Iron Man 3’s “Least-ness”
Being the fortunate guy I am, last night I found myself in the West End of London watching Iron Man 3 in a preview.
This post contains no spoilers, nor am I really going to discuss the fanboyish elements of the experience, movie, or comic. Fair warning.
This is a movie where a wealthy smart guy takes on another wealthy smart guy. One of the wealthy smart guys has always had charisma and the smoothed path that comes with that, the other hasn’t. One coasted on his inherited status and charm, generating good ideas but lacking the drive to follow them through, while the other sought to advance thought and scientific progress. Both smart guys have sought nothing more than profit from their labours, neither has any demonstrable social conscience. One of them has evolved from transactional to meaningful relationships, the other not so much.
Everything this pair create leads or contributes to destruction, pollution, and loss of life. The people around this pair are tortured, beaten, and violated.
At the end, one of them gets a happy ending, and one of them does not.
Can you guess which of these protagonists is Tony Stark? Sure you can, he’s the one with charisma.
None of this is wrong, or new. Charisma has long been acknowledged as key to entertainment and success. There’s arguably nothing wrong with rooting for the more charismatic of two near-identical people. And certainly, the ability to develop and maintain relationships can indicate a “better” quality of humanity than the creation of a loyal but expendable cadre of followers.
So this guy is a hero, but one who doesn’t clean up his messes. He is proactive in his engineering, because it is a part of his self-love to worship his own ability, and this worship is handy for distracting him from his traumas. But otherwise, he is reactive to consequences a more responsible man might have foreseen. He is reactive in the face of his antagonists’ pro-activity. He partakes in no reconstruction of what he destroys, no clean-up of his spills. He fights no fires, other than those started by his negligence or self-absorption, and noticeably not those started by his “heroics”. But that’s his appeal, he’s just like the slackers/losers/bros of Apatow movies, only smarter, better-dressed, in better shape, and successful despite his dysfunction. Just like them, he is motivated by his own neuroses, focused solely on his own goals, and not cognizant of any responsibility to anything outside his skin, which makes him just the kind of detached, nonchalant kind of guy whose banter you want to hear and whose deeds you want to watch. He’s not one of those boring heroes who are painfully disciplined, thoughtful, conscientious, and considerate, those douches like Captain America who strive constantly to do “the right thing”. He’s a charming screw-up who can be counted on when the shit hits the [or particularly, his] fan, but shouldn’t be asked too much of in the shit-free intervals. And he will always, always need others to pick up the pieces.
So Tony Stark isn’t really a hero. He’s arguably just a narcissist protective enough of his enablers/friends to leap at any threat to them as an opportunity to worship at his own altar. He’s in a position to do immense good, but only does so in targeted, limited ways, and after immense provocation. At best he’s the off-duty doorman who breaks up a fight on the street and says “anybody would have done it”. He’s the baseline for what any of us should be expected to do, Iron Man is quite literally the least Tony Stark could do.
What does the success of this character say about what the audience aspires to, then? What does this celebration of charismatic “least-ness” reveal?
Robert Downey Jr is a great actor, and he’s a great choice for Tony Stark. It’s a shame the Tony Stark written of this trilogy couldn’t have been a greater person.