Monday, May 27, 2024

Iron Man: The Jerk Redemption Arc

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Over the next few months, I will be watching everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 95% for the first time. And I will be sharing my thoughts. First up, Iron Man, the one that started it all.


Well, that was an interesting beginning to a juggernaut of a cinematic franchise. Like, where do I start?

Isn’t Tony Stark awesome? And by “awesome” I mean, a complete asshole. Am I supposed to like him? Like, on what level is he relatable to anyone? His wealth is so ostentatious, and it pervades every single part of his character, and every action he takes, that it’s hard to take seriously. He can trash his own house on a regular basis and buy art that he will never look at! Billionaires are just like us!

The only thing I can imagine they were going for is: this is what it’s assumed the straight white men who presumably makes up the audience wants to be like themselves. (I happen to think a little more highly of most straight white men, but that’s just me.) He’s more of an aspirational hero than a relatable one.

The whole world is Tony Stark Land. And who wouldn’t want that? Everyone tolerates him and rewards him for his constant shitty behaviour. He’s showered with awards and accolades, even though he shows no respect for them or the people who are honouring him; the one person we see challenging him, who’s not a cartoon villain, is a reporter who also leaps into bed with him after some pretty feeble Pick-Up Artist routines. I’m quite sure his BFF (who happens to be a black man so we can collect all the implications!) committed treason so Tony could continue be a vigilante, and a brown guy died for him because, um, he was sad, so why not. And can we talk about the flight attendants/strippers? You know what, let’s not.

Oh, and he happens to be a brilliant genius, so all this dickishness is validated because he does save the day in the end. And the brilliant genius thing is just vague enough so that we can marvel at it, but not specific enough so we can understand it in any way. It’s really more like magic than science.

But this could all be okay, because this is a story where the jerk learns a lesson.

We begin the movie with Tony really, really not giving a shit about anyone or anything. In particular, he gives no shits about the ethical implications of his arms dealing empire, a fact that rather obscures the reasonable points he makes.

Then he’s in Afghanistan, in the land of the oddly not-in-any-way-affiliated-with-Islam Ten Rings organization, and he is shown the cost of his improbable wealth, and also has a symbolic injury where there’s a thing that has to be constantly maintained that keeps the shrapnel of guilt from reaching his heart. (Is that magnet doohickey actually a thing?)

Anyway, poor Tony, who has always been proud of his father’s legacy and seemed to genuinely believe that he was doing more good than harm with his arms dealing, is horrified to learn that his product is all over this terrorist camp, and that these dudes want to corrupt his brilliant genius for evil. (Why they need him to build this weapon is a little questionable, given things we learn later in the film, but I digress.)

During this period, he forms a strong bond with Disposable Nice Brown Guy, who really seems just as brilliant as Tony, what will being a polyglot and being able to MacGyver a heart magnet in a cave, and this teaches him, something. That arms dealing is bad, I suppose.

Except it’s not the arms-dealing that’s bad, but the evil underling who’s selling said arms to the not!Islamic terrorists, right? It was not TONY actually doing the bad thing.

And this underling is legit evil. I mean, arming terrorists to climb the corporate ladder is a bit much, most people would say. And why he felt the need to do so was mysterious to me, since Tony didn’t seem to give many shits and let the evil bald guy do whatever anyway.

In any case, Tony is rescued after his improbable brilliance, aided by the stupidity of his captors, allowed him to escape in a prototype Iron Man suit. The first thing he does is be all “not more arms dealing!” And this is when he decides he’s going to be a vigilante? I think.

Most of the movie centres around Tony building the suit and working the bugs out, while in the background, evil guy is trying to undermine him. Which would be reasonable, without the murder, because I can only imagine what Tony’s shenanigans are doing to the share prices.

But I think this is the part of the movie I have the most trouble with. Tony wants to make amends, to be redeemed, to help people, but he never needs any help himself.

I mean, that’s the point of Tony, that he’s so privileged, so brilliant, and so charming, that he never needs anyone. People will happily follow him, die for him, commit treason for him, be a long-suffering not!girlfriend for him, but all he really needs is some robots that he created, and a 3D printer. Like, it’s stupid. The suit is stupid. It’s a level of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Science that would make Star Trek: Voyager blush, but it doesn’t matter because the movie is not about the science, or the suit; it’s about Tony Stark, the ultimate rugged individualist, and his individual fight to do the right thing.

Case in point, his little jaunt over to Afghanistan. Tony Stark can do what a coalition of nations had failed to do for six years, at this point. Tony Stark can save these people. By himself. The American way. He gets the closest thing to “help” he gets this whole movie on the way back, when his loyal friend protects him from people who refuse to recognize how awesome Tony Stark is. People who he is not working with because…

But why? Why does Tony have to do this himself?

I think the answer to this is the same as the answer to the question of why he revealed himself at the end of the movie. He goal was never to actually do the most good and right his own wrongs; it was to soothe his conscience.

At the beginning of the movie, he was accepting the praise and adulation of everyone and not giving a fuck. But then, his pesky conscience made it impossible not to confront his own privilege and dickishness, so he did whatever he could to make it so that Tony Stark could believe that Tony Stark was awesome again, then made sure that the whole world rediscovered that truth too.

My point is: this is not a redemption arc, this is not Tony learning a lesson. This is just Tony Stark being awesome and everyone else learning why. It’s like an eleven-year-old wrote a story about a hero, but then was told he should put some character development into it.

There is nothing interesting at all about Tony Stark. He’s just some jerk.

Images courtesy of Marvel Studios

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