Episode #030-Iron Man (2008)


Show Notes

[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.

[00:02:56] Tales of Suspense #39

[00:07:28] Resistance toward the war in Vietnam

[00:09:28] Operation Enduring Freedom

[00:10:00] WWF Smackdown: September 13, 2001

[00:10:24] 93% support for the war in Afghanistan

[00:10:58] Public opinion about the war in Afghanistan: then and now

[00:20:00] Evdokia Stefanopoulou, “Iron Man As Cyborg: Between Masculinities”

Episode Script

Hello and welcome to Invincible Iron Pod, the unofficial and not remotely connected to Marvel in any capacity podcast. My name is Megan, and in each episode of this show I will be reading and commenting on at least one of the over 2000 comic book appearances made by one Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man.

Plot Summary/Discussion

This is a special week here on Invincible Iron Pod, because instead of carrying on with our next comic, we’re going to be bringing the comics into conversation with the MCU films for the first time. Today we’ll be focusing on 2008’s Iron Man, the movie that not only introduced Tony Stark to a new generation of fans, but also kickstarted the multi-billion dollar franchise that came to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

If you haven’t already seen the movie, I would suggest stopping here and taking a watch. Because while I will make sure to provide some general context for any elements of the movie I deal with in depth, but I won’t be moving through the film and providing the same kind of scene by scene summary that I do with the comics, simply because there isn’t time. Plus honestly my summary could never compete with the performance Robert Downey Junior gives in this movie!

Last sort of preface is that this special episode has actually ended up turning into two episodes. There was just too much content to cover, and in a show with a single host I feel especially conscious of the fact that it’s only fun to listen to one person talk for so long. So we’re going to start this week by covering three main points: the characterization of both pre-captivity Tony Starks, the socio-political context each character is responding to, and the role and representation of trauma and disability. These are super fun and rich areas to dive into, and they’ll help set the stage for our conversation next week.

Point 1: Origin of the Origin

Alright, if you’re still here I’m going to assume that you’ve seen the movie or are ready to be ruthlessly spoiled, so without further ado let’s get going! We’re going to cover a lot of ground today, and while we’ll kind of be going roughly in chronological order through the film, we’ll also skip around and circle back and basically make like a Jeremy Bearimy kind of structure by the end.

I did want to start by comparing how Tony Stark’s pre-capture life and personality are represented in both versions of the story, not only because obviously we get this information early on, but also because comparing them to his characterization once he returns home will later tell us a lot about the journeys they have both been on.

In the comics, some of you will remember that we don’t spend much time with Tony before his fateful trip to Vietnam. Way back in Tales of Suspense 39, you may remember that we met Tony conducting a weapons demonstration. He wows the military by using his tiny transistors to open a locked safe, and they’re convinced by his somewhat broad and unspecific claim that this technology will solve all of their problems in Vietnam. And it turns out that fancy Generals are not the only ones who are impressed by Tony Stark! We see him showing off his beach bod and being called the “dreamiest thing this side of Rock Hudson,” and guiding a fancy lady in a ball gown around at a society event. So he’s smart. He’s rich. He’s a hit with the ladies. Overall, the guy seems to have everything going for him.

On the surface, we get a similar introduction to Tony Stark in the 2008 movie. The film starts with his abduction, but then flashes back to before the event. Tony is being given an award in Vegas. The ceremony begins with an extended video montage that, among other things, calls him a visionary and a genius, one whose work in weapons manufacturing is protecting America and her interests around the globe. It turns out that Tony isn’t around to actually accept the award, though, because he’s too busy enjoying some of the more carnal delights of Vegas. He’s gambling, surrounded by beautiful women—and eventually, his friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes, who was supposed to be presenting the award. Eventually, Tony goes home with a journalist—more on that later—quickly chats with his personal assistant Pepper, and then Rhodes and Tony journey to Afghanistan, which catches up to where the film started.

So again, we get a Tony Stark who is wealthy, hyper-intelligent, and overly heterosexual in a way that can only be suspect, even without an explicit comparison to a queer actor. The difference is primarily in the tone of how this information is presented. In the comics, this all happens within the first page and a half, and other than potentially finding him a bit overly cocky regarding the potential of his technology, we don’t really get the sense that the comic is asking us to judge or look down on anything that he’s up to. In fact, the caption immediately before we turn to Tony in Vietnam refers to his story as a tragedy, suggesting that anything altering the course of his life from where it is at the beginning is necessarily evil.

Movie Tony, meanwhile, faces criticism from nearly everyone he encounters. Immediately after leaving the party in Vegas, he encounters Christine Everhart, a reporter from Vanity Fair who refers to him as “the merchant of death” and accuses him of war profiteering. Everhart is a new face for us, either because she doesn’t exist in the comics or we just haven’t encountered her. The film does create some ambiguity about how seriously we are to take her critiques of Tony by having her immediately fall into bed with him. (As we all know, ladies who have both formal educations and active sex lives are necessarily suspicious!)  However, her voice is soon echoed by others, namely Pepper Potts and Lt. James Rhodes.

