an undercover superhero and fugitive of the American government. In turn he rejects the Captain America name to avoid compromising his 1940’s ethics in the name of peace.
- Dr Armin Zola: “Hydra was founded on the principle that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom. What we did not realise was that if you try to take that freedom, they resist. The war taught us much. Humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly.”
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Now distrustful of government and its defence agencies, Cap comes to believe that super powered individuals, even with their flaws and mistakes, are the best means of ensuring the greater good.
At the sametime, Iron-Man has also been dramatically shaped by his solo adventures and his time with the Avengers. This is notably seen in the drastic steps he takes to try and better protect not only his superheroic friends, but the wider world, leading to the creation of a a superheroic AI that is intended to automate the process of peacekeeping, but has disastrous results.
This leads to the character finding himself at odds with Captain America in believing that the Avengers, and any superhero by extension, must ultimately work under the remit of the UN after the Avengers’ efforts to save the world on multiple occasions still results in the destruction of entire cities and the loss of thousands of lives.
Civil War is largely an excuse to create a movie where the combined ranks of the Avengers fight each other, while setting up a dramatic reason for them to re-team several sequels down the line.
The film, released months before a contentious and deeply divisive US election, seemed to reflect a broader confusion in mainstream media around the complexities of individual freedom and the nature of power in an age of weaponised information and ubiquitous online news of sometimes dubious sources.
While Captain America is the seeming victor of his ‘Civil War’ with Iron-Man, his third standalone movie continued an ongoing theme about how all too real world complications and political discourse can affect the Avengers,although they themselves are powerless to change them.