A Midlife Crisis of Conscience: American Masculinity and Morality in IRON MAN and CASABLANCA

Iron Man PosterCasablanca Poster

Okay, admittedly, this post started out as a joke. In a conversation about the production of Classic Hollywood cinema, my PhD supervisor remarked on the numerous script revisions CASABLANCA went through right up to the point of shooting. I offhandedly commented that it was one of the many things that this most beloved classic of black-and-white romantic dramas had in common with IRON MAN, a comic-book superhero blockbuster about a man in a suit of CGI armour saving the world from villainy, because I have a weird sense of humour.

But the more I thought about it, the more I found the connection genuinely intriguing, and specifically the leading roles and their surprisingly resonant stories of wounded masculinity and personal redemption. The ground seems even richer given both characters’ relationship with America’s place in the world.[1]

Though it went into production in 1942 and premièred later that year, CASABLANCA is very deliberately set in December of 1941, the events of its plot occurring just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbour and America’s entry into the Second World War. The careful neutrality cultivated by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in the complex internal politics of German-occupied French-colonised Casablanca became, no doubt consciously, a metaphor for the still-neutral America of the previous year.


The journey of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) from wealthy industrialist to superhero takes place in a very different climate, against the context of two drawn-out wars, led by the United States, which have turned into military and political quagmires. A billionaire arms manufacturer who designs his own weapons, Stark represents an America at the height of its powers, but whose actions have appalling unintended consequences for the people ostensibly under their protection.

Like Tony Stark, Rick Blaine has a background in arms dealing. As part of his anti-fascist backstory, we’re told he ran guns to the Ethiopian army during their defence against Mussolini’s Italy in the ‘30s. In the film’s present, his café/bar/casino business in Casablanca certainly doesn’t suffer from the city’s importance on the refugee route out of war-torn Europe.

Like Rick, Tony has a practised cynicism about the state of the world and people’s behaviour that acts as cover for his damaged emotional core. Both begin their stories avoiding their issues with different brands of wit (Stark’s is that of the charming rogue, Rick’s is more of a world-weary deadpan). Both would rather seek solace at the bottom of a glass (or bottle) than genuinely open up to anyone. Both carry their cynicism like a shield.


Their wounds are born of different circumstances, different losses, but they are both deeply felt. As is continually hinted throughout Tony Stark’s appearances in both the IRON MAN series and AVENGERS, he retains strong feelings of parental neglect directed towards his father, Howard (depicted variously by Gerard Sanders, John Slattery, and Dominic Cooper). For Rick, the damage is rooted in his abandonment by Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and the false promise of true love; a personal catastrophe that is mirrored by the fall of France to the Nazis.

Tony and Rick’s responses to such emotional damage are almost mirrors of each other. Tony throws himself into superficial flings with attractive women in a futile attempt to plug the hole in his heart, while teasing and acting dismissively towards those who really do care about him. Rick, unsurprisingly, disdains the company of women, and almost anyone else. But what unites them is the reluctance to value personal connections, and an accompanying acceptance of the way things are and their established roles in their respective political ecosystems. They both, after all, do very good business out of war.

Both Bogart and Downey Jr.  were both in their early forties when they took on their most iconic roles. Indeed, one of the details that marks IRON MAN apart from most other modern superheroic débuts is that it’s not a teenage coming of age story, like either SPIDER-MAN origin. It doesn’t centre on a young adult male finding his identity, like DC’s BATMAN BEGINS and MAN OF STEEL.[2] His fellow headlining Avengers, Captain America and Thor, are characters blessed with youthfulness belying their true age, whether due to pulp science or mythic vitality.[3] Stark is vulnerable in way they are not, hence the metaphor of the suit of armour which is central to his character, hence his damaged heart.

Tony Stark's Heart

Stark’s resort to patriotism as a defence for his career buckles when he discovers that his weapons have fallen into the hands of America’s enemies, and that they are being used not just against combatants, but on civilians. Tony’s realisation, but not quite acceptance, of his own culpability is what drives him to shut down his company’s production and sale of weapons as his first act on returning from Afghanistan.