Their critiques are a little different. Pepper seems mostly frustrated by Tony’s self-centeredness and lack of focus (he’s hours late for his weapons demo, he doesn’t remember her birthday, etc.), and Rhodes feels that Tony isn’t living up to his potential, in part because he lacks the kind of comraderie and support that the military offers to Rhodes himself. But all of these establishing sequences combined depict Tony Stark as someone who, yes is brilliant and wealthy and magnetic, but who is also deeply flawed, living a life that is fundamentally empty in some pretty significant ways.

I’m not going to remark on this at too much length yet, because we’ll come back here in a while when we talk about the theme of redemption. But it’s important to realize that right off the top we are being presented with a character who is quite similar in both versions, but as audiences we’re being cued to respond in some drastically different ways.

Point 2: The Two Wars (The Cold War and the War on Terror)

That leads us nicely into our second point of interest, which is the sociopolitical context into which each of these versions of Tony Stark is presented. So comics Tony, of course, is a Cold War hero. He participates in these conflicts on several fronts, most notably fighting against the Soviets, the Chinese, and the Vietnamese. We’ve talked at length about how some of these groups are presented differently from others—specifically, how anti-Asian racism and the Yellow Peril trope tend to turn characters from these areas into far more menacing and un-sympathetic villains ,while Russian agents like Natasha Romanov and Ivan Vanko tend to be victims of circumstance, forced to serve an oppressive regime whose cause they don’t really believe in.

The war in Vietnam specifically would of course go on to be a major flash point in American political life. There are an absolute ton of reasons for this, and we won’t get into all of them, but I’ll mention a few that are particularly relevant for our purposes. First Vietnam was widely considered the first conflict where the American public was not presented with a decisive and clear victory. This didn’t fit in with the narrative the nation had clung to especially following the Second World War about their infinite might and superiority, and it was made worse by the fact that the rise of television meant people were witnessing things like the return of fallen soldiers right in their homes. The war was also connected to broader socio-political critiques going on at the time, including civil rights and anti-imperialist movements. So effectively we have a combination of a public that is able and willing to ask questions and make critiques of the nation in ways they have never done before—at least not on this scale—at the same time as the conflict itself is failing to play out in ways that would solidify and reinforce the nationalist and imperialist ideologies that are being criticized.

Now, it’s worth noting that while we’re maybe starting to see a tonal shift in the Iron Man comics in terms of their relationship to the military in the issues we’ve been reading on the show lately, the earlier stories did not appear to be responding to or supporting the protests against the Vietnam war. So while Vietnam is the setting of Tony Stark’s abduction and transformation into Iron Man, it does not appear there was intended to be any critique of his presence there. At most, knowing that Stan Lee intended Iron Man as kind of a troll to the comics’ left wing audiences, we can potentially assume that he chose a setting he knew would be controversial.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t remark in hindsight on the many parallels between the war in Vietnam and the War on Terror, into which the Tony Stark in the Iron Man film is involved. The United States entered Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, a campaign referring primarily to that conflict, though a few other operations were technically under this banner as well. In addition to supposedly harbouring Osama bin Ladin, the reasons given for entering Afghanistan were essentially about counter-terrorism, including the shutdown of terrorist training facilities and infrastructure, and the defeat of al-Queda.

It is almost impossible to overstate the intensity and breadth of nationalistic sentiment in these early months of the conflict. Even as a Canadian I remember tearing up as I watched the first public gathering after the attacks—a WWF (now WWE) professional wrestling show, where the crowd repeatedly broke into chants of “USA! USA!” while the wrestlers took a break from calling each other jabronis to give speeches about the bravery and enduring spirit of the American people. But tied to this resurgence of nationalism was a desire to punish those who had been involved in the attacks. 93 percent of people polled wanted the United States to go to war with whomever was identified as the perpetrator. The operation itself was very nearly called Operation Infinite Justice, which certainly brings to mind swift and brutal realization from an almost godlike force.

This is not to say there were no critics of the campaign in Afghanistan, and even many who were polled were concerned from the beginning about the potential length and cost (both financial and in terms of casualties) of this operation. And years later, many folks are split about whether it was ultimately a war worth fighting at all. However, at the time, it was as close to universally approved as something as big as warfare could really get.

