Why Iron Man Rocks

"Iron Man” kicks butt. The enemies of the United States of America and its allies are not – for once — presented as saintly victims of evil American power or tragic casualties of a cruel, uncaring capitalism. They are power-hungry murderous savages and torturers who slaughter the innocent left, right and center just as they are in real life. And Iron Man makes sure they get what’s coming.

That’s why the mega-hit movie “Iron Man” is a celebration of what’s great about American capitalism — and audiences around the world love it.

"Iron Man" made $100 million at U.S. domestic box offices its first weekend out and has already become the first movie of the year to break the $200 million mark reaching $225.5 million last weekend. Receipts declined by only 39 percent in its third week out, a clear sign that it may soon become a $300 million domestic revenue colossus.

It has proved an equal knock-out with audiences around the world. Outside the United States, it even beat out Disney’s massively marketed new Narnia “Prince Caspian” movie in its own launch weekend.

"Iron Man"’s hero, Tony Stark, is no Adlai Stevenson whining liberal or Mohandas Gandhi saintly dreamer. Nor is he a hypocrite. He takes seriously the need to build the best and baddest weapons possible to defend the Free World. And he has no hesitation about using them. Also, Stark understands the need to make a healthy profit. Being a balanced fellow in the Aristotelian sense, he also makes time to party, chase (and catch) the ladies and generally have a Good Time.  (Winston Churchill would have approved of Stark’s ‘redeeming vices.’)

Hollywood being Hollywood, Stark of course has to become disenchanted because Bad Guys in his own company are selling his most destructive munitions to the enemy and sure enough he vows to give up making armaments, a plot line that proved big in the comic too in the decades of the Great Liberal Hangover after Vietnam.

But as also happened in the comic, this doesn’t magically transform Stark into a pacifist. Instead, he points the way for the Department of Defense and U.S. high tech defense contractors by producing the ultimate precision “smart” weapon: his fabulous Iron Man armor.

While “Iron Man’s” special effects are state of the art, they are also routine for post-Matrix generation kids, and the fight scenes do not come close to matching the classic punch-ups between Spiderman and Doctor Octopus in Spiderman 2. But where Iron Man soars is in Robert Downey, Jr.’s charismatic, red-blooded performance as Tony Stark.

For Stark, as played with delightful intelligence and insouciant wit by Downey, even having a potentially mortal wound to the heart is only a brief distraction to be cured in a remote Afghan cave by cobbling a hyper-atomic power source and a brilliant new device. Then it’s back to the luxury Pacific Coast California condo, the stunning babes, the great cocktails and martinis and the dazzling, witty banter.

Iron Man and his alter ego Tony Stark have shown remarkable resilience and staying power since comic book legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created them for Marvel 45 years ago. (After the first issue, Iron Man and his supporting cast were artistically developed by the admirable and woefully under-rated Don Heck)

From the beginning, the character was an unapologetic celebration of wealth, profit, big and high-tech guns and all-American arms manufacturers. Lee has often claimed in recent years that he created Stark as a dashing billionaire, playboy and high tech inventive genius tongue in cheek as proof that he could even make an arms manufacturer sympathetic. But this is just a politically correct retroactive rationalization. Stan went on to earn millions himself as head of Marvel Comics, its Hollywood chief rep and top spokesman for many years. But back then he, like his fellow comic book scribes and artists, could only dream of life the way Howard Hughes — the model for Tony Stark right down to the original moustache — lived it.

Stan and Jack were also all-American patriots. They were both New York Jewish boys who had served proudly — in Kirby‘s case, in the hottest combat in the European Theater of Operations — in World War II. They created Stark and Iron Man at the height of the Cold War and before the Vietnam War and the counter-culture, and in his early years, Iron Man was an even bigger patriotic pin-up boy than Captain America himself.

Iron Man‘s earliest arch-enemies were the Chinese Mandarin, who worked with the communist overlords in Beijing while retaining his prickly independence, the Crimson Dynamo who was a Soviet version of Iron Man later betrayed by his commie masters, the beautiful Natasha Romanov, better known as the Black Widow, who eventually joined Our Side, and Commissar Boris Bullski, the Titanium Man who was a bigger and badder Soviet answer to Iron Man. (The scene in the current “Iron Man” movie where Iron Man climbs on the back of Obadiah Stane’s super-armor and disconnects a vital wiring behind the neck is taken straight from Iron Man‘s defeat of the Titanium Man in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington in Tales of Suspense No. 83, scripted by Stan, inked by Frank Giacoia and fabulously drawn by the great Gene Colan.)

As long as Stan wrote the comic and Colan drew it, Iron Man even went back to Vietnam to fight the Viet Cong and he carried out preemptive strikes on foreign territory against weapons of mass destruction like the 100-foot high killer android Ultimo almost every issue. No moral equivalence there.

There is some moral equivalence and whining in the movie, of course: After all, it’s made in Hollywood. But the nature of the hero, the movie‘s fidelity to its comic book source material (a hallmark of all the remarkably consistent and successful movies that have been made out of Marvel super-heroes since the first “X-Men“ one) and, most of all, Downey‘s performance as Stark/Iron Man, leave all the whining in the footnotes. In the very last scene of the movie after the credits have rolled, Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, actually recruits Stark for America’s new super-spy and defense agency SHIELD — yet another Lee-Kirby creation back in the 60s.

What then, does “Iron Man” celebrate? What does it tell the world about America? And why do Americans and so many other people around the world love it so much?

“Iron Man” celebrates an America where inventive genius and business acumen is celebrated and rewarded with vast wealth, just as it was for Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, George Westinghouse and Bill Gates. It celebrates an America whose professional military are superbly competent, brave, decent and exceptionally dedicated. Career officer Jim Rhodes, played pitch perfect by Terence Howard, is a quintessential example. And it portrays an America filled with people determined to protect the innocent from the evil. When individual Americans turn evil, corrupted by jealousy and greed like movie villain Obadiah Stane (played with solemn, dignified glee by Jeff Bridges), they get the stuffing pounded out of them.

“Iron Man” has arguably done more in two weeks for America’s image around the world than seven and a half years of plodding, hapless bureaucratic bungling by the Bush administration. A sequel has already been confirmed. Somewhere, Uncle Sam is smiling.