This is a long post, but one I had a whole bunch of fun with! Love taking odd arguments and playing around with them.
Recently I had occasion to view Ironman, the first movie in the Avengers’ series. Starring Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role and with a supporting cast of many Hollywood A-listers (Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges among them), the film’s summer-movie, blockbuster format sits squarely in the “fluff” category of movie-making. It’s an action-adventure with several chases, some suspense and, supposedly stock characters where good always triumphs over evil and the hero always gets the girl.
But can a movie popular with audiences (it took in over 100 million dollars in its opening weekend alone), also have literary merit? Is there anything of the “art film” in a movie that starts, ends and fills its middle with blowing stuff up?
By definition, art films are “serious artistic works” made “primarily for aesthetic reasons,…of an experimental nature and have highly symbolic content” and are aimed at a “niche market.” It’s also safe to say that most art films hold layers of symbolism, contain artistic juxtapositions, and nestle deeper meanings below the surface level of plot and character. There are nuances in foreshadowing, motivations and relationships. Action-adventure movies generally do not belong in this category.
And yet, Ironman fits all the criteria for an art film.
Let’s take the last of that formal definition first. Art films are aimed at niche markets – those usually small audiences made up of the smaller fish in the bigger movie-going pond. The producers and directors of such films do not expect to make a lot of money since the range of topic or genre is so narrow. They wouldn’t say no, however, if their art film found a wider audience and hence, made money for all involved. Art films such as The Artist and Life is Beautiful both made money and garnered awards for their makers. In spite of the filthy lucre they took in, however, they are still art films.
Ironman is a movie taken from the pages of comic books. Few people know the worlds of Stan Lee, fewer still care anything about them. We’ve built stereotypes around this type of audience and given them labels: geeks and nerds who are male, live in their parents’ basements, don’t date and spend most of their time either reading said comic books or playing video games. If that’s not a niche market, I don’t know what is.
And yet, like the other two art films mentioned, Ironman hit a chord with popular audiences, bringing in people who knew nothing of the Marvel universe, wouldn’t know Stan Lee if he walked up and said hello, and who wouldn’t be caught dead playing a video game. Just because it made money, however, doesn’t change the fact that the original audience for this movie was a small one, a niche market.
“Made primarily for aesthetic reasons.”
Really, this one is a no-brainer. What director/producer purposefully makes a movie that isn’t aesthetic? Aesthetic means beautiful and there are moments in Ironman that are breathtaking. We form an attachment to the red and gold Ironman suit when the filmmakers give us time to admire the shiny curves and smart features the first time Tony Stark suits up. This admiration turns to despair when the suit is dented and dinged and the helmet crushed by Obadiah Stane later on. We care about the art and beauty of the suit and feel a twinge of anguish at its destruction.
(Sidenote: Apparently Obadiah and his larger suit is called “Iron Monger”, but he is never referred to that way in the movie. I only learned that when trolling for details on IMDB. Because the name isn’t used in the movie, I will refrain from using that moniker in this review.)
JARVIS’ 3D computer displays are another aesthetic moment that audiences appreciate. Watching Tony Stark call up and then pick apart his original design for the suit on a 3D surface was not only fun to watch, but visually striking as well. We might not yet have such technology, but we know it isn’t far away and seeing an artist’s view of what it might look like is stunning.
But the definition reads “made primarily for aesthetic reasons” (emphasis mine), not just that it contains moments of beauty. That’s okay, because Ironman fits that reading as well.
Comic book aficionados have very clear images of their favorite characters. They have translated, in their heads, the voices, the mannerisms, the nuances of each and every fictional person. They’ve discussed, debated, argued over minute points of plot and character development. They are a hard audience to please and if you miss this niche market’s approval, chances are you have a flop on your hands.
Ironman hit the target not only with the casting of Robert Downy, Jr. as the superhero, but with the design and execution of the suit and all that goes with it. This movie had to keep the comic book in mind at all times in order to stay true to the artwork already in place. It was made with aesthetic reasons in mind and the very fact that it grossed so highly at the box office tells us the makers hit their mark.