It is also, as far as the film is concerned, what gives him the duty and, in a sense, the right to go back to Afghanistan and take action. Of course, because this is a superhero movie, Tony’s means of going about this is building an even swankier CGI suit of armour and bringing the fight to the bad guys.[4] He lives out the fantasy of seeing something horrible on the news, feeling genuinely guilty about it, then going and stopping it. And it is, of course, a fantasy. But it is one which is fascinatingly caught up in a web of anxieties about guilt and responsibility felt towards those caught up in the wake of conflict.[5]

Rick’s revelation is more personal, as he discovers that Ilsa’s own situation was more complex than he had imagined. But the pettiness is part of the point, as he can no longer use her treatment of him as justification for his indifference to the state of the world. He accepts that he has a moral obligation to use his privileged position and resources to help her and Laszlo escape the Nazis. In coming to terms with his feelings of betrayal, and allowing Ilsa to leave with her husband, he returns to the world from his self-imposed emotional isolation. It is no coincidence that his (and the film’s) famous last line announces the beginning of a new and valued personal connection.

Casablanca Ending

So, yes, as humorous as the comparison was meant to be (to myself, anyway), both Rick Blaine and Tony Stark are confronted with a midlife crisis of conscience. They realise that the defence of their damaged pride and their attempts to insulate themselves from further hurt have obscured from them the reality that they can do more to help. In its best moments, Iron Man isn’t just about saving the world from comic-book villains. It’s also about the saving of its hero’s soul. And, as Rick himself famously states, Casablanca isn’t just about the relationship problems of three little people. It is, in fact, about saving the world. More importantly, perhaps, it’s about admitting that the world can be saved.


[1] Iron Man is also, of course, the inaugural picture of the now all-conquering Marvel Studios, and in that sense the start of something of a throwback to the studio system of Classic Hollywood in which Casablanca was produced.

[2] Adulthood identities turn up in the most surprising places, like caves infested with flying rodents, or alien spaceships.

[3] Captain America actually has something of an analogue, albeit a non-American one, in Casablanca’s Victor Laszlo, the Czech resistance leader whose arrival in the eponymous city sets the plot in motion. They are, after all, both straight-laced heroes possessed of genuine nobility, whose very qualities of goodness and decency are often used as evidence that they’re inherently less interesting than their more cynical foils.

[4] Though, as has become something of a recurring motif for the series, it’s significant that the real villain is American and more embedded in the military-industrial complex than even Tony Stark.

[5] At least until the lacklustre last act of the movie, though it’s a theme the franchise returns to, most noticeably in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.


Sauron sweeps to victory in Middle-Earth

So I wrote this silly thing and figured I might as well put it up here.


Our top story today is the shocking upset in this year’s elections as Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, sweeps towards a truly unexpected victory across much of Middle-Earth. The controversial policies of the coalition government, including the use of invasive surveillance programs such as PALANTIR, the privatisation of the Houses of Healing, and the pillaging of the villages of the common folk, seem to have done less harm than expected to the fortunes of Mordor’s candidates.

Not since the First Age and the re-election of Melkor, called Morgorth, the Great Enemy, has an incumbent party seen such a resounding increase in elected seats. The Home Secretary, Shelob the Spider, was overheard clicking her mandibles with glee, while the Witch-King of Angmar promised that under his continued stewardship as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Middle-Earth’s economic recovery would be assured.

When asked for for comment, the Dark Lord Sauron, having yet to re-attain physical form and thus remaining, for the moment, a giant fiery eyeball, repeated his highly successful campaign catchphrase: “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, / Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.” The Dark Lord closed his remarks by whispering the words “I SEE YOU” into the very souls of men, before turning his attention elsewhere.

Sauron’s coalition partner Saruman has, however, been dealt a crushing blow. Formerly of the White Council, it was hoped after the last election that the wisdom of Saruman would mollify the extreme rapacious tendencies of the forces of evil. However, the controversies surrounding university tuition fees and the burning of the Westfold have alienated his traditional base in the Gap of Rohan, and polling data suggests his fighting Uruk-Hai have apparently left him behind, instead opting to vote directly for his evil master, Sauron.

