“We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath…a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” – F.T. Marinetti
“Throw a little hot-rod red on there.” – Tony Stark
Anyone remember Iron Man?
No, I don’t just mean the guy who died in Avengers: Endgame when he clicked his fingers to stop Thanos but not the well-written anti-villain Thanos but the bad Thanos from the past who invaded the present because the Avengers travelled back in time to stop Thanos from yeah whatever. I don’t mean the sometimes fun, sometimes forgettable comic book character who killed communists, got drunk, turned into a nanotech cyborg and got really into politics that one time. I mean the character Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr. in the trilogy of movies from 2008 to 2013, in Iron Man 1, 2, and (wait for it) 3. Wait, you say. Ain’t that the same guy from Endgame? Yes and no. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a lot like the Communist Party of China in that it doesn’t believe in historical nihilism – we’re supposed to see what happened from its inception to now as one smooth narrative all overseen by smarter people than us. But actually it was and always has been as much of a hot mess as the history of Chinese communism, with movies scrapped, rewritten and reshot on the fly, directors fired and projects warped and hammered together to form a sort-of congruent multi-movie cinematic setting. Today it’s easy to forget this, with the slick, crowd-pleasing Spiderman: No Way Home setting records and meeting critical acclaim for its entirely safe handling of a potentially interesting multiverse crossover/end-of-trilogy denouement, with Marvel movies apparently planned out until the apocalypse in phases, like a supervillain’s evil plan. But the MCU began humbly and messily, with a 2008 movie about a B-list Marvel superhero – almost unknown before then, except to comic nerds and Marvel vs. Capcom fans – starring a washed-up actor dogged by addictions and bad press, filmed almost without a script (Jeff Bridges has said most of the dialogue was improvised, and compared it to a college film). Until 2012’s The Avengers, and for a while after that, it wasn’t all that slick at all.
This early muddle of baby steps towards the grandest and most dystopian movie-making project of cinema’s history is full of interesting little moments: Edward Norton’s redacted turn as the Hulk, that time Thor was adapted by Kenneth Branagh, Captain America briefly playing with World War Two propaganda tropes before the second half of the movie hit and it became Resident Evil 5. The most interesting of these to me was the Iron Man trilogy, helmed first by Jon Favreau and then in 3 by Shane Black, first as the origin of this capitalist behemoth and then as its unsteady sequel and then post-Avengers as the last gasp – Guardians of the Galaxy notwithstanding – of original thought before total corporate control was assumed. The first movie is what we’re going to focus on today, the original seed of this entire grand enterprise and the consequences of the unique way it approached superheroes and superhero fiction, now buried beneath layers of corporate Marvel. What original thought is it, you ask, that we might find in that funny, silly Hollywood scifi action character piece extravaganza?
To answer that we should take a quick trip to pre-fascist Italy. Yeah, it’s one of those articles.
Italy in the early twentieth century was an unhappy place. Not for most people – for the majority of the populace of the Kingdom of Italy under Victor Emmanuel III, life was as it had always been, as it had been under his father Victor Emmanuel II and before that under the various monarchs and rulers of the disunited peninsula for centuries. The industrial revolution had come, but Italy had been a poor region and now it was a poor country. The nation, reunified by Garibaldi decades before while Bismarck had been sewing together Wilhelmine Germany, had not undergone the same righteous national rebirth as the German nation had. Much of the country still thought in regional terms, with little interest in the Piedmontese monarchy or abstract notions of Italia. Most were not frustrated with this state of affairs. But the unhappiness of Italy persisted, and it persisted not in the broader population but in the elite educated class that had, ever since Napoleon, dreamt of the fatherland. “We have made Italy,” wrote Piedmontese politician Massimo d’Azeglio, “now we must make Italians.” When the country had been unified there had been no Italians in the sense of a class of nationally-conscious peoples who had won recognition as a great people – at the dawn of the new century this persisted. Italy was a junior partner in alliance with Germany and Austria; it had no great military victories, no vast industrial empire, no colonial successes to speak of (a humiliating defeat to Ethiopia in the 1890s remained a major scar to nationalists). Its politics were dysfunctional and its international reputation middling. In the social-Darwinist world of pre-1914, where nations lived and breathed in a brutal competition between the strong and the weak, where the dynamic young nationalisms were outpacing the old dynastic powers, Italy was looking remarkably like one of the weak.
