I saw Iron Man on DVD this weekend. The story goes thusly: Tony Stark, owner and CEO of weapons manufacturer Stark Enterprises, is demonstrating his company's new missile system to American troops in Afghanistan when he's kidnapped by ragheads mysteriously armed with Stark-manufactured weapons. He's forced to re-construct the system for the terrorists; under their very noses, however, he instead builds an iron bio-suit powered by a mysterious device called the arc reactor. This suit becomes the "Iron Man" protype, and it allows him to escape the terrorists and return to the United States. Conscience-stricken at seeing American soldiers killed with Stark weapons, he stops all Stark weapons manufacturing while he secretly devotes himself to developing Iron Man 2.0.
Now for the kvetching.
This was a fun movie, and not necessarily an anti-American or anti-military one. But it is useful to critically ponder the socio-political morality it presents. Because some of his weapons fall into the wrong hands, and he sees the devastation they wreak at close hand, Stark stops lawful arms sales to his own government. But Stark then goes on to build -- for what is apparently his own personal use -- a weapon system of immensely destructive and unstoppable power. (The Iron Man suit flies, and it beat two F-22s in a dogfight.)
Why are we, the citizens of a free republic, expected to applaud this? The United States armed forces are, broadly speaking, under our collective control. We, through our elected officials, get to determine how they armed, where and when and in what numbers and to what end they are deployed. Even leaving our republicanism out the equation, there are tens of thousands of people that design, test, manufacture, transportation, service, and supply these weapons, and hundreds of people with operational roles standing between the president's order and the soldier that carries it out.
Why do we wish to trade all this accountability, all these checks and balances, for the arbitrary will of a billionaire with the personal wherewithal to design, test, manufacture, service, . . .and use, without the apparent involvement of a single other person, a weapon against which the lawfully constituted military has no known coutermeasures? Because . . . he's a good guy? Because he has the omniscience and wisdom our national security apparatus lacks? On what grounds are we to believe this?
I suppose this is the premise of the entire superhero genre: a man with special powers steps into the void created by the failure of our democratically-ordained institutions. But in most of these storylines (as near as I can tell; I am not, in fact, very knowledgeable about the Marvel and D.C. pantheon and their adventures of record), the hero steps in to support the established authorities. In Iron Man, however, the hero seeks to replace the established authority, or at least the ordinary means by which it preserves itself.
Mrs. Φ: "Yeah, well, look who we just elected!" (N.B.: Mrs Φ is much more partisan than I am).
First, at this writing, and judging by his stated nominations thus far, Obama is shaping up to be much more of an establishment figure than many of us expected. But second, even a bad president is subject to much more accountability than Tony Stark.
On a completely unrelated note: there was something satisfying, in a pretty straighforwardly misogynistic way, in the scene where the liberal feminist reporter sexually succombs to the egocentric billionaire. This kind of scene seems to crop up in movies and TV pretty often lately, and I wonder if Hollywood could articulate the sentiments they are playing to.