More shocking was the failure of the Free Men of Middle-Eath to make any significant headway, and indeed losing their last grasp on the north, as the Men of Dale were routed in the vote by the Dwarven Nationalists. Last year’s referendum on Dwarven Independence, far from drawing a line under the question of the Dwarven Nationalism, seems to have galvanised support for Dáin Ironfoot, who has long claimed that, with the riches of Erebor now regained from Smaug, the Dwarves are capable of sustaining their own economy without direct support from the south.

Questions will no doubt be asked around the leadership of Faramir, son of Denethor, who has been unable to escape accusations of being a ‘wizard’s pupil’. Despite talk of being tainted by the power of the One Ring, there will no doubt be those who wonder if Boromir, Faramir’s older brother, would have been more suited to leadership of the party in this election. Meanwhile, Théoden King, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, was overheard by one insider muttering “Where now is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They are gone, like rain on the mountainside.”

Elsewhere, the Elves have held on to their previous three seats in Lothlórien, Rivendell, and the Grey Havens. While the Ents did manage to maintain their presence in Fangorn Forest, their leader Treebeard has released a statement saying that “No one cares for the woods anymore.”

The creature Gollum has also managed to hold at least one seat in parliament. During the election, he was often to be found in his cave, surrounded by kippers, hissing the words “preciousss” and “nasty, tricksy hobbitsesss”. Despite being rumoured to have once been a hobbit-like creature himself, Gollum’s anti-hobbit stance has been central to his campaign, and has gained some traction in former Arnor townships such as Bree, which has seen an influx of migrant hobbits in recent years.

Finally, there have also been unconfirmed reports that Gandalf the Grey, also called Mithrandir and Stormcrow, has been seen on the road from Minas Tirith, gnawing on the brim of his pointed wizard hat. More on this story as it develops.

Being and Specialness: ‘The Zero Theorem’ and ‘The LEGO Movie’

Contains major spoilers for The Zero Theorem and The LEGO Movie.

LEGO Movie PosterZero Theorem Poster

Well, I didn’t lie, exactly. It just took a little longer than I expected. I actually did write the main body of this post a while ago (hence the lazy Eurovision crack in the next paragraph), but it was a time when the film had already left UK cinemas, and very few people elsewhere had gotten the chance to see it yet. Anyway, it is now out on VOD in America, with a limited run in cinemas coming later this month, so now seems as good a time as any.

So, the importance of searching for one’s own meaning or purpose in life, in the face of an incomprehensible or actively hostile world, has pretty much always been a popular theme in film narratives. This year alone, Under the Skin, Inside Llewyn DavisThe Double, The Zero Theorem, Lucy and, yes, The LEGO Movie have all directly addressed this central existential concern. And they all draw upon the idea that it is up to the individual to negotiate their own meaning, because the world doesn’t have meaning beyond that which we impose – it is an absurdity. After all, we live in a universe that produced the Eurovision Song Contest.[1]

Incongruous as it may seem, The LEGO Movie and The Zero Theorem in particular share a specific blending of existentialist ideas with narratives that both evoke and parody mystical experiences.[2] Pat Rushin, screenwriter of Zero Theorem and a professor at the University of Central Florida, was inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes, which he suggests “asks the major questions. What is the value of life? What is the meaning of existence? What’s the use?” All of which clearly chime with modern existential concerns, even while drawing from a Biblical source.

It’s explicitly stated in The Zero Theorem that the burned-out chapel in which Qohen (Christoph Waltz, of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained fame) lives was previously inhabited by Gnostic monks who had taken a vow of silence and, in a moment of ash-black comedy, he remarks that this vow led to their deaths in the fire. For sacrificing communication in the name of attaining true knowledge, the monks were punished (or, if you are of a particular frame of mind, rewarded) with death.

Zero Theorem 2

Qohen himself has suffered a severe existential crisis in his past. Having realised that he is ‘not special’, he awaits a phone call that will give him a purpose in life, a reason to be.[3] Because of his absolute belief in this phone call, in his own personal salvation, the sinister Management (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity), declares Qohen to be the most religious man there is. This is why Management chose him for the task of unravelling the Zero Theorem, which will prove that eventually the universe will collapse in on itself, and therefore the fundamental pointlessness of all things. Which, according to Management, will be a valuable sales tool.