What it did have was art. Italy in the 1900s was perhaps the last time in history poetry was as big as pop music. Poets from the flourishing national bourgeoisie, which alone seemed to believe in the Italian idea, defined the mood of the unified Italy; they were superstars. Chief among them was Gabrielle D’Annunzio, nationalist firebrand, playboy, violence-lover and proto-fascist; but he had a contemporary who, dealing with similar themes, took them even further. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was a romantically-minded Milanese who dabbled in everything from not only poetry but prose, journalism and theatre, who after a 1908 car accident in 1909 published his best-known work, one which crystallised the frustration of the Italians who saw their countrymen as unworthy of the great idea of Italy, who from their backwards fatherland visited the beauty of Paris, Vienna and other industrialised centres of the cultural world – The Futurist Manifesto. “We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.” it proclaims, and it lays out a world of violent action, of the “beauty of speed”, implicitly connected with technology and modernity, a world of “the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons…factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke…great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridles”.
In this it presages the technology-based utopianism of Marxism-Leninism and the century of American capitalism, but as well it clarifies the purpose of this machinery is not peaceful: “We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.” In this it is also fascist (Marinetti, of course, went way into fascism later, even co-authoring the Fascist Manifesto in 1919). It speaks of the beauty of the motor-crash which gave Marinetti his spark, of not just progress but violent destruction of the past so as to “deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.” Here D’Annunzio’s novels and plays of decadent nobles bored with life leaping into abyssal pleasure intersect with Marinetti, as both were themselves decadent nobles who dreamt (like many of Europe’s nobility at this time) of violent wartime satisfaction, of the unleashing of the industrial beasts chafing at their restraints as the great powers of Europe rushed headlong into a shifting new world. Nietzsche’s ubermensch but with a new god, the iron the new world will be hewn from, in place of the old dead one. An intermingling of machinery and of the superior men who build it. Not a superman but an iron one.
But then all of these ideas were proven wrong by the war, and fascism flourished and still proved unable to make the Italians of Garibaldi, D’Annunzio, Marinetti and Mussolini – and the concept of futurism, like many pre-war pretensions, was relegated to the history books as an aesthetically interesting kind of sick joke. But ideas don’t ever really stay in the history books; bits and pieces of them live on, floating downriver as fragmentary traces that can catch on elsewhere. Decades later, when nobody remembered the weird dreams of Italian nationalists, there would be a superior man who was also a machine – Tony Stark, one of the many characters created in the boom of Marvel Comics’ 1960-70s heyday. Alongside the metaphors for social and racial conflict deployed in X-Men stories and the poverty and youthful dysfunction of Spiderman was Tony, a wealthy industrialist who was critically injured in a kidnapping in the jungles of Vietnam, and kept alive only by a fellow captive, scientist Yinsen, who fitted a mechanism to his heart to keep the shrapnel in his chest from killing him; this mechanism forms the core of his suit of powered armour which he uses to battle communists, Fu Manchu rip-off The Mandarin and other Marvel baddies as the superhero ‘Iron Man’. Fused with the Iron Man suit by his chest mechanism, with his Stark Industries fortune behind him allowing him to fund evermore elaborate suits and weapons, Stark eventually also deals with the morality of his weapons dealing and his own personal dysfunctions. But the concept of the character remains from beginning to end rooted in the superiority of his tech and his superiority, as a man, to those who would misuse it whether communist foes, Asian terrorists or blundering American governments. And Tony Stark is superior because he is intelligent, risk-taking and – different from Superman or Spiderman, working-class joes that they are – elite; a “quintessential capitalist”, according to creator Stan Lee. A recurring image in Iron Man mythology is a shirtless or vested Tony Stark – to show his muscles and masculinity – forging his own armour with hammer in hand. Industry, or the ideal of it, personified. Marinetti might have liked him.
