Iron Man is the best super-hero movie I’ve seen in a long time, perhaps since Batman Begins. It’s fun, thrilling, witty, romantic, even a little provocative. It’s all you could really want from a summer blockbuster (and how nice it is that we’ve entered the “summer blockbuster” season!)
Robert Downey Jr. is absolutely perfect in the role of Tony Stark—a billionaire/superhero with a characteristic spotty past and a “save the world” complex (essentially a more ironic, more cyborgy Bruce Wayne). Jeff Bridges is also superb as the nemesis Obadiah—a big-business weapons manufacturer selling tech secrets to Afghan terrorists. Terrence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow (so nice to see you again, Mrs. Martin!) deliver terrific supporting performances as well. The cast is appropriately high caliber, because this is a very high caliber film.
Perhaps the best thing about Iron Man is its show-stopping sequences of special effects. It’s almost passé to applaud special effects in blockbuster films anymore, but it is certainly appropriate here. The Jetsons-esque robots and gadgets and inventive weaponry displayed in the film make Transformers look cartoonish by comparison.
But beyond the superb visual rendering of the film’s stylish techiness, the thing that most fascinated me about Iron Man was the way that it subtly (perhaps unintentionally) commented on the contemporary relationship betweens humans and technology.
On one hand the film has a nostalgic, ultra-modernist flair that hearkens back to Cold War sci-fi films: technology as tool and ultimate embodiment of human science and progress (or else the sign of man’s self-induced apocalypse). But Iron Man is not a film from the 50s. It is fully aware of its 21st-century context and the attendant shifts in the way we relate to and speak of technology. No longer is it just a tool to help us improve efficiency, fight wars, get to the moon, etc… No, it is much more personal than that. Technology today is a crucial extension of who we are. Some of the most striking scenes in the film involve Stark bantering with his team of robot “friends” in his workshop. They have personalities, senses of humor, and “get” Stark much more than most humans do. Indeed, Stark’s do-everything digital assistant, Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany), seems to know the superhero better than just about anyone. It’s a metaphor for our own hyper-mediated lives: we relate to the world and understand ourselves chiefly via technology.
Iron Man, as the title implies, is about the fusion of man and machine. It’s the ultimate cyborg fantasy—though it’s not so much a fantasy as it is a reflection of how we (increasingly) define our identity.
I agree with film theorist Vivian Sobchack, who in “The Postmorbid Condition” suggests that our society increasingly has a technologized view of the body and flesh. Our bodies, she argues, are becoming simply well oiled machines that we must perfect and equip for utilitarian purposes. We’ve become obsessed with “maintenance” and “repair,” as seen in the current obsessions with working out and cosmetic surgery. We spend hours in gyms and health clubs, we pop pills and vitamins, consume protein bars and energy drinks, and we take drugs and medicines that can pretty much make our body do anything we want it to. Some of us take steroids and performance-enhancing drugs to push our bodies even further beyond their natural capabilities.
Iron Man is just the latest (and most literal) super-human action film to reflect the technologized view of the body. Of course we can also look back to RoboCop, The Terminator, and any number of other sci-fi films to see this as well. The “cyborg film” is an interesting genre, and it’s not all that difficult to understand why it’s appealing. Our culture fetishizes technology, and has for a long time; what would be better than to literally fuse oneself with the technology we so idealize?