"Heckuva Job, Tony!"
Racism and Hegemony Rage in Iron
Kill a few Arabs and enjoy your
A fanfare to director Jon Favreau's
emphasis on "acting" in Iron Man1
— yet there was
not much of this on display. Did the filmmakers intend the sardonic
one-liners, misogynistic jabs and seemingly improvised yet
forced-sounding words delivered by the actors to make this happen? Line
after line of dialogue endeavours to coerce the viewer into finding the
mass murderer Tony Stark, performed by Robert Downey Jr., an
appropriate point of identification for the jingoistic wish-fulfilment
that is Iron Man
. Downey Jr.'s furtive expression
throughout, testament perhaps to the actor's personal battle with drug
addiction, may also reflect the actor's unconscious conflict in working
on a film easily read as government propaganda. This kind of production
that so reflects government doublespeak, that vilifies one race so
hatefully and promotes its own so dutifully, carries with it mechanisms
of persuasion we have seen throughout history. Within the first fifteen
minutes it's clear that Iron Man
is far more than
playboy fantasy; it is American foreign policy realized without
context. Favreau and his actors ensure the successful transmission of
white supremacy centred on the dehumanization of Arab ethnicity. Recent
Bushite foreign policy — beautified by Iron Man
designer brand action sequences — consistently extends beyond itself;
without justification or debate, it transgresses its own limits.2
Mobilised ad nauseam is the all too familiar psychological assault on
the people of the Middle East, creatures of the sands and desert that
are destroyed in a phantasmagoria of Nintendo sight and sound.
solidifies bigoted stereotypes that would make
D. W. Griffith envious. A black actor in a supporting
role, ostensibly privileged as the high-ranking Colonel James, turns
out to be pining after Stark's odour of radical market capitalism. Like
a nagging asexual slave, the token black man is a tumour on Stark's
persona to be subtly belittled and hushed throughout. Pepper (Gwenyth
Paltrow) — shadow feminist mannequin, petulant PA to Stark —
eventually, like all the strong women in the film, falls for Stark's
creepy charisma. The Middle Eastern Doctor Yinsen (Shaun Toub, above,
Downey), who thrice saves Stark's life, is the racial other, a shaking,
other who also serves Stark's every request and demand. Yinsen implores
Stark to let him sacrifice himself for the messianic good of American
so that Iron Man
is ensured a spectacular, biblical
montage of flames in the decimation of Arab land.
narrative and directorial precision, once again provides the
high-fidelity misogyny and anti-Muslim rhetoric Hollywood is known for.4
Favreau directs racial representations that echo the xenophobic
statements that have been exchanged throughout the current U.S.
presidential elections, especially those that herald racial double
standards. There would surely be a public outcry if Iron Man
was seen destroying American embassies in Africa or rabbinic businesses
in Israel in such aesthetic hyper-reality. There are some truly
distasteful scenes that present Iron Man
dozens of "towelhead" freedom fighters. It's only Arabs again, so it's
okay. The pantomime nemesis Raza (Faran Tahir), a typical Hollywood
hysteric, rages about in inflated, untranslated gasps of Arabic.
Inevitably, there is an inordinate close-up of Raza’s fatal suffering,
whereas his white manager Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is spared
mutilation. He is given instead a dignified and spectacular death, a
laser show for the finale with lugubrious musical accompaniment.
In a video-virtuosic sequence, we
watch Iron Man
's rocket flamethrowers decimate
mythological desert bases and cook people of colour for the crime of
living on their homeland; finishing the sequence with a "not bad" — a
flippant comment of brilliant dry humour that reflects Stark's
Stark incinerates an entire village of women and children, zips home,
and then demands a cheeseburger. The burger becomes the essentialist
symbol of the return to the U.S. homeland after a successful burnout of
dozens of Middle Eastern bodies.
