Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema: Iron Man

tonystarkDS

Recently in class I mentioned that I was trying to write something about the 2008 Iron Man movie, “and why I hate it.” Immediately, an audible intake of breath issued from the other side of the table. I had said something controversial. Soon afterwards, I was asked to explain myself.

“It’s military propaganda!” I stage-whispered, for some reason.

“Ohhh, said my classmates. “Right. Fair enough.”

I completely understand this reaction, but it also confirms for me that this movie’s conservative undertones are not the first things to spring to mind when it gets mentioned. So, in honour of that, and of those two good, smart people who breathed in: Iron Man (2008), and why I hate it.

This was released to coincide with the release of Iron Man 2 (2010). Sorry for skipping ahead, there is an equivalent press release that connects better to the first film, but I think the video makes a more striking impression.

Raytheon Sarcos are a robotics developer who were given a grant by DARPA in 2000 in order to develop some prototype exoskeletons for the US military. To my knowledge, the plan is to use the exosuits for lifting heavy supply shipments, but this 2008 article suggests they’re hoping to swap heavy supplies for heavy weapons in the long run, and the video above does showcase the XOS’ punching abilities so… it seems not-impossible that one of these exoskeletons could one day be used to help a person kill other people better / more efficiently. Anyway, regardless of how you feel about advancements in military technology: isn’t it weird that Phil Coulson is trying to sell it to you? Does that change how you see Iron Man?

It’s really easy to point out all the times the U.S. military had a hand in the production of this movie, so my plan is to continue to do that. Here’s Terrence Howard answering the question ‘What’s been the hardest part [of playing Lt. Colonel James Rhodes] for you so far?’

Howard: The hardest part, we get the use of – if you remember in the comic book, Rody, even though he’s by the books, so to speak, he’s a bit of a rogue in his own nature. But since we have the Department of Defense we’re working with it’s been having to pull back because of trying to appease him being so generous to us. It’s been hard to stay true to the needs of Rody in the comic book and satisfy the needs of the Department of Defense.

That’s right. It’s the DoD’s fault Rhody is so bland! Another thing that’s interesting is Air Force Captain Christian Hodge – who consulted on the film –  saying that this movie was “going to be fantastic” and that it would leave the air force “looking like rock stars.” The book I got that quote from – which you can read snippets of here – also mentions that Iron Man received “generous assistance” from the Pentagon’s Hollywood Liaison Department which… apparently exists. Has done for a long time. Creepy!

But hey, so what if Iron Man is slathered in the military’s fingerprints? What does any of this actually mean? I’ve been reading this book by Mark Graham called Afghanistan in the Cinema. Graham doesn’t have a lot to say about Iron Man – referring to it only once, in the conclusion, as ‘right-wing superhero twaddle’ – but in a way he doesn’t need to. A lot of the problems he identifies in other Hollywood representations of Afghanistan apply perfectly well here. Take for example his analysis of Rambo III, in which he notes how the Afghan natives function as a “primitive backdrop” to Rambo’s struggle, a sea of “helpless” faces living in “scratch-gravel villages,” among whom the American hero can “rehabilitate” America’s self image as “civilizer, beacon of liberty, and champion of the underdog.”

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In Rambo’s case, this rehabilitation needs to occur because of the national disillusionment that followed in the wake of Vietnam, but fast forward to 2007, which Graham describes as “one of the most politically disaffected climates in recent memory.” The war in Afghanistan (a more direct follow-up to the proxy war of Rambo’s time) was going poorly for the United States, and so Charlie Wilson’s War – and, one year later, Iron Man  – arrived “to inspire the American public to stay the course.”

Let’s look at Tony Stark’s second trip to Afghanistan, attempting to rescue the helpless citizens of Gulmira. This is one of the darkest scenes in the film, featuring a man about to be executed at gunpoint while his family watches. “Turn your head!” screams the gunman. “Turn your head!” When Tony finally zooms down out of the sky and starts punching terrorists into walls like cartoon characters, it’s undeniably cathartic. After the aural chaos we’ve just endured, every sound coming out of the suit is satisfying – from the gentle fwoomf of the jets switching off, to the chunky whine and blast of the suit’s hand-mounted laser cannons. I could listen to the sound of Tony Stark killing people for hours.

The fact that this scene – ostensibly set in a war zone – is so fun to watch speaks to what Graham describes as “cinematic whitewashing.” In this fantastic re-imagining of American involvement in Afghanistan, Tony’s exosuit has a built-in targeting system that only kills ‘HOSTILES,’ leaving the civilians completely unharmed; a far cry from the reality, where 500 Afghan civilians were killed by air strikes in 2008 alone. It’s weird to have to say this, but wars aren’t actually very good or fun, and American armed forces – even when they’re shooting the bad guys – are not unambiguously good, or heroic. Iron Man really wants you to feel like they are.

And we haven’t even touched on the sexism.

THE SEXISM

There’s a character in this movie called Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb). She’s a journalist who appears multiple times throughout the film to call Tony out on the atrocities being committed using his weapons. In doing so, she alerts Tony to the violence occurring in Gulmira, which in turn makes him realize that his business partner Jeff Bridges is selling weapons to terrorists, resulting in him donning the Mark III and becoming Iron Man. Also, at one point she and Tony have sex.

Here is her current IMDB character biography, in its entirety.

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I realize the text might not show up well on smaller screens, so I’ll reproduce the body of the text here:

An attractive reporter who does a spread on Tony Stark. She writes a story on him, as well.

