There's no way to make an apolitical movie out of Marvel Comics' Iron Man, and director Jon Favreau doesn't try. The story of a weapons manufacturer who's captured by a warlord in Afghanistan is clearly a metaphor for American power overseas. The great strength of Iron Man, which opens tonight, is that it can be read in a variety of ways, in spite of a fair bit of speechifying. And how you read the movie's narrative of weapons proliferation depends on how you view the constantly half-naked cyborg torso of Robert Downey, Jr. Spoilers ahead, Iron-fuckers!
It's best to view Iron Man as a cyborg narrative rather than a superhero one, especially since it follows very few of the superhero conventions.
Here's the movie's story in cyborg terms: Tony Stark is a rich bastard who makes weapons for a living. One day, he's visiting the desolate middle of Afghanistan to demonstrate a horrific new missile system, when he's captured by a local warlord who inexplicably has tons and tons of Stark's weapons — which Stark supposedly only sells to America and other "good" customers. In the process of being captured, Stark is mortally wounded, and to stay alive, he must become part-machine, with an electro-magnet in his chest that keeps pieces of shrapnel from entering his heart. The warlord wants Tony to build him a super-missile, but instead Tony builds a suit of super-armor and busts out of the cave where he's imprisoned. And the rest of the movie consists of Tony dealing with the revelation that you can't always control what hands your weapons fall into (which somehow never occurred to him before.)
So Tony Stark's body becomes a metaphor for American power, and the question of whether you can fix the abuses of power by exerting even more power. Tony is mortally wounded by seeing the results of his own arrogance in spreading massively destructive weapons in a part of the world he hardly understands. And he reacts by turning his own body into a super-weapon. Because the super-suit is powered by the same glowy disk that keeps Tony alive, we're never able to forget that it's an extension of his body rather than a costume. And as Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts reminds us in an understated but lip-quivering scene, Tony is putting his own body on the line to try and make things right. Unlike all the weapons Stark has sold before, this is a weapon he can control, precisely because it is his own body.
Downey Jr.'s torso is at the center of the movie. His physicality drives the narrative, and the scenes where he becomes injured and then discovers his chest hooked up to a car battery verge on Cronenbergian body horror. From that point onwards, we're constantly aware of Stark's fragile health, as he's dropped from great heights, frozen, paralyzed, and has his nuclear pacemaker ripped out again and again. Downey, Jr. projects an amazing mixture of cockiness and fragility, and he's constantly taking his shirt off and showing us his slightly flabby, vulnerable flesh. And then there are the crazy over-the-top slapstick sequences where he tests out various supersuit functions and gets slammed around.
Tony's big foil in the movie is Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who helps to run Stark Industries and wants the company to keep making weapons and selling them to anyone whose check doesn't bounce. Stark wants to move out of weapons and into making ipod-sized nuclear reactors like the one that powers his life-support disk. (This is a big improvement over the comics, where Stane is just a rival businessman who mounts a hostile takeover bid of Stark Industries after Stark becomes an alcoholic.)
Stark and Stane spend plenty of time debating the merits of selling WMDs versus not being evil, and there's some boardroom maneuvering for control over the company that happens mostly off camera. But it shouldn't be too hard to guess, in a movie that's all about smashy-blasty power armor, how the two businessmen will end up settling their differences.
Part of Iron Man's great strength — and the reason it'll probably make a squillion dollars — is that you can read whatever you want into its intensely political storyline. You can view it as a straightforward diatribe against America's long history of arming thugs and the arrogant weight-throwing-around that has turned Afghanistan into a warlord-ridden wasteland. Or you can see it as a profoundly conservative polemic about keeping power in the right hands — Tony is wounded at exactly the same time that he starts to doubt his own righteousness as an arms maker, and he regains his strength when he starts flying back to Afghanistan and kicking the shit out of the bad guys there. Either way, Iron Man is not a pacifist movie, and it bends over backwards to be pro-military and pro-government, even in the midst of speeches about how weapons are evil.
So Iron Man works, both as a roaring Transformers-esque woo-battle movie, and as a story of Tony Stark's wounded heart being turned into a source of world-beating power. It's not exactly a perfect movie, though: some people may find Paltrow's alternating perkiness and poutyness a little bit annoying. And a sequence where she does some uber-hacking for Tony is ridiculously facile, even by movie standards. The movie keeps the person-of-color-sacrifices-his-life-to-save-Tony's sequence from the comic book, which is a great example of how it's not always best to stick too closely to the original storyline. There's a running joke where an agent from superspy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't know his own organization's name is an anagram, which gets old very quickly. And Terence Howard is a bit underwhelming as Stark's military buddy Jim Rhodes.
Bottom line: Iron Man is the first comic-book movie that's actually better than its source material. That's partly because Iron Man is one of the most boring characters in the history of comics, but it's also because the movie manages to transcend its source.