20 September 2008

IRON MAN (Dir. Jon Favreau, 2008, US) - Very shiny, very conservative and very empty Hollywood cinema

Even if this big budget high concept comic adaptation of the Marvel superhero 'Iron Man' had managed to steer clear from xenophobic Middle Eastern stereotypes, it still would have been a major disappointment, simply because the script is terminally underwritten and fatally flawed in terms of narrative structure; the final third of this film runs out of steam and meanders hopelessly towards an anti climactic finale whilst many of the supporting characters are not given enough screen time for us to care what happens to them. Absurdist fantasy role playing of this kind is deeply problematic when considering how the suspension of disbelief alludes a spectator when faced with the prospect of having to watch another Hollywood film that seeks to promote yet more po-faced, jingoistic Republican propaganda.

'Iron Man' opens with an extended flashback in Afghanistan, representing the people and place with a strikingly offensive degree of contempt. Some film critics went as far as to say that the depiction of Middle Eastern culture is not only inappropriate in how it perpetuates and recycles familiar stereotypes but it also smacks of an underlining racism that the film feels is some how acceptable, normal and a natural way of looking at 'the other'. Upon having defeated the terrorist bad guys with an indiscriminate flamethrower and invincible suit of iron, playboy billionaire Tony Stark, arrives back in good ole America, demanding a cheeseburger of all things; the cheese burger being another patriotic symbol of American hegemonic power and cultural influence. During his short stay at the terrorist death camp, Tony Stark is tortured and then coerced into building a missile for a mean looking Arab terrorist who grunts and goes by the name of 'Raza'.

Though we are supposed to be in Afghanistan, the terrorist group who are given the not so frightening name of the 'Ten Rings' clearly descend from either Iraq or Saudi Arabia, perhaps insinuating that redemptive American figures like Tony Stark have a moral obligation and duty to stand up against the so called forces of terrorism. Such naive racism is objectionable yet the film's myopic view of the Middle East extends to the unfair and stereotypical representation of African Americans, as manifested in the demeaning and redundant role of 'Rhodes' who is played by Terence Howard. 'Rhodes' hardly appears in the film, lacking characterisation and functioning as a crude narrative device that seems to give weight to the 'tokenism' theory about how black characters are repeatedly misrepresented.

To counterbalance the hostile representations of Middle Eastern people, the film tries in vain to offer a positive character in the form of 'Yinsen' who appears in the opening sequence as a persecuted professor, using his nerdy intellect to help Tony Stark escape from the clutches of the evil doers. We discover later when Tony Stark makes his escape that 'Yinsen' has been lieing to him about reuniting with his family and that death is what he ultimately desires from life now. Such attempts at positive stereotyping falters as the death wish that 'Yinsen' seeks only serves to cause further offense by reinforcing the media's unfair and deliberate associations with the Middle East and a cult of death which has come to surround Islam.

Unfortunately, the amazing special effects can do nothing to support the narrative as the director fails in every conceivable way to make Tony Stark as equally fascinating and compelling as that of Bruce Wayne, Bruce Banner or Clark Kent; superheroes who even though they are shown to be exceedingly wealthy in some cases, are never represented as obnoxious, consumerist obsessed individuals. Such is the case with Tony Stark who is supposed to be a likable down to earth kind of guy but who even after his moment of realisation still comes across as a grotesque extension of the American military. Having made a ridiculous amount of money across the globe, 'Iron Man' is set to become one of Marvel Studio's first franchises and the cast and crew have already confirmed the production of two more films.

'Iron Man' is very shiny, very conservative and very empty, but the emotional emptiness at the heart of this xenophobic high concept product offers a great insight into how America continues to see the world today, and ironically, it is the ideological conservatism and orthodoxy that makes it such a offensive and fascinating piece of fantasy wish fulfillment cinema.

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