I am [not] Iron Man by: Ja’han Jones
The theater screen has long served as a source for the diffusion of the hegemonic ideals so integral to the white power structure. Those perched atop the supposed social hierarchy (read: white males)–and thus, those with the means and allowance to produce films—have welcomed the opportunity to relay their values through the films they produce. And the ease with which these ideals are assumed as fact by the viewer serves as a testament to the genius of the film industry; that is, films are often produced and promoted as vacuous, adventurous escapes from reality, when truthfully, they serve to embed all sorts of ideas into our subconscious. In that light, films most explicit in their messages may stand a lesser chance of having social influence than do films seemingly devoid of critique; the former arouses skepticism and alertness within us while the latter lulls us to sleep and mindlessness. A Spike Lee film, for example, with its overt critiques on race and gender relations, will arouse a consciousness in viewers, alerting them that they are viewing a film designed for social influence. In contrast, a summer blockbuster, seemingly appealing to society’s basal filmic desires, may—in its simplicity—entrance viewers in such a way that they become unaware of the themes and ideals being embedded within them with each passing frame. Perhaps, most clearly evidencing these suggestions is the film Iron Man (2008), which was a colossal box office breadwinner, a seeming appellation to simple filmic desires (action and violence), and a film responsible for the diffusion of certain critiques and confirmations of the white power structure. In Iron Man, the critiques of the white power grab and the rejections of white opulence serve to subvert the white power structure, while the usurpation of power from people of color serves to enforce the white power structure.
At the onset of Iron Man, viewers find Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) riding in an army caravan of armored vehicles, in a scene which seemingly appeals to American jingoism and xenophobia and exemplifies the white power structure simultaneously. As Tony Stark, a portrayed megalomaniac having garnered riches through the innovation and distribution of weapons technology, rides through the desert aback an armored vehicle, he is seated beside, behind, and catercorner to a cast of all-white military men and women. As ACDC’s “Back in Black” plays from an old stereo in the vehicle, it becomes all the more evident that the scene is intended to glorify the values of the white power structure: Opulence (taking the form of a well-dressed Tony Stark with drink in hand), military might (taking the form of the all-white troop), and a music raucous enough to complement the moment.
Daniel Bernardi, the renowned film professor and author based at San Francisco State University, scribed a composition titled The Birth of Whiteness: D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Films, in which Bernardi claims such an exclusive celebration of white culture is inherently oppressive. Bernardi says, “Where the celebratory commitment becomes problematic is in the constitution of the aesthetic as a supra-ethnic cognitive grid, as a universal configuration. So canonized, it becomes a mythic construct…”
Yet, what we find as the movie continues, however, is the emergence of a ripple in Tony Stark’s (the archetypal white megalomaniac) militaristic ideology, and a critique of white power and imperialism. The caravan accompanying Stark to his destination is attacked, Stark is taken hostage by middle eastern terrorists, and he soon learns of the terrorists’ wishes that he build for them a missile capable of immense destruction. It is at this point when Iron Man reveals its initial critique of both the white power grab and the exertion of military might as a means to enforce the white power structure. When Yinsen (Shaun Toub), the doctor who nursed Tony Stark back to health, reveals to Stark that “this [destruction] is your legacy”, he does so speaking to Tony Stark, but also more realistically to the beneficiaries of the white power structure—the beneficiaries of white imperialism—watching him on-screen. From that very moment on—beginning at the very moment when Tony Stark is enslaved by the very weapons he created—the film becomes one in which the protagonist endures an internal battle with his own white privilege and power.
As Tony Stark endures this internal battle, he faces opposition from his white, power-hungry peers, as well. His business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), upon Stark’s escape from captivity, remains unwilling to shift the focus of Stark Industries’ successful weapons distribution to a more diplomatic, humanitarian sector. Obadiah’s unwillingness to drop arms exemplifies a realistic debate among those atop the white social hierarchy—a debate over whether, when, and how to relinquish white power. A satirical commentary on the perception of white power occurs when a clip of CNBC’s “Mad Money” program is shown, in which host Jim Cramer theatrically mocks Stark Industries for its announced shift from weapons distribution. Specifically, Cramer’s call for investors in Stark Industries to “abandon ship”, in addition to his assertion that Stark Industries is “a weapons company that doesn’t make weapons”, is just as much a critique of the phallic-driven justifications for white military might as it is a comedic interlude.
Both Stark’s internal battle and his battle with Obadiah Stane serve to enforce the idea that those atop the white power structure are well-equipped to topple the white power structure. That Tony Stark’s battles occurred with a white antagonist is both meaningful and seemingly professorial, given the ability of those who benefit most from the white power structure to deconstruct the ideology from within.
Iron Man, however, is not wholly subversive, and for all it accomplishes in infiltrating and toppling the gargantuan edifice that is the white power structure, it may—in its overall lesson—accomplish just as much in bolstering it. What we find, as Tony Stark endures his internal battle, is that he does so with seeming impunity. His creation of the Iron Man suit, and his handing down of justice, though not in alliance with (if not in complete defiance of) the U.S. military—and namely, his actions without the consent of one of its top commanders: Colonel James Rhodes (Terrance Howard)–undermines any opportunity the film may have had for the celebration of Black power. Colonel Rhodes, the film’s only African American character of significance, is granted a literal position of power, yet the film suggests that a Black man in power is still likely to be made subject to the whim of an opulent, white vigilante.
Tim Wise, the self-proclaimed anti-racist author of White Like Me, Dear White America, and Between Barack and a Hard Place, spoke to the frequent inability of whites to accept the empowerment of persons of color in a piece titled, “Trump Card: White Denial, Racial Resentment, and the Art of the Heel”. Specifically, Wise says, “…white resentment is the modern manifestation of racism: It isn’t necessarily the old-school bigotry to which the nation was accustomed back in the day. Rather, it is the kind that views black and brown folks as taking what is rightfully ours, as whites.” In that context, Tony Stark’s belief in his predestination for super-heroism allowed him to take the reins from a black man given explicit control over public safety.
The conclusion of Iron Man brings viewers to familiar territory; a place in which a person of color is usurped of his power (in this case, his power to lead the military responsible for protecting the free world), and that power is given to a man richer—smarter—braver than he.
Common among the American superhero film genre is the theme of “white saviorism”; that is, the premise that whites need look beyond themselves to topple some of the world’s most pertinent issues (issues such as government corruption, grand theft, and tyranny, which ironically have historic roots in the expression of white privilege). And as Iron Man seemingly made overt attempts to wrestle and subvert the theme of white saviorism, white privilege, and the white power structure, its covert emasculation of the film’s sole African American—one of its two protagonists of color—marks its support of the current structure, rather than its obliteration.