I wish I could say I was surprised, but the film actively encourages this kind of immaturity. The morning after sleeping with Tony, Christine meets Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) who makes a joke comparing Christine to “trash.” This is the only conversation between two women in the entire movie, and they spend it being pointlessly hostile to one another because they’re both interested in the same (exploitative, creepy) man. Speaking of –

Within sixty seconds of his first appearing on screen, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is bragging about the number of supermodels he’s slept with; literally using women as social currency. Tony uses a lot of women in this movie, chief among them Pepper, who spends the film being forgotten, ignored, taken for granted and shouted at by Tony, and yet still willingly devotes her life to being his assistant. He forgets her birthday. He manipulates her into performing surgery on him. He forces her to dance with him in public, and when she voices her very reasonable concerns about this he says “I just think you’re overstating it.” What a ship!

The easy answer to problems like these is that Tony Stark is an ‘anti-hero.’ He’s got ‘flaws.’ This is an interpretation that the film greatly encourages, going so far as to make Tony turn to the camera and say “I’m just not the hero type,” before pointing out his “laundry list of character defects.” The strength of this line of reasoning is that characters in fiction really don’t necessarily represent the values of their creators. That’s an important thing to remember. So, for a little while I struggled with this interpretation, until I read this awesome blog post that made things very clear, and you know what, I’m just going to quote it:

Had the intent truly been to show Stark to be an ass, and not to use his mistreatment of women as proof of his success and charm, then some of the women would have registered disgust or discomfort in his company. By portraying women as being universally susceptible to the ‘seductiveness’ of Stark’s misogyny, the film implies that all women either like being belittled, don’t have the dignity to stand up for themselves, or are too empty-headed to notice a pig when he stares them in the face chest.

It’s so glaringly obvious now that I feel bad for not seeing it. Every named female character in this movie loves hanging out with Tony Stark. And it would have been so easy to do the opposite, to under-cut Tony’s “allure.” They chose to have the characters react this way.

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You might be asking, ‘Isaac, isn’t this a blog about exoskeletons?’ And you’re right, but it turns out fictional exosuits – like all media – can’t be removed from politics. All these elements are related. Plus, making the film’s sexism explicit makes it much easier for me to compare it to its exoskeletal predecessor, The Ambushers.

It was easy to laugh at that film – released almost fifty years ago, now – because it was distant, and maybe even a little bit niche. It didn’t implicate us. But Iron Man is just eight years old, and the franchise it started is still running Hollywood today. Iron Man is a huge part of mainstream popular culture, and thats worrying, because he’s basically Matt Helm. Half a century later, and the bigotry’s still bigotry, it’s just changed its shape. Iron Man is one example of that transformation; packaging the ideals of the conservative elite in a way that appeals to the modern masses. Part of that packaging is Robert Downey Jr., whose weird charisma carries the film through its more awkward moments, but the other part is in the exoskeletons themselves.

THE EXOSKELETONS

One of the ways Iron Man discourages analysis is by positioning itself as an adaptation and superhero origin story. We’re not supposed to be wondering about the implications of Tony’s murder-spree in Gulmira, we’re supposed to be peeing our pants at how cool it is to see the Iron Man suit on the big screen! Leveraging the excitement of comic book fans – and, by extension, fans of exoskeletal media – Iron Man distracts us from the political statements it’s trying to make; which says something, doesn’t it? That they don’t want you to notice, or think too hard about what they’re saying?

What’s cool about this – and simultaneously very sad – is that this quality of distraction and deflection is reflected in the suits themselves!

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This movie boasts three distinct exosuit designs. Just looking at them, you can see the weird mishmash that is Iron Man’s tonal structure: one part gritty escape drama, two parts shiny comedy caper. There’s a little bit of an evolution to their designs, with Tony’s final suit the Mark III (right) combining the violence of the Mark I (left) with the sanitized sparkliness of the Mark II (centre). Beyond that, though, there’s little that holds them together, with the exception of one design trait: Flares.

Tony uses flares in three of the film’s big action set-pieces: First as an improvised missile, to dislodge some rocks over a terrorist’s head. Second, Tony deploys flares to re-direct a pair of heat-seeking missiles, causing them to explode harmlessly behind him. Finally, in the film’s climactic battle, Tony fires his flares at close range to temporarily blind Jeff Bridges. It might seem odd that I’m bringing this up, but let’s think about what a flare actually is. It’s a bright object that draws attention. Usually they’re fired in order to call for help, but Tony re-imagines this purpose, using them instead to attack indirectly, to misdirect incoming threats, and finally to blind.

We’re not encouraged to see Iron Man as a character whose main strength is deception, but this reliance on misdirection and tricks of the light is a common thread that underpins all three suits, and I would argue that it’s emblematic of Iron Man as a whole. Both the flares and the exosuits are distractions, expressly placed in this film to obfuscate, to draw attention, and to blind.


WORKS CONSULTED

 

REVIEWS:

Catalan, C. (2008). “Heckuva Job, Tony!” Racism and Hegemony Rage in Iron Man. [Link]

habladora, (2008). Iron Man Review. [Link]

La Pata, (2008). iron man. [Link]

Lee, H. (2008). Iron Man: Just What Sort of Hero is This? [Link]

prof susurro, (2008). Iron Man: The Summer of Men. [Link]

BOOKS:

Graham, M. (2010). Afghanistan in the Cinema. University of Illinois Press.

Stahl, R. (2009). Militainment, Inc.: War, Media and Popular Culture. Routledge.

OTHER:

Beydoun, K. [@khaledbey] (2015, August 10) Myth: Racism diminishes as time passes. [Twitter post] [Link]

Crawford, N. (2015). War-related Death, Injury and Displacement in Afghanistan and Pakistan 2001-2014. Brown University. [Link]

Mirchandani, R. (2008). US Army Develops Robotic Suits. BBC News Utah. [Link]

Iron Man: The Set Visit – Terrence Howard. (2008). [Link]

Raytheon Sarcos Exoskeleton Robotic Suit Linked to Iron Man Superhero. (2008.) [Link]

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