“Serious artistic work” and “highly symbolic content”
Ah, yes. Here we get to the meat of it. Is Ironman a serious movie that uses symbolism as a means of making deeper meaning?
I say “yes” to both.
A serious artistic work is one that makes observations or provides a commentary for contemporary audiences. It is one that explores questions about our relationships with others, with our government, and with ourselves. Oftentimes those questions are left unanswered by the end of the serious film, leaving us to make our own choices, our own decisions regarding those deeper concepts.
Ironman makes use of several literary elements in making its observations. Using the devices of juxtaposition, literary allusion and symbolism, the filmmakers elevate this seeming action-adventure movie into the realm of the art film.
Authors often use contrasts to make statements about character and theme. This is true of Ironman’s screenwriters – in spades. There are six juxtapositions in the movie’s five-minute hook alone, each serving as set up to the deeper levels of the movie to come.
The opening shot of the movie starts in silence as a single-line convoy comes into view across the desert. The shot shifts and the viewer sees they are US Army vehicles, modern, up-to-date machines of warfare, passing a solitary Afghan herder with his crook in hand standing by the side of the road. It’s hard for the viewer to tell who are the good guys, especially when loud, raucous rock music breaks the silence. Are we to pity the poor herder, shoved off to the side of the road by the military convoy? Or root for the American rock music? This confusion of roles will play out later in the movie between Tony Stark (Ironman) and his long-time mentor, Obadiah Stane.
A second juxtaposition comes hard on the heels of the first, followed by several in a row. First, we are introduced to Tony Stark by what he is not. From the askance gazes of the soldiers in the vehicle with him, we can tell his business suit, shades and casual attitude (complete with drink in hand) are not what they are used to. Then Tony’s (and our own) stereotypes are played with when one of the soldiers turns out to be female. This further sets up Tony’s character as a ladies’ man, especially when he says, “I’m having a hard time not looking at you now. Is that weird?” He can’t (or won’t) turn off the playboy side of him, even under such circumstances. A moment later, the soldier sitting beside Tony flashes a peace sign to the camera in the midst of war. While Tony’s calling it a gang sign is an attempt at a joke, the reality is much more gruesome. This young soldier wants only peace yet carries a weapon to make sure the people of Afghanistan get it, whether they want it or not. This theme of using warfare to promote peace will return as a major theme of the movie.
The formality of the soldiers breaks down under Tony’s informal attempts to engage them in conversation, only to slam back into place when they are attacked. This leads to yet a fifth juxtaposition: they understand what a roadside ambush means; Tony’s completely clueless. His world is rocked, literally. He disobeys an order, abandons his vehicle and ends up beside the largest juxtaposition of all: the irony of the attackers using weapons purchased from Stark Industries. He’s about to be killed by a bomb made by his own company.
None of these pairings are by accident. The writers and directors made conscious choices to include them to make specific statements about the movie’s broader themes: What is the role of a superpower in keeping the peace throughout the world? How can having a bigger weapon promote peace? How do our attitudes about gender roles shape our expectations? What responsibility does an individual have over decisions made by others in his company?
A more personal theme is set up as well: Tony Stark’s journey from a womanizing playboy who cares only for his own pleasures into a responsible adult willing to take care of the whole world. While the hook gives us a hint, the playboy in Tony is formally set up in the movie’s first full scene, a scene appropriately set in the casinos of Las Vegas. Not only does Tony not show up for an award he was being honored with, when we find him, he’s surrounded by beautiful women and letting thousands of dollars ride on a bad throw at the craps table. Later he is late for his own plane, much to the frustration of Pepper Potts, his assistant. Tony Stark is free to do what he wants, when he wants and with whom he wants.
This contrasts with his wounding and captivity. The metal plate Jinsen, his fellow captive, sets him up with tethers him to a car battery. True to form, the first activity Tony embarks on upon recovery is making himself an arc reactor and getting his body free from the wires and weight of the large battery. Remember, what he wants when he wants it.
