Cinematic Subtlety: The Politics of Ironman
There is a moment in the opening act of Jon Favreau's Ironman in which Tony Stark and his fellow prisoner Yinsen are visited in their cell--really a cave somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan--by their captors. I happen to be this guy who can recognize Arabic when it is spoken and thus knew that the bad guys were speaking Arabic and Yinsen, an Afghan whose native language might be Dari, Pashto or even Farsi, but certainly not Arabic, responded in that language. A few moments later, Stark and Yinsen are having a conversation and Stark asks Yinsen how many languages he speaks. Yinsen's reply is that he doesn't speak enough to cover all of those spoken amongst their captors.
In that ever so brief exchange, the film acknowledged that Yinsen speaks at least three languages (English, Arabic and whatever his native language may be) and that the militants who operate in that region of the world are an amazingly polyglot bunch comprising some mixture of Pashtuns, Persians, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen, Bosnians, Chechens and a handful of Arabs. This is precisely the sort of undemonstrative cue that assumes an informed audience that John Ford used in The Searchers but that one would not expect from a 21st Century comic book superhero movie.
Political movies are generally problematic because they are usually either obvious and obnoxiously preachy or they are too timid to commit to anything controversial for fear of turning off too many viewers. The thing about politics, though, is that if what you are saying isn't controversial, it probably isn't worth saying. The political content of Ironman avoids all this because it asks questions about some truly paradoxical stuff in American foreign policy, but also avoids making any naive conclusions about them.
In the scene in which Stark is demonstrating his company's new high-tech missile to the gathered dignitaries, he makes a comment about how the enemy will be afraid to come out of their caves. This seemingly throwaway line actually says a lot about the attitudes and assumptions of Americans in regards to our current enemies. Later in the film, when Obadiah Stane goes to Afghanistan to retrieve Stark's original Ironman suit from his captor, Stane makes a comment about how it was always technology that kept that part of the world behind. Taken together, these two comments reveal something of the impotence Americans felt in the face of what happened on September 11, 2001. Like, if these people are able to use our technology to destroy two of the largest and most robust structures on the face of the planet in a plan hatched in a cave in Afghanistan, we must be fucked. These scenes also point out the ironic doubling of cowardice in the current conflict against terror: They hide in caves while we hide behind our technology.
Although I think this was a relatively rare phenomenon, there were certainly some right-leaning critics of the film who pigeonholed it as a typical left-wing, anti-corporation, anti-military film. Still others coming from the left decried the film's portrayal of brown-skinned Muslims as the villains. Both readings are ultimately simplistic and basically ignore what is really going on. Insofar as there is a villain in the film, it is the double-dealing plutocrat Obadiah Stane. Sure he pays a group of presumably Muslim militants to kill Stark, but this is only one portrayal of Muslims in the film--the other and more affecting is as victims of just the sort of amoral business practices Stane engages in. Moreover, I would argue that the movie's primary moral barometer is none other than Colonel James Rhodes, a military officer in charge of the development and procurement of new weapons technology.
The film does ask some basic questions about the morality of arms manufacture as a means of earning a living, but it does so without pretending to have all the answers. As Stark himself points out, many of the technologies his company developed that have helped people around the globe were made possible with military money. Questions are asked, complexities are exhibited and acknowledged, people are left to come to their own conclusions--this is what politically and philosophically serious films do.