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The War in “Iron Man”

by MoviesPlusBooks 7 months ago in superheroes
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Breaking down one of the most popular superheroes

The Tony Stark Industrial Complex

“Iron Man” begins with Tony Stark receiving an award for his entrepreneurial achievements.

He is the admired and celebrated CEO of Stark Industries, which is described on this fansite as a “global tech conglomerate” composed of numerous smaller enterprises. The company as a whole constitutes the leading edge in technological innovation around the world.

Among Stark Industries’ global business activities are the manufacturing and distribution of advanced weapons systems. Howard Stark, Tony’s father, grew the company to its preeminent status during World War II with help from his business partner, Obadiah Stane, who is now among the audience viewing Tony’s award ceremony.

He is a genius and a billionaire, but Tony’s success is riding on the back of his father having conceived and built the company, and now he is tasked with carrying on this inherited legacy.

From an article in the slideshow:

“Howard Stark… is largely responsible for turning America’s military into the most powerful military in the world.”

The “Stark” name and its legacy in this fictional universe are plainly tied to America’s role in our own world; not only in the construction and sale of weapons and other military merchandise, but also in the US’s history of military adventurism, i.e. its frequent involvement in wars around the globe. The reference can be further extended to dramatic trends in the US’s increasingly militarized policing.

The Irony of Iron Man

The word “stark” calls to mind the notion of contrast. Like day and night, or light and shadow; Tony Stark easily serves as a symbol for dubious facets of America’s military power.

For more than a century Americans and people around the globe have been debating the morality behind the U.S. military’s presence in foreign countries, and whether or not such presence adds to regional stability.

A simple definition of “irony” is noteworthy: “A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects...”

The circumstances that the world find’s itself in (in both Tony’s world, and ours) are looking increasingly like the opposite of what was intended; the will towards "balance", safety, security, and freedom may yet leave us with none of such.

In the Marvel lore, Howard Stark helped develop the atomic bomb alongside Oppenheimer. The historic significance of splitting the atom is a powerful representation of the ambivalence behind humanity’s genius, even in regards to nuclear weapons technology. Ever since science produced a means for quarreling nations around the world to simply vaporize each other in a nightmarish sea of flame, warfare has become far more sophisticated, and warfare’s cost in human life, though still tragically high, has been greatly reduced since the development of these doomsday weapons.

This highlights one of the fundamental paradoxes Marvel continually touches on, that of the tensions between creation, preservation, and destruction.

Such tension is characterized very well in Tony Stark’s personality. His failure to cope psychologically with the challenge of protecting the world without enslaving it, or destroying it, is expressed in a number of ways, including his invention of the myth that he is ‘protecting the world’, his anxiety and self-destructive behavior, as well as other neurotic quirks of his personality.

Tony Stark is a figure in transition, however; a being that must undergo a spiritual transformation. He is an object in motion, and in the Marvel universe, his movement is about to be upwards. This upward ascent cannot occur, though, without a great deal of work and personal sacrifice.

In contrast to Tony, Obadiah Stane represents an already established state, or the “old way of doing things” — out of which Stark will be emerging out of.

Genius, billionaire, playboy

Tony is not ready to make this transformation yet, nor is he aware that he needs to.

Instead, we see a man who likes to party, gamble, drink, and sleep around with whomever he desires. Having no concern for the future, he remains wrapped up in the warm cushion of his father’s corporate empire, while Obadiah Stane lingers in the dark, making certain that the business of death continues on as usual.


“War has created in people’s minds an image of the universal scourge and triumph of brute force, from antiquity to modern times with their enormous increase in the means of self-destruction.”

Holy war is no external battle fought with real weapons, but a conflict which the individual wages within him- or herself, the inward confrontation of light and darkness.¹

Obadiah is the triumph of brute force, violence, and death. Tony Stark, up until the beginning of the movie, has been death’s pretty face.

Now, like a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, Stark is becoming “Iron Man”. By gaining the power of flight, he is ascending to heights from which he can now see the death and destruction wrought by his weapons, and confront it.

The completion of this transformation will reshape his corporate war machine. This is an existential threat to Obadiah Stane.


1. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols


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