Iron Man

In theaters.

As Sean and I left the movie theater, Sean pointed out how Iron Man is a second-tier Batman. Both Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne (their everyday identities) lack superpowers, per se, but possess such extraordinary wealth and ingenuity that they can build or acquire technology to compensate. Sean prefers Batman’s backstory, but I think it’s not so much Batman as Batman’s world that makes him more compelling. I’m hardly a comics aficionado, but what impresses me about Gotham is its moral complexity. The villains aren’t necessary evil, or at least they weren’t always, and Batman himself walks a fine line between justice and vengeance. The world is shaded in gray, without absolutes, which is why it feels so resonant, so recognizable, superheroics notwithstanding.

But Iron Man (at least as portrayed in this movie—I’ve never read the comics) exists in a sharply black-and-white universe, which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t make so many feints at real, contemporary issues. This Iron Man tries to have it both ways—grittily recognizable universe and pat, rah-rah heroics—and the dissonance is painful. It’s a shame because Robert Downey Jr. is great, and the robotic exoskeleton thing is pretty cool. Iron Man has much to recommend it, but I walked out of the theater not with a grin but a wince.

At the movie’s outset, Tony Stark (Downey) is a smirkingly unrepentant weapons industrialist. When he visits troops in Afghanistan to show off his latest, state-of-the-art bunker-buster, his convoy is ambushed by a local militia wielding suspiciously high-tech weaponry. Stark is taken prisoner and commanded to build for the enemy; instead he creates an ingenious suit of armor—the Iron Man prototype—and escapes in a fiery storm, with nascent doubts about his chosen career.

The actual story drags, as origin stories often do, but Downey makes up for that with a terrifically charismatic (if frat boy-ish) performance. His quips and careless demeanor help create the illusion of momentum, and he has real rapport with Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Stark’s indulgent assistant, Pepper Potts, with humor and backbone. And the Iron Man suit truly is a geeky-fun gadget, though some of its capabilities require more suspension of disbelief than I am able to muster. (I don’t for a moment believe that anyone could have survived his initial crash in Iron Man 1.0. I actually assumed Stark must have ejected before the suit slammed into the ground and was puzzled, for a moment, when I saw him pulling himself out of the sand.)

But what really bothered me was the way Iron Man pointed its self-righteous finger at the military-industrial complex and then asked us to cheer its remedy: more sophisticated weaponry. What’s more, the movie takes it for granted that a bright line stands between the Good Guys, who should be armed to the teeth, and the Bad Guys, who should be left with pea-shooters, as if modern history isn’t packed with examples of the United States arming those we imagine to be on our side, only to see them turn against us or against their own people.

The movie’s worldview is willfully simplistic, which makes its use of the war in Afghanistan appalling. In one heartbreaking scene, we see a local warlord terrorizing a village. Children are crying. One little boy in particular is dragged screaming away from his father. But then Iron Man flies in to save the day. The gunmen hold their weapons to women and children’s heads to try to force him to leave, but Iron Man’s internal computer quickly assesses the situation—we see the display neatly distinguish between “enemy” and “civilian”—and then, in a single instant, the machine simultaneously and precisely shoots each gunman dead. The innocents are safe. Yay Iron Man!

That scene made me cry. It takes an all-too-real, all-too-common, all-too-tragic difficulty of urban warfare, particularly when fighting an insurgent force, and imagines a glibly simple solution. As if better technology could fix the problem. As if Iron Man could make everything all right.

The movie gives us the emotional porn of easy answers to the mire of our problems in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and we don’t deserve it. It isn’t right to imagine that it’s just one evil Genghis Khan wannabe who wants us out. It isn’t right to imagine that better technology could make everything magically OK. It isn’t right to use the lives and deaths of the Afghan people as fodder for our popcorn flicks.

And if Iron Man isn’t willing to acknowledge just how muddy and complicated America’s superpower status is, it has no business playing with the issue. I don’t necessarily fault Iron Man for existing in a black-and-white world, but I do fault it for trying to pretend that that world is our own.