When Robert Downey Jr., the inherently ironic leading man, arrives on the scene in the Marvel Comics blockbuster Iron Man, it takes us a beat or two to realize his character, Tony Stark, is a drunk, philandering scumbag who just happens to be in the back of a Humvee in Afghanistan, where bad things are all but guaranteed to happen.
A little stark? You can say that again. But it's not booze or the references to multiple rendez-vous with pin-ups that make Tony Stark a consummate ass -- it's his status as the greatest arms inventor and dealer in the world. You immediately wonder how in the name of all that's Uzi are we going to end up liking this hipster merchant of death? A quandary multiplied by the realization that in the Great American Blockbuster Movie you have to end up loving this guy.
And we do.
Suffice to say that post-Afghanistan Tony Stark is both (a) an iconic super-hero; and (b) a pacifist who swears off the military industrial complex like an alcoholic face-to-face with a cold Budweiser on a hot day.
Superheroes, of course, make a living killing bad guys -- they're almost always guys -- and the bigger, the badder, the better. Iron Man is no different in Iron Man. Payback and sweet redemption arrive upon his unannounced return to Afghanistan, where the baddest guy, a Muslim terrorist no doubt middle-named "Hussein," ominously fingers a very big ring.
And then it hits us: the pacifist Iron Man is blowing up bad guys like he's at a yard sale for truly evil carbon lifeforms. Tony Stark's partner in the defense business, played bodaciously by a bald and bearded Jeff Bridges, says as much in the movie's penultimate moment.
In trying to end the arms war, Tony Stark has created the ultimate weapon: Iron Man himself.
So there you have it: the ironic super-hero who swears he will stop the arms race, only to guarantee by the end of the movie that it will escalate further. What's wrong with that? Consider that nowhere in the movie's denouement does Tony Stark betray any sense of foreboding or regret. When the time comes for the final, triumphant press conference, the only thing on his relentlessly narcissistic scumbag mind is whether his assistant, Pepper Potts, played by the beautiful Gwyneth Paltrow, actually loves him; and whether the time has come to tell the world that the great Tony Stark is, in fact, Iron Man.
We came away from the finale loving the movie -- a blockbuster with actors who can actually act! -- but also with the stark realization that it is literally impossible to find a super-hero who doesn't end up killing people. The guarantee of death, however cartoonish, is inseparable from the Great American Blockbuster.
With another Indiana Jones sequel on the way this summer, consider the early Indy scene where a sword-wielding bad guy sweeps his weapon through the air...and Indy pulls out his gun and shoots him dead. It's a funny moment in the movie and a wonderful comment on gunpowder, technology, and how to rule the world. But most of all it's a kill-or-be-killed killing scene played for laughs.
Whether Indy or Iron Man, the blockbuster must perforce serve up death and destruction because we are a violence-loving nation. Aside from blockbusters, we love nothing better than a good war, and that's why Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings succeed as war movies -- even as the Iraq War has failed -- and why Indy, an iconic American incarnate, simply must defeat the Nazis by the time the credits roll. Even when the nemesis is of natural origins --as in Twister and The Perfect Storm -- the net net is that in America, death goes perfectly with our buttered popcorn.
Iron Man, ironically, could have been different. There could at least be a hint in the final scene of Tony Stark realizing just what he has done to the world, even as he wonders what to do now that the genie is out of the bottle. Our hero would have had to grow a real conscience -- and so too would we the people in stadium seating, thereby leaving the theater vaguely uncomfortable with the consequences of what they have just swallowed.
Our wars and our blockbusters leave us no room for that kind of scrutiny or ambiguity. Maybe we have seen the real scumbag in the United States, and he is us.