Tag Archives: Tony Stark

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.

TonyStark

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.

Rick

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.

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[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.

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‘Iron Man 3’ and the Challenges of Franchise Filmmaking

Note: Contains weapon-grade spoilers for Iron Man 3. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and plan to, I recommend not reading this right now, etc.

You'll be quite beside yourself.

You’ll be quite beside yourself.

When the first Iron Man arrived on cinema screens five years ago, it was often described as being a breath of fresh air by the standards of the Hollywood comic book action movie. The film’s freewheeling, improvisational style and Robert Downey Jr.’s career-redefining performance as the troubled, wealthy, but most of all brilliant Tony Stark, possessed a charm seemingly unique among the ranks of carefully calculated modern blockbusters. What’s more, Iron Man demonstrated that comic book movies didn’t need the grittiness of Bryan Singer’s X-Men films or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to be taken seriously, or the camp of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in order to have sense of fun.

Since then, however, Tony Stark has made four other appearances in separate cinema outings, and spawned one of the most unexpectedly successful (not to mention astonishingly prolific, given its short lifespan so far) franchises in movie history. With 2010’s Iron Man 2 already feeling like a lesser retread, Marvel Studios were faced with the challenge of reinvigorating their most valuable individual property following the astronomical success of last year’s Avengers Assemble. Just as they selected geek icon Joss Whedon to carry the Avengers to the big screen, Marvel’s choice here was unconventional, bringing in Shane Black to direct their most high-profile film until Avengers 2 rolls around. Downey was very natural fit for Black’s wry, knowing style in 2005’s neo-noir comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – and the same proves to be the case in Iron Man 3.[1]

Also present

Also present: Black’s witty buddy-cop repartee, courtesy of Downey and Don Cheadle.

Whereas Iron Man 2 was torn between trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was the first film and laying (ultimately unnecessary) groundwork for Avengers Assemble, Shane Black and screenwriter Drew Pearce have constructed a narrative which spins off from the main franchise in a pleasingly offbeat manner, while still emphasising the history of the character.[2] Even without any cameos from Stark’s fellow Avengers (save for the usual after-the-credits bonus scene), the events of Avengers Assemble loom large over the ongoing story of Tony Stark. His anxieties over “New York” (the mere mention of which is enough to trigger a panic attack) link the emotional sub-narrative of Iron Man 3 to the franchise’s “bigger universe” in a personal way. Nor is it likely an accident that this also echoes real-world events, given the the main plot of the film is actively engaged with the issues surrounding the war on terror.

The primary antagonist at the film’s outset, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), has been reimagined from the 20th century Yellow Peril caricature into the perfect 21st century bogeyman, a terrorist mastermind in the mold of Osama bin Laden, with bonus hacking skills he uses to subject the population of the United States to snappily edited propagandist videos. With his southern drawl emphasising his Otherness, rather than detracting from it, the Mandarin is clearly a delicately constructed amalgamation of contemporary fears. Which, as it turns out, is precisely the point. Kingsley’s threatening performance is revealed to be exactly that, a performance delivered by a washed-up British actor named Trevor Slattery.[3]

Trevor

Trevor.

The real threat is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a fellow scientist and engineer who Tony subjects to a cruel prank in the film’s opening sequence in 1999.[4] Inspired by the public arrival of superhumans like Thor, Killian developed the character of the Mandarin to take credit for the rather explosive accidents caused by his experiments with Extremis (the latest in Marvel’s many super-soldier programs gone wrong) and in the process increase the demand for his innovations in military technology. With terrorism the most obvious successor to Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in the annals of Hollywood stock villainy, having the nebulous reality of that threat acknowledged, even in the realm of entertainment, is a positive development.

It would, after all. be one thing if the film was content to reveal that a Caucasian American was the evil mastermind instead of a deliberately jumbled mix of threatening Orientalist clichés. So far, so Rush Hour.[5] But by making the majority of the Mandarin’s past “attacks” accidents, and those who carry them out sometimes involuntary or manipulated participants, Iron Man 3 contrives to give its major reveal import beyond the simple trick of pulling the rug out from beneath the audience. It actually attempts to make its audience aware of, and thereby question, certain narrative assumptions in a way that isn’t just a simplistic attempt at ‘politically correctness’.[6]

Guy Pearce

Guy Pearce, suitably slimy as Aldrich Killian.

‘We all create our own demons’, Tony narrates, and the film adopts the phrase for its central thesis. He is clearly talking about not only Killian, but also his personal demons, which are born not just out of his near-death experience in Avengers Assemble, but his inability to accept his own limits and capabilities within a new, more unstable universe.[7] His decision to destroy his computer-controlled army of Iron Man suits at the end of the film is a liberating one. It is also, in a way, an echo of his decision in the first film to shut down his company’s manufacture of weapons as a result of his experiences in Afghanistan. By creating a self-contained narrative that is nevertheless engaged in conversations with Tony’s past, Iron Man 3 turns a creative liability, its status as yet another Hollywood sequel, into a key strength, and a subtle but powerful thematic tool.

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[1] Primarily known as the writer behind the Lethal Weapon series, as well as other action films of the era such as The Last Boy Scout and Last Action Hero (yes, the ’90s are an era now), the somewhat postmodern Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was Black’s only previous directing credit.

[2] Much has been made of the fact that, following Disney’s takeover of LucasFilm (they already own Marvel), the plan is to have spin-off Star Wars films which aren’t part of the series’ main epic narrative. If they end up taking the kinds of risks Marvel Studios have done, and give higher profile to talents like Black, Whedon and company, and allow them the leeway to do their own thing with the IP, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. This might be naïvely optimistic, but it could even be a way of getting more unconventional films (by contemporary Hollywood standards, anyway) under the mass-market radar.

[3] The moment of the reveal itself is nothing short of hilarious. Ben Kingsley is far from wasted in the role of Trevor Slattery, as he cheerfully negotiates dealing with superheroes and supervillains alike. Even his eventual arrest doesn’t faze him much, and Kingsley makes the most of Slattery’s pleased response to the size of the crowd watching him being taken into custody, a darkly humorous moment which is fleeting but memorable.

[4] Like the early scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Alfred reveals his fantasy of seeing Bruce Wayne living a life away from Gotham, free of the burden of his parents’ death, the introduction of Killian at the beginning of Iron Man 3 is a fairly obvious dose of foreshadowing for the film’s big twist. The identity games with the film’s villain also resemble those Christopher Nolan & co. played with Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia in the Dark Knight trilogy, but if anything there is a greater purpose to it here.

[5] See Carter’s Theory of Criminal Investigation.

[6] If there’s a flaw in the film here, it’s that it largely leaves behind this nuance during the final sequence, which features all the Extremis candidates as disposable foot-soldiers. Just spitballing here, but this would actually have been a good place to introduce a subplot for Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, with perhaps her meeting one of the other candidates and understanding how one could be drawn into such a scheme. Or something like that.

[7] As has been noted by both the production team and critics alike, Iron Man 3 is in many ways the two-hour-plus answer to Steve Roger’s question in Avengers Assemble: ‘Big man in a suit of armour. Take that away and what are you ?’ His separation from from his support system, both emotional and technological, is a central to making that idea work. It also means that the action scenes offer more variety than just men in CGI tin cans hitting each other, which is a nice change for the series.