By curious coincidence, however, the method by which Qohen goes about attempting to solve the Zero Theorem is visualised by nothing other than the assemblage of blocks, which either form patterns or collapse into chaos depending on how successful Qohen is in his pursuit of the Theorem. This leads us smoothly into The LEGO Movie, of course.

In contrast to Qohen, LEGO everyman Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt, rising star of Guardians of the Galaxy and the upcoming Jurassic World) is quite content at not being special at all. His single desire is to fit in with those around him.[4] The revelation that he’s supposed to be the ‘The Special’ who will save the world from the plans of evil Lord Business (who manages to be even more obviously sinister than Management) is profoundly uncomfortable to him, in a way that deliberately echoes the idea of the refusal of the call to adventure as defined in Joseph Campbell’s conception of the monomyth.[5]

Another prominent Campbellian theme is the idea of ‘death and return’, where the protagonist suffers a physical or metaphorical death and enters an ‘Other World’, with the goal of bringing back some divine knowledge or ‘boon’. It is, clearly, a mystical experience, and it makes an obvious appearance in The LEGO Movie when Emmet’s sacrifices his own life save the Master Builders from Lord Business. After Emmet ‘dies’, he pierces the veil of his reality, he gains true knowledge, and sees Finn (Jadon Sand) and his father (Will Ferrell, of the Anchorman films, not to mention the underrated Stranger than Fiction) as they really are, even if he doesn’t fully understand them. He is, after all, a tiny little LEGO man.

LEGO Movie 4

The story of the film so far is, therefore, simply an extension of Finn’s imagination.[6] This creates a curious inversion of the relationship between the human and the divine. Finn’s father is, after all, credited as ‘The Man Upstairs’, which is also how the inhabitants of the LEGO world refer to him. He is their demiurge, the creator of their world, and Finn is their messiah. Yet this is all ironised by the fact that Finn and his father are clearly just ordinary people, placed into the role of gods by their relationship with the LEGO world.

And now, to segue equally smoothly back to The Zero Theorem, the relationship between Finn and his father strikingly mirrors that that of Management and his son, Bob (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom) in Gilliam’s film. Initially, Bob seems as misanthropic and selfish as everyone else in Qohen’s world, insisting on calling everyone else around him ‘Bob’ because he’s not even interested in so much as remembering another person’s name. Eventually, however, Bob is revealed as Qohen’s most loyal or, at least, most honest friend – the rest turning out to be pawns of Management. Of course, Management is pointedly not God, and Bob himself would make for a rather poor messiah. The relationship echoes the idea of a Holy Father and a Son of God, but Management and Bob are, in truth, nothing more than pale shadows of religious figures they resemble.

When Bob sacrifices his health, and potentially his life, to help Qohen, it comes across as tragically futile. And when, in their final confrontation, Qohen once again demands his phone call from Management, demands to be given his sense of purpose, the latter calmly (even smugly) admits that Qohen must have mistaken him for a higher power. Indeed, there is no space for a higher power in the world of The Zero Theorem. That’s largely the point.

The film climaxes with Qohen apparently forfeiting his being in the real world in exchange for the experience of a virtual reality where he is able to act as his own personal god, playing with the sun as like it was a beach ball. He does, in the end, manage to actualise himself, his apotheosis a metaphor for an escape from the whims of an absurd and uncaring system. But like the Gnostic monks who inhabited the chapel before him, it would seem that this escape comes at the cost of his material, physical existence, if not his life.[7]

Zero Theorm 3

But, in The LEGO Movie, something much more mysterious happens. Just as it seems Lord Business and The Man Upstairs are about to achieve their final victory, gluing everything in place so nothing will ever change ever again, Emmet intervenes in Finn’s ‘Real World’. He sees his own world as the toy collection it truly is, an entirely absurd thing that has no real significance – yet he never loses the sense that it’s important to save his friends. He draws Finn’s attention back to Emmet himself, back to the ‘Piece of Resistance’ which will stop Lord Business’s plan in the LEGO world, back to the story he has created. And it is through this story, through realising that his own son has cast him in the role of the villainous Lord Business, not in an act of cruelty or malice, but out of genuine confusion and frustration and love, The Man Upstairs finally attempts to connect with Finn.

