Bright Lights Film Journal

“Heckuva Job, Tony!” Racism and Hegemony Rage in <em>Iron Man</em>

Kill a few Arabs and enjoy your cheeseburger

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‘s 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.

Iron Man 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 (Gwyneth 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, with Downey), who thrice saves Stark’s life, is the racial other, a shaking, hallowed other who also serves Stark’s every request and demand. Yinsen implores Stark to let him sacrifice himself for the messianic good of American homeland security,3 so that Iron Man is ensured a spectacular, biblical montage of flames in the decimation of Arab land.

Iron Man, with 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 burning dozens of “towelhead” freedom fighters. It’s only Arabs again, so it’s okay. The pantomime nemesis Raza (Faran Tahir), a typical Hollywood Middle Eastern 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 congenital cool.5 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 seen 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 saviour’s consent.

The screenplay, ironically, attempts 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 blockbuster Transformers (Michael Bay), Iron Man 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 Tony Stark 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 Man 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 Lies in the Clinton regime, and Rules of Engagement under Bush. The social texture of Iron Man presents 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, 1997). []
  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, 1979). []
  6. See here. []
  7. Iron Man was advised by the U.S. Defense Department’s Project Officer, Air Force Captain Christian Hodge. []