Iron Man, Messianic Violence, and Arabs in Film

Iron Man Movie PosterAnother film that tries to integrate contemporary political themes into its plot, Iron Man tells the story of an exuberant Tony Stark who, despite accusations that weapons made by his company Stark Industries make him a “merchant of death,” believes he is helping to defend noble ideas like freedom and democracy. His alpha-male confidence makes him a cultural pop-star and manages to land even his strongest critics (characterized, unsurprisingly, as feisty female reporters) in bed with him.

That is, until he is captured while demonstrating new technology that he has developed for the American occupation army in Afghanistan. After spending weeks in captivity, living thanks to the inspirational motivation of a similarly captured Afghani doctor, Stark appears to have undergone a “change of heart,” returning to America after an almost too-brilliant escape only to announce that he intends to shut down the weapons-manufacturing wing of Stark Industries, a company that specializes in weapons technologies.

In his seclusion, Stark develops an impressive new suit that has him dubbed the “Iron Man” by the press. With flying capabilities as well as advanced navigation, aiming, and targeting systems, all powered by radioactive polonium, the suit, ostensibly, is supposed to be a weapon that can’t end up in the wrong hands. Of course, Stark’s vision is undermined by the work of his former captives and a traitorous colleague who successfully reverse engineer the crude prototype he had built in order to escape his captors in Afghanistan, providing for a formidable foe in the final scenes in the movie.

Guns Will Fix It All

The Iron Man Comes to the RescueBy the end of the movie, Stark has put his new weapons technology to the test in a variety of ways. In one scene, he returns to Afghanistan to rescue a father and child, as well as dozens of other civilians, from militants associated with his captors. Of all the chaos in Afghanistan, it’s the chaos and violence caused by militants rather than an occupying army that Stark works against. Though Stark acts as a rogue civilian, his friends in the military provide him cover as he secretly carries out America’s good work of saving ordinary Afghanis from barbarians who form the common enemy that rationalize the presence of American forces in Afghanistan, on behalf of Afghanis.

Importantly, this work of salvation is carried out by a glorified violence which, with Stark’s advanced technology, is impeccably precise. Stark is responsible for no civilian casualties, and at some point even a person in the military claims that the Air Force hadn’t bombed a village harboring militants because “they”–undefined–”were using human shields.” It’s difficult to reconcile this view with reality. The narrative goes, because the Afghanis could not defend themselves, the injustices facing them could only be resolved through the cathartic violence of Tony Stark, who at this point can be safely read as a symbol of the American military’s good-will. In other words, Stark, who originally was committed to ending the arms trade, only happens to turn out even better weapons that can blow the enemy out of the water without killing innocents. What America needs, what powerless victims need, it turns out, are better weapons.

It’s the logic of the hero, an imperfect messiah who commits a number of mistakes but nevertheless harbors an underlying goodness (here, Pepper’s gift to Stark with the engraving, “Proof that Tony Stark Has a Heart,” comes to mind), and it fits into the military’s propaganda very smoothly: everybody needs a hero, and everybody wants to be a hero. Join the military, and we’ll send you to Afghanistan to be one. This conception of politics and justice, however, even if it were based in something resembling reality, is incomplete because it always understands the moment of violence as the moment of resolution, as the final settlement (this is a centrism which even revolutionary and resistance ideologies are often guilty of as well). But what happens when the guns have been put away? What happens when the evil figure has been, however he has been defined, exterminated? Is everything really okay once the bad guy is removed? Where can we go from there? A logic that parallels the American fantasy of ousting the single person or institution imagined to be the one source of misery, the one obstacle to peace, freedom, and democracy, is very much at play in Iron Man, as well as our political discussions on the use of force for supposedly humanitarian ends.

The Government is Only Trying to Protect Us

Arab-looking people in The Iron ManBy the time the evil arms dealer Obadiah has been contained by Stark’s impressive display of technique and technology in the final scenes of the film, government agents have been called in to save Stark, his assistant-turned-sweetheart Pepper, as well as to stop the corruption of Obadiah’s double-dealing to militants in Afghanistan as well as the US government. It’s fascinating that in this presentation, the government, as a separate and pure institution existing for the sake of right and justice, merely oversees the arms industry and comes to the rescue of well-intentioned Americans like Stark and Pepper, as well as the people of Afghanistan. All of the rather disturbing two-way relationships between government and the arms industry (dubbed by many the ‘military-industrial complex’) are overlooked, in favor of producing a people-friendly image of the government “homeland security” programs like “SHIELD.”

In a film that offers representations of real institutions, real issues, and real circumstances, the overt political message is cause for concern, especially since it produces images of a “humanitarian” occupation of Afghanistan that support the premises of both the occupation specifically and American imperialism more broadly. Such films, which offer representations that intervene in American public discourse and imagination, bring into question the ethics of collaboration with film production that essentially supports such pro-war, pro-occupation, and pro-imperialist ends. It should be recognized that the actual work of Arabic/Pashto/Urdu-speaking translators and actors went in to preparing this film.

Should those who fulfilled those needs have been complicit in the production of imperial culture? While it is worth noting that there were no “Allahu Akbars” in the film, and barely if any specific mentions of Islam or Muslims as such, it was obvious who the subjects were and what religion it was they practiced. Perhaps the fact that the assumption can be made safely indicates that the enemy is no longer worth naming in America, since, thanks to a discourse saturated with an inescapable image of the enemy, we already know who it is without any reminders. It’s worth noting that the two main militant roles were played by actors with a long history of playing similar roles, perhaps reflecting the narrow options available to actors with olive-colored skin, semitic features, rough accents, and facial hair.

While it is difficult to ascertain the conditions of the employment of translators and actors, what is clear enough is that it is going to become increasingly difficult, and increasingly disingenuous, for Arabs, Muslims, Afghanis, and others to claim ignorance or innocence with regard to the roles they play in helping to perpetuate these stereotypes about war, government, violence, Arabs, Afghanis, and Muslims. The power of such people to influence the message that films like this send is still untapped and unexplored, but the effect of quiet acquiescence is already before our eyes.


"Nothing so tires a person as having to struggle, not with himself, but with an abstraction." - Jose Saramago, All the Names