Summer blockbuster season is upon us. And here’s my confession: I love ridiculous action movies. I love movies where the premise is “stuff blows up” and plot and character are entirely secondary. I don’t watch them without criticism; there’s a reason big-budget action movies have a terrible reputation when it comes to race and gender. So while I love the genre, I still watch it critically, and would be exceptionally pleased if filmmakers would shape up and start making ridiculous action movies about stuff blowing up, without resorting to alternately ignoring and stereotyping anyone who isn’t a straight, white, male character.
With that said, I’ve been to see Iron Man twice. I obviously enjoyed it; there were a bunch of aspects about it that made me decide it was worth spending money to see again. But it isn’t without its problems, and I’ve found the critiques of the movie to be fascinating. (Spoilers follow through the rest of the article.) By far the most on-the-nose critical review of the movie I’ve found is this one, by WOC PhD. She writes with far more eloquence than I could about a lot of the movie’s issues, particularly with regards to race and jingoism.
I’d like to expand on some thoughts I had while watching the movie, and again when reading her article. WOC PhD* addresses the wasted opportunities the movie had with Yinsen, the doctor who is held hostage along with the movie’s protagonist Tony Stark. He saves Tony’s life and then sacrifices himself so Tony can escape their captors. WOC PhD points out not only that the movie could have used Yinsen as a way of showing the actual effects of the war on people in Afghanistan, but also the potential problems if he returns from the dead as a villain for the sequel, which has been hinted at.
I had two further problems with his portrayal. First, I was not sold at all on his decision to sacrifice himself for Tony. As he dies, he tells Tony it’s what he wants, and that his family is dead — but that seems odd in and of itself, since when he discussed his family with Tony earlier, he did not mention that they were dead. It’s implied he’s decided Tony’s life is more important than his own because Tony has a much larger influence and can right some of the wrongs of the world in a way that Yinsen can not — but Yinsen tells him that, “this was always his plan.” Yet Tony had designed the suit with the goal of getting them both out, so why Yinsen had always planned to die when it wasn’t necessary is unclear. His death actually resembles a typical comic book fridging in some ways, except that instead of a girlfriend being murdered to give the hero motivation (or angst), a character of color is murdered to give the hero motivation (and angst — implied angst, anyway, since Tony never actually mentions him again, though I think we’re supposed to realize he was moved by the death). I’ve been told by Iron Man comics-knowledgeable friends that in every version of the origin story, Yinsen dies, so the movie writers probably never felt the freedom to have him survive”… but as a movie watcher, I wasn’t convinced. I was disappointed.
Second, Yinsen never got to be a character in his own right. The other two major supporting characters, Pepper and Rhodey, are shown to have lives outside of Tony Stark’s existence. While they both center around Tony, they do at least do things on their own. In her introduction, Pepper alludes to evening plans outside of work, and she also attends a fancy event not only without Tony, but without a date at all. Rhodey, meanwhile, we see at work. He’s kept busy there even when Tony is not watching him, which we know from scenes where Tony walks in and Rhodey doesn’t expect to see him. Now, we see them both from Tony’s POV so we only get hints about these lives, but they do exist.
Yinsen, on the other hand, does not. We meet him when Tony is captured, and he dies when Tony escapes. He references having a family, but not that they’re dead until he himself is dying; and he doesn’t do it in the context of letting us know him better, but rather as a way to show that Tony is isolated and sad without having a family of his own.** We know he speaks many languages, but we don’t know if he learned them in school, or as a traveler, or what. We don’t know if he’s a surgeon, an engineer, a professor, or something else entirely. (He does save Tony’s life medically; but he also assists him as an engineer or builder, and he’s been to see Tony give a lecture — where? When? Who knows?) We don’t know how he was captured or how long he’s been held there. Yinsen exists only while Tony is with him; when Tony is gone, he vanishes. That was hugely disappointing to me.