This deliberately right-wing origin is perhaps why, in an increasingly socially-conscious comics business, he never really became one of the big-sellers. DC’s psychologically-intense, Gothic Batman already had the niche of the takedown of the rich ubermensch down pat; other Marvel heroes were much more relatable than the “genius billionaire playboy” in the machine-suit whose enemies were widely racial or political caricatures. But in 2008 Marvel, seeking to branch out into cinema, had very few cards to play, with Spiderman being owned by Sony and X-Men by Fox – a movie about Iron Man must have seemed a solid enough bet, because people sort of knew the name but the weight of expectation wouldn’t have been too heavy. The movie that eventually came out thus tried to modernise this cumbersome Ayn Rand-meets-Cold-War character, and by doing so – combining the manlier-than-manly Tony Stark with his transhuman suit of armour with a fresh attempt to humanize him – it in a way made him even more of a perfect futurist icon.
In Iron Man (2008), the old backstory plays out, here set not in Vietnam but in Afghan desert, where Tony Stark is kidnapped by a group of Al-Qaeda types known as “The Ten Rings”, an illusion to the ten rings of embarrassing old archenemy The Mandarin, and with the help of Yinsen again is fitted with the “arc reactor” and builds a suit of iron armour to escape from the terrorists and return to America. But this Tony Stark, who owes more than a little to Christian Bale’s tortured Bruce Wayne in the earlier Batman Begins, from the outset is given a mission and a sense of purpose by the added detail of the terrorists using Stark Industries weapons, which they use to slaughter the soldiers he’s with and – later in the movie we see – to terrorize innocent civilians. Both this and the death of Yinsen – whose hometown, we learn, is the same place The Ten Rings are using Stark weapons to commit war crimes – serve to burden Tony Stark with a guilt that comes to define his character. His first action upon returning to the US is to immediately shut down Stark Industries’ weapons division – which meets howls of protest from his business partner Obadiah Stane and the press and the board of directors too – and then he falls into reclusiveness as he works obsessively on perfecting the crude “Mark I” armour from Afghanistan, which soon becomes a crusade to wipe out any and all Stark weapons that have fallen into the wrong hands. There’s talk amongst the company board that he suffers from PTSD, and aided by the shakiness of Robert Downey Jr.’s erratic performance, veering from glib one-liners to solemn, sudden quiet at the drop of a hat, he definitely seems to be suffering from something; this movie was Downey Jr.’s return to the limelight after years of drugs and scandals, his second shot, and for Tony too his return from Afghanistan, the arc reactor in his chest and the Iron Man suit suggest a kind of desperate rebirth.
This is normal for superhero fiction, the transforming of the flawed into the perfect. But Tony Stark’s rebirth as Iron Man is different. There is his whooping joy at flying through the air, the relish he takes in using the suit’s power to make right his company’s mistakes, and then there is this exchange with his love interest/assistant Pepper Potts, who is worried about him and the obvious toll on his health using the suit might take. “There is nothing except this.” he says. “There’s no art opening, no charity, nothing to sign. There’s the next mission, and nothing else.” She suggests that he’s going to kill himself doing this. “So far so good.” he says coldly. Batman liberates Bruce Wayne from his grief; Spiderman liberates Peter Parker from his weakness. Both pay a heavy price for this liberation. For Tony Stark the price of liberation and the liberation itself are the same thing. Batman symbolizes justice. Spiderman symbolizes responsibility. For Tony Stark though the idea of Iron Man represents from the very beginning a rush towards death – a death that only the superman, the classic archetype of an exceptional male figure, is bold enough to embrace.
When Obadiah Stane, the real mastermind behind the kidnapping in Afghanistan, is defeated by Tony as his own powered armour proves to be technically inferior, it is the mundane world of corporate American greed being defeated by this archetype of the superior man, the genius, inventor and maverick eclipsing blundering capitalism. Stane is not the real villain of the movie; it is Tony, the Tony like the real D’Annunzio and Marinetti was before living in decadent nobility, who now has been subsumed into Iron Man, the hardened hero who beneath the bluster is aiming only at one thing: glory. Or death. Or both at once. When in its final scene Tony throws aside the secret identity conceit of the comic books and proclaims “I am Iron Man”, it is a declaration and a statement of intent. Tony Stark will become iron and create a legacy that cannot be dented, reclaiming Stark Industries from governments and politics and balance sheets and returning it to where it belongs – in the hands of the one man who is worthy of it. Superheroics are incidental.
