Director: Jon Favreau; Release date: out now
Andrea: "Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero."
Galileo: "No, Andrea: unhappy is the land that needs a hero."
Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht
Iron Man is the latest superhero to get his own film as Hollywood continues to loot the pages of comics in a desperate search for a blockbuster. In box office terms a blockbuster is what they've produced, as it's one of only ten films ever to have taken more than $100 million in the first three days of its release.
Fans of the comic series will be pleased to discover that the makers have been faithful to the character and to a mythology which stretches back over 40 years. But that's actually a problem.
Marxist criticism has often been attacked for interpreting cultural products in a crudely ideological and economic fashion. The 19th century Italian Marxist Antonio Labriola contemptuously dismissed those critics who could read Dante's Inferno as an expression of the economic activity of "wily Florentine cloth merchants" in the Middle Ages. However, an equal danger would be to ignore the ideological content clearly present in popular culture.
Iron Man was one of the stable of superheroes created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics in the early 1960s. All the Marvel heroes created then - the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man and the X-Men - were Cold War warriors.
So no early Marvel comic was without evil commissars challenging the all-American Marvel heroes, and Iron Man was one of the most ideological strips Marvel ever published. Caricatures of Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong would appear in the pages of his comic to direct their agents against Iron Man. His main enemy was the Mandarin, a Chinese character drawn in a disgracefully racist style.
The first Iron Man strip was published in Tales of Suspense in March 1963 and described how weapons manufacturer Tony Stark falls into the hands of the Vietnamese Communists while he's over there testing his weapons. He's injured fatally but escapes by making a chest plate which keeps him alive and is the central unit of his superhero identity as Iron Man.
The film updates this original story from Vietnam to Afghanistan with little trouble - such is the nature of US imperialism. The catalyst for his transformation is that he falls victim to his own weapons - now in the hands of nasty foreigners in an Al Qaida like organisation.
This plot device has led some reviewers to argue that the film is against the military-industrial complex and charts Stark's redemption for his past crimes. But not really. The film is not against arms manufacturers. It's against "bad" arms manufacturers. The film isn't against military intervention in other people's countries. It's for "humanitarian" military intervention in other people's countries. Iron Man may save a handful of helpless "good" Arabs but in the process he gets to beat up lots of "nasty" Arabs. And he does it with clean, smart, targeted weapons. This is a film with Jeremy Clarkson's appetite for flash cars and shiny military toys. It's also got his social conscience.
"Nuff said," as they said in Marvel comics.