Since Lyndon Johnson we have
insurgents as a hyperbolic enemy of the American imagination. History
tells us they are usually ordinary civilians who have lost everything,
tired of long sanctions, defending their land and honour. Tony Stark,
in Iron Man
suit, rescues such refugees
from such insurgents
like a dream Fox News
correspondent. As in Iraq, arrows are fought with bullets; a cyborgian
superman confronts ancient Soviet rifles. Iron Man
posits binary symbols of Arab as animal, white man as saviour; Arab as
terrorist, white man — even one who makes weapons of mass destruction —
as peacemaker. Moving beyond merely a stereotype of difference, the
Arab becomes the fetishised symbol of hysteria; rational and collected
American versus the dark skin of hysterical Middle Easterner. After
disposing of the insurgents, reduced to turban-wearing maniacs, Iron
Man says to the villagers; "he’s all yours," so that they may rabidly
devour the remaining Arab insurgent Abu, having received the American
The screenplay, ironically,
to disavow a desire to display Arab massacre as unique spectacle.
Stark's proclaimed moral epiphany is consistently juxtaposed to a
narrative that posits white man's production of spectacular displays of
destruction. Then this is countered by humanitarian sound bites meant
to represent the supposed wisdom the billionaire weapons designer
suddenly receives of its negativity.
At the end of the first act, Stark
realises the long-term damage his weapons designs have on humans. Of
course, during a press release sequence, he preaches how he witnessed
his weapons used against his own race of people, white Americans.
Nothing is mentioned about the indigenous children and women who have
(not) suffered as a result of his weapons trading. Thus, the benevolent
Arab is invisible in this film.
Like last year's pro-military
(Michael Bay), Iron
finds ways to reinvent the quagmire of Iraq. One bizarre
inversion of reality occurs involving the practice of water-boarding.
In an attempt to reverse evidence of the notorious tortures carried out
on Arabic journalists by American soldiers, reportedly used in Haditha,
Abu Ghraib, and most recently in Guantanamo Bay,6
naturally becomes the latest victim of this act.7
As for the main actor of the film,
the visual effects: Stan Winston's suit was uninspired; and it's hard
to believe the same CGI company here, Orphanage, was responsible for
the effects for the South Korean SF film The Host.
Visual effects giant ILM still has a long way to go in getting their
body physics up to scratch (can anyone forgive them for their motion
capture in Star Wars II?). The musical score is not
a score at all, merely a soundscape of digital Taiko drums, guitar
riffs and the usual cacophony of television tension noise, as soulless
as the film itself.
Through mediocre CGI, moronic
contexts and unimaginative aesthetics, Iron Man
attempts to subvert the national malaise currently bedeviling the
American psyche. Despite two disastrous foreign occupations, Iron
still chases the American military dream, that of global
hegemony through "democracy." Through Tony Stark, the privilege of the
American white man justifies its extension to other people's lands,
with armchair-war glamour. Iron Man
is a vulgar,
weird myth; an Abu Ghraib in 70mm if you will. The American summer
blockbuster has often been used to reflect government propaganda —
think of Rambo
in the Reagan era, True
in the Clinton regime, and Rules of Engagement
under Bush. The social texture of Iron Man
a particularly disturbing fantasy during this time of American military
occupation. On a daily basis one hears of a rising Iraqi or Afghan
civilian death count and extraordinary devastation; Iron Man
transforms these tragedies into live cinema spectacle.
1. For one example of many positive
reviews on the directorial/performance style , see here.
2. Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais
and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).
3. Covering government fantasy. Bush
said in 2001, "You're either with us, or against us." See here.
4. See Jack Shaheen's research in Arab
& Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture.
(Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center for Muslim Studies,
5. As academic Edward Said wrote on
Kinglake, "Easterners are best dealt with when intimidated, and what
better instrument of intimidation than a sovereign Western ego?"
(Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books,
6. See here.
7. Iron Man was
advised by the U.S. Defense Department's Project Officer, Air Force
Cristobal Giraldez Catalan is a documentary filmmaker and writer interested in issues of institutional bigotry, western propaganda, and cultural imperialism..
Copyright © 2014 by
Cristobal Giraldez Catalan