But Tony, in many ways, becomes captive to his heart for the rest of his life. Although he builds a better device once back in the States, he has a special concoction he must drink at regular intervals to keep his system in balance and must constantly monitor the reactor’s power levels. If they drop too low, the shrapnel moves to his heart and he dies. Again, the movie’s early scenes set up the larger themes to come, in this case, where is the line between captivity and freedom?
The contrasts continue well into the first half of the movie. A pretty reporter calls Stark both the “daVinci of our time” and the “Merchant of Death” and asks which he is, not realizing he’s both. Leonardo daVinci not only created great art works in several different media, he also created weapons of mass destruction, including a robot-like defensive weapon, a “mechanical knight” that could deflect incoming missiles. Tony Stark does not create art, he does, however, purchase it (buying and storing the Jackson Pollock Pepper Potts tells him is overpriced) and, like daVinci, he designs and builds weapons of mass destruction, including his own "mechanical knight" - the Ironrman suit.
The “Merchant of Death” moniker goes deeper, all the way back to a book written in 1934 by H.C. Englebrecht and F.C. Hanighan. Their treatise, Merchants of Death, discusses the history of war profiteering and the relationship between the arms-makers and the arms-buyers (governments). At the start of the film, this title fits Tony Stark, especially when he demonstrates the destructive power of the Jericho missile. In his sales speech to the military brass he states, “They say the best weapon is one you never have to fire. I disagree, the best weapon is one you only have to fire once.”
Later, the true villain of the movie takes over this epithet in a darker manner than Tony ever held it. Obadiah Stane, the man who ran Stark Industries while Tony was growing up and into his inheritance, is revealed as a man who wants to keep his powerful position. Even the ersatz villain, Raza, understands this, making the statement that brings us all into the secret: “You dream of Stark’s throne.” The true “Merchant of Death” is the one who hides his identity, staying in the shadows and selling weapons to both sides of the battle. The allusion is apt, but applies more to Stane than Stark.
Tony Stark, if he is to remain our protagonist, must be remade, changed, turned into a hero. The catalyst for that change is his captivity. The use of the cave shows us the depths needed for that change to take place. He goes from the sunshine of California to the dark bowels of Afghanistan, from bright lights and cities to a world lit primarily by fire. He’s forced to use ancient arts (blacksmithing) to create modern weaponry.
When he emerges, he comes from the darkness into the light, an obvious symbolism denoting the success of his journey out of ignorance and into knowledge. He burns his past away with fire, literally. In his new creation, flamethrowers take the place of hands and he annihilates the weapons his company made and sold to the rebel army.
But life must be paid for with death. His mentor, Yinsin, gives his life so that Tony may live. Another juxtaposition that forces Stark into maturity.
And what art film would be complete without Biblical symbolism? Once he’s escaped and landed in the desert, the filmmakers show a shot of him emerging from the desert, a new man. Like Jesus of Nazareth, Tony Stark has been to his own private hell and has been reborn.
It is also important to note that his “jaunt” to Afghanistan took place on his own private jet complete with dancing girls and booze. He returns to America on a military cargo plane, stripped of all luxuries. The new Tony Stark takes those luxuries for what they were—trivial and unimportant in the greater scheme of life.
A final note regarding the literary devices used by the filmmakers: the symbolism of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s names. “Stark” is what Tony must become, his excessive lifestyle burned away, leaving the raw need to right the wrong he has unwittingly helped to create. He is a loner, even to the point where robots help him dress in the Ironman suit. He must make his journey alone.
Obadiah Stane, Tony’s nemesis, begins as the mentor figure, having guided Tony and Stark Industries while Tony comes of age. Both names are apt here, the first, Obadiah, referring to a Biblical figure who is bent on vengeance. But his surname, Stane, gives away the secret he hides. This man is stained with ambition and greed that will lead to his downfall, his reputation discredited and blemished.
So, despite the fact that this film raked money in hand over fist, despite the fact that it became highly popular with the general movie-going public, despite the fact that many slap the action-adventure label on it, Ironman actually fits all the criteria for an art film and should be viewed as such.
(edited to fix a typo and correct an analogy)
(edited to fix a typo and correct an analogy)