Tag Archives: Iron Man

An Enemy of Serious Film Criticism

Rather than a recap/rant about the Oscars (which I did for Relevantmagazine.com), I am going to spend my post today exposing a much more urgent and insidious problem in the world of film criticsm: Ted Baehr and Movieguide.org.

If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Ted Baehr, he is a highly suspicious, frequently self-aggrandizing figure in the world of Christian film criticism. His method of film criticism is of the “how many f-words and sex scenes” variety, and he has a very strange Christian=capitalist bent to everything he writes. For those of us who aspire towards a progressive, insightful, nuanced engagement with film from a Christian perspective, Baehr is a most discouraging figure.

It is especially frustrating that, over the past few weeks, he and his organization have been representing Christian film criticism at large by being allowed to write columns in The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. In these wide platforms, Baehr has played up his usual lines about how family-friendly, G-rated, pro-capitalist films make the most money, and are therefore the best films. If you read the articles, his logic is laughable and his points almost satirical; it’s tragic that this is the Christian critic who is getting the most national media attention.

Anyway, rather than mounting a scathing rebuttal to Baehr’s nonsense (which my editor at Christianity Today did in this insightful blog post), I think it will probably prove the point to just give you some choice quotes from the two recent columns that Baehr and his partner-in-crime, Tom Snyder, authored.

From the Wall Street Journal column, Baehr and Snyder write:

As in past years, films with strong pro-capitalist content — extolling free-market principles or containing positive portrayals of real or fictional businessmen and entrepreneurs — tended to make the most money. The hero of the biggest success of the year, “The Dark Knight,” is a billionaire capitalist who, disguised as Batman, defends Gotham City and its residents from a crazed, anarchistic terrorist criminal. In “Iron Man,” the second-most popular movie with American and Canadian moviegoers in 2008, a capitalist playboy and billionaire defense contractor stops working against the interests of America and its citizens and uses his wealth to defend America and its free-market values.

The box-office receipts of pro-capitalist movies, which also included “Australia,” “City of Ember” and “Bottle Shock” (which extols the virtues of the California wine industry), averaged $152 million per picture in North American theaters. On the whole, they far outperformed movies with strong anticapitalist content. That group, with films such as “Mad Money,” “Chicago 10” and “War, Inc.,” averaged only $5.4 million per picture in North American theaters.

The moneymaking trend was similar for movies with explicit or implicit anticommunist content. That group — including an “An American Carol,” which mocks communism; “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” where Indy reviles communists and their impoverished ideology is exposed; “City of Ember,” where a tyrant steals from the people; and “Fly Me to the Moon,” about the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — averaged $71.8 million at the 2008 box office in America and Canada. By comparison, movies with pro-communist content, such as “Che,” “The Children of Huang Shi,” “Gonzo,” “Trumbo” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” averaged a measly $7.9 million in 2008.

And from the Newsweek article:

Not only did moviegoers prefer heroic movies with very strong moral virtues, they also rejected movies with anti-Christian, secular, nihilistic, and atheist content like “Religulous,” “Adam Resurrected,” “Save Me,” “Wanted,” “Hounddog,” “Bloodline,” “Hamlet 2,” “The Love Guru,” “Stop-Loss,” and “Saw V.”

Furthermore, contrary to popular opinion, 2008 was the year that obscenity, sex and nudity didn’t sell — again. In fact, movies with no foul language, no sex and no explicit nudity earned much more money on average than movies with some foul language, sex and explicit nudity, or a lot of it, by 2 to 1 or more!

Dr. Baehr, I’m sure you are well-intentioned and yes, you are a brother in Christ; but do you really believe what you are saying? The way that you twist and distort statistics to make “your type” of films look the most successful is simply egregious. And seriously: do you think audiences flocked to see The Dark Knight and Iron Man because they featured billionaire protagonists? I mean, couldn’t you argue that people were much more interested in seeing the Joker in The Dark Knight than Bruce Wayne? And the Joker is hardly pro-capitalist. He burned a pile of money!

Iron Man

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?