Film and Society

Iron Manhood

May 11, 2010

Multiple Pages
Iron Manhood

A couple of weeks before the release of Iron Man in May 2008, the American public started to realize that casting Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, a Howard Hughes-like inventor turned superhero, was a great idea. After all, why does Hollywood bother existing if not to make a big American movie about a big American comic book character starring an actor fated to be either a big American star or our most spectacular flameout?

Iron Man wound up the most entertaining of all the superhero blockbusters, at least for my tastes. The Iron Man comic, created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and two other Marvel staffers, first appeared in 1963, which is as far back as I can remember. (Perhaps that explains why I’ve enjoyed the two Iron Man movies so much.) Iron Man 2 displays the usual signs of sequelitis, but at its (frequent) best, it’s an autumnal screwball comedy that challenges a host of fine actors—such as Mickey Rourke as a villainous old Soviet physicist—to try to counter Downey’s verbal velocity.

Comic book adaptations tend to appeal to American guys of a certain age. While Avatar, the state of the art blockbuster, earned 68 percent of its revenue abroad, movies about traditional superheroes such as Iron Man and The Dark Knight still tend to reap a majority of their box office domestically. Not surprisingly, the new Iron Man 2’s $133 million opening weekend audience was 60 percent male and 60 percent over age 25.

Tony Stark is a throwback, too. He’s a billionaire grease monkey who gets his hands dirty building machines (such as his flying armored suit) rather than structuring derivatives. Moreover, he’s a hedonistic reactionary—much like Downey, who has noted, “…you can’t go from a $2,000-a-night suite at La Mirage to a penitentiary and really understand it and come out a liberal. You can’t.”

Jon Favreau’s Iron Man adaptations are nominally set in the present, but spiritually, they take place in 1963-64 at the peak of the Cold War arms race. Favreau smartly moved Stark Industries headquarters from New York, which has been overused in comic book movies, to Southern California, the 1960s capital of aerospace and defense contracting. As Stan Lee might say—with great responsibilities came great accomplishments.

“Tony Stark is feeling the stress. His Iron Man suit has made him the new superpower, putting him personally in charge of maintaining world peace. Stark isn’t a sixties person, though.”


During the Iron Man era, my father was one of hundreds of Lockheed engineers working long hours in Burbank trying to keep F-104 Starfighters from crashing. The first Mach 2 aircraft, this extraordinary plane could climb to 50,000 feet in a couple of minutes to intercept Soviet intruders. It was mostly one big jet engine with barely even any wings. But the cost of technological innovation was high. Lockheed marketed it as the “missile with a man in it,” but its West German pilots called it “the Widowmaker.”

Iron Man 2 takes place back in Queens, where the now wildly popular Tony Stark has revived his late father’s Stark Expo devoted to technological utopianism. The 1964 World’s Fair took place in Queens, the highlight of which was Walt Disney’s four pavilions of audio-animatronic robots, including GE’s Carousel of Progress, “demonstrating how technology keeps making our lives better.” In Iron Man 2, as Cold War weapons designer Howard Stark, Mad Men‘s John Slattery is a dead ringer for Walt Disney trying not to crack. (Incidentally, Favreau grew up overlooking the Unisphere, a remnant of the fair).

In their self-absorption, Baby Boomers generally assume that their childhood was an innocent, Disneyesque era, but it could be tremendously stressful for the grown-ups. World War III often seemed imminent. A few years ago, my cousin showed me an old local newspaper that his mother had saved because it featured a cute picture of him as a toddler. The photo was charming, but the rest of the front page—headlines about a dozen different foreign policy crises—was alarming. Perhaps “the Sixties” (which didn’t begin until 11/22/63) weren’t in some sense a collective nervous breakdown after the strain of decades of military readiness, of demands for iron manhood?

Indeed, in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark is feeling the stress. His Iron Man suit has made him the new superpower, putting him personally in charge of maintaining world peace. Stark isn’t a sixties person, though; at the beginning of Iron Man 2, six months of do-gooding has taken a toll on our raffish hero. He grows bored engineering a wind farm. He donates his Abstract Expressionist art collection to the unfashionable Boy Scouts of America, and replaces his tasteful Barnett Newman minimalist painting with a red and blue poster of himself in the style of that egregious Obama ad.

Iron Man 2 might be the first American movie that dares satirize the bizarre Obamamania of 2008. Perhaps director Jon Favreau doesn’t like sharing his name with the President’s infamous chief speechwriter, the other Jon Favreau?

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