This is the vision given us by the 2008 attempt to make Iron Man relevant again. By adding to this cardboard 1960s character the mid-War On Terror blues, by making the greatest capitalist in comic books doubt his own essence from the get-go, a new character was created, one who in his self-loathing and desire for absolution reflected something truer than the original. Futurism was a simplistic, angry and juvenile response to the failure of Italy to develop into the nation-state great power it was supposedly meant to be, trusting in the might of industry to force it forward, to succeed where the prior Italy failed; Tony Stark’s cinematic transition into Iron Man is a simplistic, angry and juvenile response to the manifold systemic, cultural and moral failures that created Tony Stark, trusting in the might of industry to erase the man and fuse him with the machine, to succeed where before was only failure.
In the end of course this is not really a wholly futurist movie. Tony Stark has a moral compass which pushes him to channel his obsessive pursuit of technological perfection into saving lives; he does not have “contempt for woman” but a love interest in Pepper Potts, who he treats shoddily but clearly not that badly. But these things are secondary and in this and the other movies he often struggles to find them, so lost in techno-utopian projects, grandiose new suit designs and the combined weight of his own guilt-slash-ego forever driving him on. The essence of his character is the combination of the original Iron Man’s capitalist self-made prowess and the self-hatred of Robert Downey Jr.’s interpretation of such – as a sports car going all-out along a highway or an Iron Man suit rocketing through the skies above Afghanistan, Tony Stark is too great, too fucked up to survive for long. He wishes to do good but can only conceive of doing good through technology he remains the master of; he wishes for accountability for the conventionally powerful like Stane or the Ten Rings but not (deep down) for himself. He at once is overjoyed to be the superman but also cannot see the superman as anything other than death, his death, a death he accepts as the price for all of his success.
At the end of the movie his announcement of himself as Iron Man is impromptu, made during the delivery of a scripted cover story he repeatedly fails to stick to – he has tasted something and can’t let go of it. Superheroes are often characterised as reactionary in that they work to prevent crime but do nothing to change the things that cause it, reacting but not acting. Fascism is often characterised as reactionary too, which is in some sense a misconception. While it looks to a false past for spiritual strength it seeks not to recreate but to build anew, to create a world where everything is shit on purpose (but it’s beautiful; the shittiness of it is just the price this supposedly takes). Iron Man is not a reactionary hero, because he is very happy to act, to change the whole world with his every ill-thought-out thrust towards the Iron Man-defined future – he is the closest we have to a fascist hero, or at least almost a futurist one, who sets out not just to do good in a world of bad but to kill himself doing it, a hero who will fail harder and more spectacularly than anyone has ever failed before, and he will do it while breaking the sound barrier in a badass suit of armour he built, a one-man military-industrial complex hurtling into the sun. Me no frego – so far, so good.
What started with this movie was a grand capitalist enterprise Tony Stark might well have approved of, so self-defeating and monumental was it in scope. When at the end of Iron Man Tony is approached by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who introduces him to the ‘Avengers Initiative’, and tells him “you’ve become part of a bigger universe”, Fury sure wasn’t fucking kidding. But not at that point – after Iron Man came the middling Thor and the missing Incredible Hulk movie, all of which were tied together only by vague references – the presence of Fury’s SHIELD, the existence of Tony Stark. It wasn’t until Iron Man 2 that things really got going – and this movie, with its plot of Tony slowly dying from his chest-mounted arc reactor and resorting to alcoholism and vainglorious showboating before a villain who wants revenge on him for his father’s legacy hunts him down, continues the streak of ‘hey this guy really doesn’t feel like a superhero’. Then was the first real step towards the current MCU, The Avengers, where Iron Man confronts the unprecedented threat of alien invasion, the revelation that he isn’t the most special superhero in the room, and SHIELD’s attempts to prepare earth – behind his back – to defend against further unprecedented threats.