As much as the film happily cribs from the Campbell playbook, the generic-ness of the main plot ultimately becomes a punchline when it is revealed that Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption), the Master Builder who serves as Emmet’s mentor, just made up the prophecy of ‘The Special’ as a way to encourage people to fight against Lord Business.[8] In so doing, the film undercuts its own the narrative logic, establishing an equivalency not only between its characters, but between the two levels of reality.

Here, the created is allowed to change the creator. The material has power over the divine. This is The LEGO Movie, after all. Of course it’s a gleeful celebration of materialism, even as it deconstructs and parodies the consumerist/corporatist arrangement (the former embodied by Emmett and the latter by Lord Business). The film happily rejoices in the pop-culture spectacle of having Batman hang out with the crew of the Millennium Falcon, or Gandalf and Dumbledore standing side-by-side. Were this film to ask its audience (especially children) to put aside the simple pleasure provided by throwing together material cultural artefacts, to become as ascetic as the Gnostic monks, it would be hypocritical in the extreme.[9]

Instead, it’s telling us something else. That storytelling is, fundamentally, an existential act. It is the attempt to give meaning and shape to experience, to life itself. The story Finn constructs in The LEGO Movie is an attempt to give meaning to the rules his father has created – and, in doing so, break through them. Finn takes his father’s neat and ordered collection, pulls it apart, and reshapes its constituent pieces together into something new. And, in a moment of pure alchemical magic, this act of storytelling reshapes his own life.

LEGO Movie 1

Next Time: I don’t know, maybe the new Doctor Who? Yeah, probably the new Doctor Who.


[1] This was timely when I wrote it, okay?

[2] Particularly, they seem to resemble or reference the Gnostic idea that the material world is a lesser realm created by an evil demiurge, or creative force, and that we should strive to escape it and reunite with the true spiritual world. Etymologically the term Gnosticism comes from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge, specifically knowledge which descends from experience – in this case a direct mystical experience of the divine.

[3] There is clearly some kind of relationship, intended or not, between The Zero Theorem and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998), in which Max Cohen is also trying to solve a seemingly impossible equation of cosmic significance, and regularly receives phone calls which address him by name, just as Qohen imagines his phone call doing. After a particularly bad hallucinatory episode, Cohen shaves off all his hair, which Qohen’s unusual appearance clearly echoes.

[4] Ironically, Emmet’s lack of any distinguishing feature or gimmick, his attempt to sublimate his identity completely into the consumerist community around him, is why his fellow construction workers find him vaguely uncomfortable to be around – he’s the guy who invites himself along to things that you don’t have the heart to say ‘no’ to.

[5] For the purposes of this post, I’m going to leave to one side critiques of Campbell’s observations, and instead just note that his concept of the monomyth, or ‘Hero’s Journey’, has without a doubt been extremely influential in the construction of Hollywood narratives, the most famous example usually given being Star Wars.

[6] Again, there a curious resemblances to Gnosticism. There, the creative demiurge is often conceived of as an ‘evil archon’ (no, not a Dark Archon, Starcraft players), a negative aspect of the totality of the divine, who denies the human spirit its freedom and connection to the spiritual world. In this cosmic schema, the role of Jesus is an emanation of the divine, an “aeon” or eternal spirit, who provides the way for humanity to escape the material and be reunited with its divine origins.

[7] Qohen’s fate is, indeed, rather similar to that of Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce, Pirates of the Caribbean) in Brazil – the proper version of Brazil, that is – where Lowry is left only with his fantasy of a life with Jill (Kim Greist, Manhunter) after she has been killed and he has been tortured into insanity.

[8] Vitruvius, meanwhile, is clearly named after a Roman architect, engineer and writer from the 1st Century BC. He authored De Architectura, the earliest surviving work on, well, architecture, surprisingly. It’s probably also worth noting that architect comes from the Greek arkhitekton – which happens to mean ‘Master Builder’. Phil Lord and Chris Miller knew exactly what they were up to when they were writing this script.

[9] So yeah, The LEGO Movie is basically Postmodernism: The Film. But for kids, who have always done this sort of thing earnestly, and without thinking. This is, in fact, one of the most interesting things the film points out, that the remixing of cultural references and symbols isn’t necessarily an affectation, but something that is actually fairly elemental to our experience of narrative.