February 13, 2009


Superhero Conservatism (David Swindle, February 13, 2009, FrontPageMagazine.com)

We see certain ideas in particular in last year's three best superhero films: The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk. And just what is the political vision that appears? One that's fundamentally conservative, albeit in very different fashions. [...]

In another of 2008's most popular superhero films, Iron Man, we see clear political themes emerge in the character of its protagonist Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) One of the bonus features provides an extensive look into the origins of the character and the last four years of his comics history.

Stan Lee, Iron Man's co-creator described in one of the featurettes on the Iron Man DVD how he intentionally made a conservative character:

Well it was a funny thing. I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers – the young readers – if there was one thing they hated it was war, it was the military, or, as Eisenhower called it, the military-industrial complex. So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer. He was providing weapons for the army. He was rich. He was an industrialist. But he was good-looking guy and he was courageous… I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like – that none of our readers would like – and shove him down their throats and make them like him… I kind of had Howard Hughes in mind – without being crazy, he was Howard Hughes.

Right from the beginning of the film Stark is depicted as a man of the Right. As the CEO of Stark Industries he's a capitalist. Not only is he a business genius but an inventor as well, continually developing new inventions and technologies.

He's also a patriot, having come to the realization that the American Idea allows for the freedom that has given him such a wonderful life. And so he applies his genius to develop weapons which he then sells to the military.

Stark certainly isn't a social conservative, though. A bit of a womanizer, he makes a habit of seducing the attractive, leftist journalists who start out insulting him in their interviews.

In the film Stark's origin story is updated from taking place in Vietnam in 1963 to Afghanistan in modern times. While in the deserts demonstrating his newest missile for the military he's kidnapped by a terrorist group who then try and force him to build weapons for them. Instead, Stark secretly builds his first Iron Man suit which he uses to escape.

Stark returns traumatized from his experiences. His first reaction is one of pacifism – to announce that his company will no longer make weapons. It's an understandable response for someone who's just been on the receiving end of the products he's made a fortune selling. Once he gets his head on straight, though, he comes to different conclusions. It's not the weapons which are to blame, but the malevolent people using them. So, he develops better weapons – in the form of a more advanced version of the Iron Man suit – to defeat them.

In the film we see a particularly entertaining depiction of a conservative truth: the need to have superior firepower drives technological innovation. How many present-day technologies that make our lives better and easier have their origins in military development? It's no coincidence that the same innovative energy source that powers Stark's suit also keeps his heart running.

Stan Lee's particular genius was to recognize that awkward young men would recognize with heroes who were vulnerable beneath their costumes. But, the point is that they got to put on the costumes and kick some butt. The notion that those readers opposed war is hilarious.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 13, 2009 9:22 AM
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