Iron Man 3, post-Avengers and the last gasp of this trilogy, sees Tony stricken by PTSD, obsessively building suits and acting even more recklessly, challenging supervillain The Mandarin to come to his house for a throwdown on live TV. At the end of Iron Man 3 Tony gets over his PTSD, blows up all his Iron Man suits, declares his love for Pepper and as well decides that even without the suit he is still Iron Man. This nice and perfectly liberal end – you get over the violence in your heart once you no longer need it – is spoiled, however, by the next movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, where he’s back in his suit and – kind of worse – developing a hyperpowerful AI that can keep the whole world safe in lieu of SHIELD or the other Avengers or even himself (this backfires). By this point Marvel was too big to stop, the MCU’s momentum too vast to let any one character rest – and intertwined with the narrative, Tony Stark too was too big to stop. His own movies were over, but he took centre stage in Captain America: Civil War (supposedly the conclusion to Cap’s own trilogy) and found time to mentor Spiderman and in Marvel’s grand fauxnale Infinity War/Endgame was cast as heroic foil to the alien tyrant Thanos, now having made for himself an Iron Man suit of pure nanotech so advanced (and conveniently for the SFX guys) it could be summoned at will from nowhere.
This brings us back to where we started. Iron Man died long after Robert Downey Jr. had stopped giving a shit. He died saving the universe but really he died because in the MCU heroes either go on forever like their frozen print counterparts or find some glory in death. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is forged from Iron Man’s DNA – the success of that weird 2008 movie made possible everything after, and the laws followed in making the lame comic book character Iron Man (who?) cool again were followed with Thor, Spiderman, Hulk and countless others. And today it is a juggernaut of pop cultural might far beyond anything anybody except Spidey and maybe the X-Men achieved in their heyday. Iron Man is an A-lister now – but as with much of the MCU’s glow this has failed to translate into the failing comic book business. This is to some extent because of that aforementioned failing business but also because, for all they try to make him quippy and give him RDJ’s neat facial hair, MCU Iron Man is or was made of different stuff. Deathly stuff. Both Iron Men are creatures glorying in machinery, of corporate nuts and bolts hewn together with the will of a mythical capitalist superman, the CEO as superior being, but the cinematic one’s focused self-loathing – which does, it must be said, owe much to various comic storylines all concentrated into a singular point – creates a hero who is not a hero, a greater man who makes his own problems, a genius whose brain propels him inexorably to a confrontation with destiny as a man-machine-merger who, whatever he pulls off, is sure to die in glory. In other words, the greatest possible icon for the capitalist West.
The MCU of today is without RDJ’s Tony Stark and without a heart to match. It is an America with no heroes – a capitalist superpower, an industrial titan, that lingers because nothing else is ready to replace it. But just like how the MCU’s movies can’t help but keep talking about Tony (witness Spiderman: Far From Home), the Anglosphere feels like it can’t go on without its old spirit, the spirit that seems at some nebulous point to have left its imperial enterprise, to have deserted its grand quest for world conquest. What spirit was this exactly? We could turn again to our old friend Marinetti, proto-fascist kook: the spirit of industry, which lives within the young and superior and deserts the old and feeble. Tony Stark died before he could become old and feeble, becoming as his last words – “I am Iron Man” once more – said. The pax Americana never achieved what he did. And so hence his appeal, and hence the phantom appeal of the franchise he made by the virtue of one single funny, silly Hollywood scifi action character piece extravaganza. We westerners long for the frontier, the empire, the days of scrappy, brutish glory – we long for 2008, when Tony Stark built a whole universe in a cave, with a box of scraps. A longing for youth, for simplicity, for action – this is how it is when you’re no longer young or simple or capable of action. In the long, messy story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and detailed here, in the finer points of its genesis – is a microcosm of just how sad the whole damn thing is. Well, whatever.
I hope they have Mr. Fantastic in the next one!
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