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Iron Man 3 & The Unmaking of a Terrorist Mythology

May 30, 2013

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This post discusses plot points from Iron Man in extensive detail

“We make our own demons”   Tony Stark… and someone famous

The backlash theory of terrorist attacks on the United States and its interests has become popular in recent years, especially in our pop culture. Shows like Homeland & Bones have taken it on by providing instances where characters are recruited as terrorists in part or wholly because they’ve been victimized.

Iron Man’s critique of the War on Terror takes a slightly different take—and a more radical one—by suggesting that the War on Terror is an invention that both terrorists and the terrorized participate in and that capitalism ultimately finds gains within it.

The overall argument is not that the US is to blame or that we’re culpable, but that our way of life leaves us open to this kind of terror. It’s not our sense of freedom that provides the fuse rather that our culture allows the space to seek out avenues to success that are unrestrained by true checks and balances.

It doesn’t take long for the movie to begin its trail to this point. We begin the film in 1999 as Stark creates a few personal demons of his own that will soon come back to haunt him.

In a flashback we meet Aldrich Killian, a brilliant, but hopeless nerd whose unkempt style and unpolished salesmanship offends Tony. In a bit of childish cruelty, Tony makes an enemy who’ll return 14 years later better dressed, with even bigger ideas and a newfound intent to destroy him at any cost.

Second, we meet Maya, a scientist that’s pioneering a radical new technology that allows plants to regenerate themselves, but is encountering some problems. Tony sleeps with her then leaves a partial solution as a parting message. The second act is much more intimate than the first especially given that Tony never calls her. Both meetings are a catalyst for what comes later.

That well lit fuse comes to a head as the country and Tony Stark are in the midst of a national sense of insecurity. The United States after encountering the larger threats of aliens and other worlds, when Loki attacked New York is concentrating on the enemies it feels it can eliminate. Instead of concentrating on the larger harder to imagine dangers they’re concentrating on a human terrorist—the Mandarin. That threat likes to deliver pretentious and unintelligible lectures through hacked television and internet connections, before bombing targets like military churches.

In a bid to make the general populous feel more secure in this fight, a PR war is launched rebranding The War Machine as The Iron Patriot, “War Machine was a little too aggressive,” Rhodes explains to Stark “This sends a better message” especially when the powers that be have decided that “They [the country] needs to look strong.”

Like a fantasy of how drone warfare should work, Rhodes’ Iron Patriot spends his time preventing troops from harm, while still providing human judgment in targeting and decisions on when to fire.

We get a sense that The Mandarin like most villains is both more and less than what he appears to be. The character appears through most of the film only in his own videos, – where he takes responsibility for an act of terror by raising an anti-Western grievance of one sort or another. He complains about military misdeeds, about the commoditization of foreign cultures, and environmental degradation to name a just a few.

But there’s something off about his performance that unsettles Tony, “Talks like a Baptist preacher. Lots of theater going on here.” His incoherence turns out to have been there for a reason. He’s not a terrorist mastermind—he’s an old man in a luxurious mansion issuing fake broadcasts to the world. Specifically, he’s “Trevor, Trevor Slattery,” an out of work actor with a substance abuse problem. He’s not Osama bin Laden in disguise he’s a bad actor with a gig.

The film doesn’t leave itself much time to consider either the motivations of its characters or give any lasting opinion on the motivation for terrorism, other than the idea that there are many motivations for such acts. Instead it spends most of its time asking questions it never fully answers. Is the government focusing on the wrong threat and leaving itself open to a much more dangerous and alien attack? Is terror an available business avenue for unrestrained capitalism?

In the end Killian is found to be the true villain, but he has no true philosophy except capitalism itself. He doesn’t have a master plan to rule the world he just wants to create a constant stream of supply and demand.

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