So in some ways, it might seem like Tony is being thrown into two very different kinds of conflicts in each version of these stories. One was a controversial and little-understood war in Vietnam that many didn’t believe should be fought. Another against the identified perpetrators of an attack that had not only killed many Americans, but which had also inflicted a deep psychological scar on the nation and its people that yielded a deep desire for vengeance. But remember that the film is released in 2008, five years after the United States’ far more controversial entry into Iraq. Now it’s not surprising that a movie that received funding directly from the Air Force wasn’t set on this more contentious front of the War on Terror. But I also think that by this point, these operations—Afghanistan and Iraq—were linked in the minds of a lot of people, many of whom were starting to turn on the US’s anti-terrorism efforts more generally. To evoke one was, to some extent, to necessarily evoke the other. I would therefore argue that in both instances, Iron Man comes into being connected to a global conflict that exemplifies ongoing struggles over American national identity.

And Tony Stark is, himself, the site of some of these struggles. Thus far, I would say that in the comics this has played out more at a personal level—we obviously haven’t had anything like the storyline where he starts refusing to supply the military with weapons, for example, and he’s still perfectly willing to face off against the dreaded Communists and other Cold War foes. But it’s always been a kind of tenuous thing. The US government has shown itself all too willing to pull contracts from Stark Industries given the slightest nonsensical provocation, and I suspect we’ll be hearing from the particularly antagonistic Senator Byrd again soon.

In the film, meanwhile, we of course see Stark take matters into his own hands after withdrawing from weapons manufacturing. Before anyone gets excited and thinks this is somehow a super progressive film, though, it’s important to note the terms on which this happens. Tony never once critiques the War on Terror itself, and he’s still shown to be close to numerous folks involved in the Air Force and military, particularly James Rhodes. He’s critical of what he refers to as a lack of accountability, or the fact that weapons he has designed and provided to the American government are somehow being used by opposing forces for the oppression of American troops and their own citizens. Ultimately, then, we still get a depiction of the War on Terror as a war worth being fought. It’s simply a question of how best to go about it.

This issue of methods is essentially what separates the Tony Stark of the comics from the one we encounter in the movie. Thus far, Tony’s strategy in the comics has effectively been to keep working in support of the Cold War, and to assume that any complications that arise between himself and the government will work themselves out if he just proves himself to be reliable and effective. (Again, this is a non-spoilery podcast. I deliberately don’t read very far ahead so that it’s not even a risk that I’ll subconsciously shape the discussion in particular ways. So it’s possible that more open conflict between industry and government is coming. However, we definitely are not there yet. )

In the film, meanwhile, Tony resolves this question of ‘how’ by effectively removing the government from the equation, or at least supplementing their efforts in moments where he finds them ineffective or inefficient. The scenes in Gulmira are a great example of this. We’re explicitly told that no military forces were given permission to engage because the Ten Rings were using human shields. Iron Man, though, he just blazes right on in and uses his superior technology to safely eliminate enemy forces while ensuring minimal civilian loss and injury. And it’s clear that the film is encouraging us to support this as a solution. We get a shot of a terrified child reunited with his father, and rather than taking the opportunity to kill one of the men who kept him captive, Tony leaves him behind for the angry crowd to dispense vengeance.

Point 3: Disability and Trauma

If point two was talking about the sort of national trauma of the wars that each of our Tony Starks ends up involved with, point three is about the more personal and psychological impacts of those conflicts.

There’s a lot of similarities and some really crucial distinctions in the original and the adaptation. In the comics, Tony isn’t violently captured or anything, he’s essentially just a victim of bad luck. He trips over a booby trap and is subsequently taken in by Vietnamese forces. We also don’t get any of the torture sequences from the film. This version of Tony immediately agrees to his captor’s demands for new weapons, content to let Wong-Chu believe he is a traitor if it means buying himself some time to save his own life.

The general circumstances of their physical injuries are similar but again not identical. Both versions of Tony end up with shrapnel threatening their heart, with a predicted death sentence of about a week if the condition is left untreated. However, we never see much of comic-Tony’s injuries. He wakes with a white bandage wrapped around his chest, but we never see or hear anything about the extent of the physical damage beyond the presence of the shrapnel. And importantly, the chest plate that will end up saving Tony’s life is solely an external device. What I mean is that while it’s working to achieve an internal effect (keeping Tony’s heart beating after the shrapnel reaches it), it is doing so from outside of his body.

In the movie, Tony Stark wakes up with an electromagnet already having been inserted into his chest. We of course don’t get exact dimensions and we don’t witness the actual surgery, but given the location of the device and the size of the subsequent devices that Tony uses to replace the first one, this is some major physical trauma on top of the initial wound. We’re talking about a huge hole right in the middle of someone’s sternum, which would more than likely impact surrounding muscles, not to mention potentially reduced lung capacity and other risks involved in having to basically shove aside the organs already present.

This level of intervention is not just far more intensive. It’s also extremely intimate compared to the chest plate. This device is literally inside Tony’s chest, rendering he and the technology that is keeping him alive one entity.

