Tuesday, May 20, 2008

More Iron Man

Spencer Ackerman has written a very smart piece on the anti-imperialism of the Iron Man comic books:

For years, Iron Man's lesson was just that simple: Stark's keen technological mind represented the secret of American vitality; Iron Man's contribution to the nation's defense was an obligation that his gifts bestowed. America, under this Cold War logic, is powerful because America is inquisitive because America is free because America is good. Doesn't America have the right to defend itself? And shouldn't America use its endowment to the benefit of mankind? If so, doesn't that mean that when Wong-Chu comes to take over a South Vietnamese village, America would be irresponsible not to vanquish him with a souped-up transistor? In that vein, Iron Man's adversaries were fiends like the Red Barbarian, a Soviet general and spymaster who lived up to his nickname by bludgeoning his doltish subordinates with a ham hock.

But before long, the lessons of Vietnam sunk in on the comics juggernaut. Perhaps the idea that all the United States had to do was build bigger gadgets of disaster to use on a complicated world was hopelessly flawed. Perhaps Iron Man was symptomatic of the rot. Perhaps, by holding up a mirror to U.S. policies, Iron Man could become a vehicle for cleansing the country of its Cold War hang-ups. Marvel set to work reworking the character and its themes.

A problem confronted the company, though. Iron Man is a superhero. Cold-War product or not, Marvel couldn't very well turn him into a villain. Writers in the 1970s and 1980s solved the problem in two creative ways. First, the comic adopted the New Left's structural critique of Vietnam -- the war was the inevitable product of a systemic belief in unrestricted capitalism, American exceptionalism, and racism -- by making Stark Industries an enemy of poor Tony Stark, who had unleashed malevolent forces he couldn't control. Thus Iron Man's nemesis became a black-mirror version of himself: the ruthless metal juggernaut (another metal-suit weapon) subtly named Iron Monger, controlled by rival defense-industry bloodsucker Obadiah Stane. More cleverly, Stark's best friend Jim Rhodes became a second Iron Man -- but one sent into a paranoid frenzy of destruction by the armor's inability to interface properly with his brain. Rhodes's secret identity? War Machine.

There's more and it's well worth reading. For me, Iron Man's anti-imperialism was a bug, not a feature. But that doesn't make Ackerman's piece any less perceptive.

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