Superheroes for the Modern Day: Some thoughts on Ironman 3 (Spoilers)

Last week I took the written portion of my comprehensive exams, so I took Saturday off and went to a morning show of Iron Man Three. What follows will likely include spoilers for that and the other two Iron Man movies, as well as the latest Batman franchise and perhaps other superhero movies. It should be noted that while I am aware of some of the comic book arcs, I never got to know any of the comic books well. Moreover, I am here primarily discussing the comic book movies put out by Marvel and DC.

Other reviews have focused on, for instance, Tony Stark’s interior struggle and the weakness of the plot and what the movie does to the Mandarin/, but I am going to talk about something slightly different.


Iron Man is a typically American hero. Tony Stark epitomizes much of what it means to be an American: a wealthy, brilliant engineer, arch-consumer who is equal parts attention-deficit and focused. He made his money through the family business and declares in the second movie that he has privatized world peace. The Atlantic review aptly puts it, the third movie explores the root of his super-ness, namely is it that he has really powerful and expensive toys or is it that he is a brilliant engineer? The movie leaves the audience with one impression, but, ultimately, the answer is a bit of both.

But what is the threat that Ironman exists to combat? In The Avengers, the answer is alien invaders. But the villains of the Ironman movies are more mundane…and rooted in the same set of circumstances that produced Ironman. The third movie particularly includes unsubtle criticism of the problems with the war on terror, including one scene where the Iron Patriot (the suit worn by Don Cheadle’s character) breaks into a sweat shot in Pakistan filled with burkha-clad women. But the third movie also continues a trend with the Ironman movies where the real villain is someone taking advantage of the US military-industrial complex–sometimes doing nothing more than trying to make sure that it continues functioning.

In the first movie, the villain is Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges), the number two man at Stark Enterprises who wants to use the company to sell weapons to any buyer. In the second movie Justin Hammar (Sam Rockwell), the CEO of another defense contractor employs Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian with a family grudge against Stark, to build weapons in order to compete with Stark. Iron Man Three, starring the Mandarin, does the same thing. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is a brilliant scientist who intends to use bio-tech to manipulate maimed veterans and politicians in order to keep the war on terror going. Thus, this iteration of the Ironman story provides continuity in the villains by making all of them as industrialists seeking to maximize their profits.

Power, to these villains is nice, but it is not usually their primary objective. Money, in this case, is more important than power or knowledge or any other motivation. What could be more American than that?

The Mandarin as a villain in the comic books is a genius martial artist from China who is set on dominating the world and returning it to a feudal system. The character might be loaded with prejudices and stereotypes, but he is nevertheless a foreign villain. But there is none of that here. In fact, most of the villains in the latest crop of super hero movies are all domestic or extraterrestrial, with the notable of exceptions of the Red Skull in Captain America (set during World War 2) and Ra’s Al Ghul and his scion in the Batman franchise (played by Liam Neeson). Thus, the villains in these comic book movies are criminals and psychopaths of various sorts, but they are almost almost exclusively domestic.

It could be that the screenwriters are presenting on an insightful commentary about America and the world in an age of globalism. In this line of reasoning, the only enemies, whether foreign or domestic, who will threaten the America are those created by America. There is only a minimal possibility that a foreign group can threaten the United States and, so long as the United States does not cause any sort of foreign resentment there isn’t any particular conflict. At the same time, though, the focus on domestic villains is the product of an American solipsism that confronts globalism by turning in on itself. Rather than compile and confront stereotypes for what they are, the movies address these concerns by making America star both as the cause of and the solution to all its problems. The resolution of globalism, therefore, is to largely ignore it.

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