Yet, interestingly, we don’t see the film deal with the impact this would have nearly to the same degree that the comics do. In the first issue of the comics, Tony believe that he will never be able to escape not just the chest plate but the armour in its entirety, and he experiences this as almost the death of his old self. Even once he arrives at the chest plate solution in later issues, he experiences the changes to his physical body as a seismic shift in everything about his life, including his ability to form romantic relationships. On the show we’ve talked about the implications of this—the way it feeds into narratives about disabled bodies as inherently asexual, for example.

In the movie, meanwhile, Tony rarely remarks on the changes to his body, and he doesn’t seem particularly ashamed of them. He has no problem asking Pepper to reach into his chest and change out the old arc reactor for the old one. He even cuts holes in a couple of his shirts. This could of course  be a practical choice if the shirts were placing too much pressure on the device, but they also seem to suggest a comfort with having the arc reactor on display, at least around those he’s closest to.

The emphasis instead seems to be on the mental and psychological effects of what’s happened to him. We get a lot of indications that Tony is not okay—his haphazard construction of the suit, which involved a series of dangerous tests that could easily have been fatal; his speech to Pepper about how his life is effectively worthless if he isn’t Iron Man; that scene right before he takes off to Gulmira where he destroys each and every reflective surface in the workshop. His condition is also of course weaponized by the likes of Obadiah Stane, who uses PTSD as a way to try to discredit Tony and prevent the changes Tony wants to make within Stark Industries. But one of the really clever and lovely things I think the movie does is let us hold both of these things together: yes, Stane is using PTSD as a kind of cover to silence Tony and wrest control of the company from him, and it’s also true that Tony is deeply traumatized by what’s happened to him. I like that the movie is willing to just let both of those things be true.

But what are the significance of these changes? I would be remiss not to note that there were very likely practical reasons the comic didn’t deal with the physical aspects of what happened to Tony in much depth, given the strict regulations around explicit representations of things like gore. I also think it’s significant, though, that we go from a Tony whose internal wounds are managed externally to one whose treatment is nearly as painful and invasive as the initial injury. You’ll recall way back in the early episodes of the show that we talked about the comics Iron Man as an potential cyborg kind of figure, but there’s a potential way to read the movie version as the ultimate realization of that representation.  Evdokia Stefanopoulou, for example, argues that Tony is effectively reborn in the Afghan cave in which he is held, and that the version of him that emerges as an “ideal cyborg figure” existing in a sort of liminal space between a multitude of binary positions. Put more simply, because the cyborg is this kind of transgressive figure that exists outside strict human and non-human boundaries, we might read the shift from the chest plate to the arc reactor as an indicator of increased acceptance of the blurred boundaries between human and machine—and numerous other supposedly fixed binary states that are intertwined in those categories.

We’ll come back to this later, especially in relation to the film’s take on gender and sexuality. But before we move on, I did want to also think about this in relation to the politics of disability in the movie. Tony’s lack of open discomfort with his changed body in some ways suggests a more nuanced and progressive stance on disability than the comics, where he just sort of assumes his life is effectively over after his injury. But there is still an interesting thing that happens where after he gets home from Afghanistan, Tony stops sleeping around and appears solely interested in pursuing Pepper. In fact, there’s even a whole deleted sequence where he goes to one of his houses in Dubai, throws a massive party and is on the cusp of hooking up with several women at once, only to end up ditching out in the Iron Man armour instead.

The easy way to read this is as part of the redemption arc that we’ll talk more about soon. In this reading, Tony has basically learned to have romantic and sexual relationships only with those he has sustained and sincere interest in. Great, right? Sure, Pepper is great, and I guess if it stops me from having to see any other woman in this movie referred to as trash (which is how Pepper herself addresses Christine Everhart the morning after her night with Tony), I am all for it. But I don’t know, it does give me in some ways of a whiff of something like inspiration porn, or the tendency of temporarily abled people to use disabled bodies and experiences as sources of inspiration. Like not only is there a kind of implicit assumption that casual sex is empty and awful, but it then uses the traumas Tony endures as a sort of moralizing lesson that guides him back toward the one true path of heterosexual monogamy.

Closing Notes

Okay, as I said up top, there’s more. Like…a lot more. We’ve just scratched the surface of stuff going on with gender and sexuality, we haven’t dealt at all with the identity stuff, or the way that the secondary characters are adapted in the film.

So we’ll be dealing with all of that next week, plus a few smaller but still important points about things like the aesthetics and technology of the suit, and narrative structure and pacing in a comic versus a feature film. And there will also be a bisexuality metre showdown between the two Iron Mans if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing. If there are any other outstanding topics, scenes, or questions that you would like to see covered, you also still have time to let me know. Like always, you can reach out  on Twitter or Tumblr both @invinciblepod, or by email at invincibleironpod@gmail.com.

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And join us next week where

-We’ll finish off our MCU versus 616 conversation.

Until then, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!