One place where I disagree with WOC PhD is with regards to Pepper Potts. I do agree with just about everything else she writes with regards to gender in the film, particularly about the female reporter and Pepper’s “take out the trash” line. Ught. But about Pepper and Tony’s relationship, she writes:
“Granted, Stark does make some attempt to express feelings for her in the later half of the film, but she quickly shuts him down. While the scene is meant to show Potts’ ever critical eye toward her role as super hero hag, it reads as the masochism of a woman who does not think she deserves love. Hence she falls in love with a man who won’t give her any and yet demands so much of her time that she “has no one else.” – yes that is a real quote. Or the intelligence of a woman who knows she is not, ultimately, going to get love but hangs on.”
This is in reference to the end of the film, where Tony lets Pepper know he is romantically interested in her, after she has hinted that she feels the same towards him through the whole film. However, she rejects him, referencing an earlier scene in which they had danced awkwardly and started to have a discussion of how they feel — only for him to run off in the middle to deal with a major plot revelation. Now, as a watcher of the movie, I hadn’t even thought about Pepper being left without explanation at that point, because it is a major plot revelation and Tony reacts quite understandably. The narrative follows him and not Pepper, and no further thought was really given towards what she thought or felt at that moment, until she brings it up in her rejection of him.
I did not see that as her a woman who feels she does not deserve love, or that rejection as masochism on her part. On the contrary, I thought it was a great move on the filmmaker’s parts to further her character. Pepper actually had an emotional reaction to being left there, even though we didn’t see it, since the movie wasn’t about Pepper. She was a fully-realized character, who reacted understandably. Being left without explanation or apology was enough to make her realize that, while she may have feelings for Tony, he is selfish and even if he reciprocates those feelings, that selfishness will leave him unable to give her what she wants and deserves from a relationship. Rather than settling for that, even though she cares for Tony, she rejects him. I was impressed and pleased by that choice.
One further gender-based criticism of the film. We know a lot about Tony Stark’s father: he was one of the developers of the atomic bomb; he founded a major arms company that Tony inherited; he died when Tony was relatively young; there’s a lot of controversy about whether he was a patriot or simply war profiteering; people generally feel Tony has a lot to live up to with regards to his dad. How would his dad feel about the direction Tony took the company in? How would he feel about the weapons Tony has helped create? Or the under-the-table deals to give those weapons to bad people? Tony struggles with those ideas throughout the film.
Tony’s mother is never mentioned verbally. The only actual reference to her at all is in a montage of newspaper headlines about the Stark family, which provides us with Tony’s history. The headline reads, “Husband and Wife Perish,” or something very similar. She has no name, and she has no impact on Tony or his story, whatsoever. I am realize this is a fairly common problem, but it still annoys me greatly, since you’d think that even if he had no relationship with his mother, that would still affect his character. Grumble.
Okay. All that said? I really enjoyed the movie. It was fun, it didn’t take itself super-seriously. It was phenomenally well acted, and in many respects well written. Though never confirmed by Tony himself, it’s clear he suffers from PTSD after his time as a prisoner. It’s referenced by other characters, one a gossip show host and one the villain trying to cut him out of his own company. Tony himself is not written as a character who would acknowledge that he needs to attend to his mental health, but it was also clear to me as a watcher that his decision to build a new version of the Iron Man suit and use it as a hero was all driven by PTSD, in large part. His decision to try and do the right thing may have been driven by having seen the consequences of his actions first-hand, but the obsessive way he goes about it is indicative of greater problems. I loved the way the movie illustrated that without beating the viewer over the head with it.
The movie was clever. The action sequences engaging. The special effects managed to be brilliant and not cheesy. Tony’s character and Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of him were fantastic. I can’t say I recommend this as an action movie with no faults — they’re there and disappointing. But what it gets right, it gets right much better than other movies in its genre, and it is certainly a cut above standard action movie fare.
* I’m not quite sure how to address her or what name she generally goes by — the blog is on hiatus so it seems that a lot of the usual informational pages are missing, and I’ve only started reading recently. If anyone knows of a more accurate name/handle, please don’t hesitate to let me know!
** I do think it’s interesting to have that trope, that while a character appears to have everything, the character actually has nothing without a family, applied to a man instead of a career woman as a way of showing that she should get back in the kitchen, but that’s neither here nor there.