Iron Man 3 is the best of its series. The movie is as ostentatious and inventive as a movie about a billionaire inventor ought to be. Unlike much of Iron Man 2, none of the scenes, settings, or situations in Iron Man 3 seem superfluous. The scenes depicting city center explosions and a final scene featuring drone-like destroyers are particularly troubling given recent events. Much of Iron Man 3 is lots of fun, but it’s an unsettling fun. I don’t regret watching it, but I don’t want to watch it again.
These Iron Man movies have always been pretty out in the open about their issue – the weapons we make end up being used against us. This gives the movies an air of anti-weaponized violence. They have just enough of a conscience that you can feel good about yourself for enjoying them. However, the movies really only think weapons are bad when they end up being turned against their makers. A more noble thought would be that weapons are bad even (and perhaps especially) when they’re used against others. The Iron Man movies don’t go anywhere near that deep.
Tony Stark’s true nemesis is always himself, his colleagues, and the military industrial complex he sits atop, but the movies are all constructed to make the audience think someone else is the villain in the first two acts. Then, in the third act, the curtain is pulled back, and the true American identity of the villain is revealed. The effect in all three movies is that the third act seems less scary/suspenseful/dire than the previous acts. The movies are all somewhat of a let-down.
They shouldn’t be. When it is revealed in the third act that Tony Stark’s enemy is really just another guy like him, we ought to be more troubled not less. After all, what’s more terrifying, that our enemies are foreign, far away, and freakish or that our enemies are domestic, next door, and no different than us? Which is worse, that there is a terrorist group bent on our destruction or that the terrorists are nothing more than a marketing scheme to get us to buy more bombs?
Honestly, the former is scarier. Other-worldly terrorists bent on U.S. destruction is more terrifying than white guys in suits trying to boost the American economy. Left unchecked, the former results in a lot of us dead unexpectedly. The later results in more of us with jobs. No wonder the third act of an Iron Man movie feels hollow. There’s nothing at stake anymore other than which white guy sits behind the biggest desk.
However, “Which is scarier?” is the wrong question to be asking. As Batman taught us, we need not run from fear. We must embrace what we fear, put it behind us, and use it to spur us forward. Most importantly in every situation, we must make the most ethical/loving/just decision we can make.
The question becomes, “What is right?”
Is it right to make a foreign people our enemy, to kill them (men, women, and children), so we have a reason to make more bombs and make more money? Even if there really are people in other countries plotting against us, people who want to be our enemies, is the right action to blow them up? The American way of life is not synonymous with the Kingdom of God, so even if the American way of life is threatened by terrorists, we don’t have to protect it. (The American way of life is arguably more threatened by the kind of other-loving peace-making proposed and practiced by Jesus.)
Is is right to use fear to gain support for military spending programs as Killian does, to boost military recruitment as the Iron Patriot does, to destroy communities right here at home like that small town in Tennessee that Tony visits? Is it right to involve the next generation in these practices as Tony does and as the movie does by marketing itself very explicitly to kids? Is it right to use a line like “That was really violent!” to evoke laughter rather than tears?
Don’t be distracted by fear, either while watching Iron Man 3 or in the real world. Embrace it. Move past it. Act justly. Love mercy. Fear only God.
Iron Man 3 is muddled on its take on violence, but there’s a neat little pair of images that are used to bracket the events of the story. In the beginning, Tony Stark’s Iron Man suits are blown up by his enemies as his Malibu mansion is destroyed. At the end of the movie, Tony decides to blow them up himself, turning their destruction into a firework show for him and Pepper, celebrating and cementing (at least until the sequel) his decision to stop being Iron Man.
In the first case, his suits are destroyed in a moment of terror and promise more terror to come. In the second, his suits explode in a moment of peace and the explosions are a promise of peace to come. To achieve the second, Tony has to move past fear. He does this by destroying his enemies, a work which is always incomplete. If you have any doubt, be sure and stick around to the end of the credits. Tony’s peace will not be permanent.
How might a more permanent peace be established? It would, necessarily, involve moving past fear. It would also, necessarily, involve the destruction of all weapons. It would also involve continuously rejecting violence, loving neighbors and enemies especially when they are the same person, finding creative ways to protest the injustice around us, and all at the hazard of our lives.
It would take more than that, I’m sure, and I don’t have the answers. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. I appreciate movies like Iron Man 3 for providing a small part of the picture. I lament that movies like Iron Man 3 possibly obscure more than they reveal. I have to keep returning to Jesus, because no non-violent resistance has ever proven as effective as his. I have to keep hoping that the credits will roll and the only promise tacked on to the end will be for peace.