Following on from the Avengers Assemble and previous Iron Man films, Iron Man 3 was released in 2013, joined by The Wolverine and recently Thor: The Dark World. Though superficially just CGI-filled outings, these films tells us a lot about the USA. America is defined by Hollywood, especially certain genres that relate to US culture, superhero films being the latest to do this. Since X-Men’s release at the turn of the century this type of film has grown in popularity to become the mainstay of action movies, having taken the role once occupied by Westerns as defining what the USA is all about. More than mere entertainment they affirm America’s status as global superpower and leader of the ‘free world’. They are meaning-laden modern myths.
Traditionally, myths were sacred stories that had gods and supernatural characters interacting with humans. Many recounted a past, real or false, setting forth a worldview and outlining the codes of society within that. Obvious European examples came from ancient Greece and Scandinavia: where the Zeus fought the monster Typhon, and Odin searched for knowledge while dealing with the deception of Loki. They were gods who warred, had families and were jealous.
The endurance of these stories was their importance to the civilisations they came from, modelling behaviour and searching for a ‘golden age’ to provide answers to current problems; blending awe at the mystical whilst reinforcing the current social order. Effective myths had an aspirational theme to ensure the receivers were encouraged to believe in whatever was deemed to be culturally important.
Though no longer seen as part of the modern (or postmodern) world, mythical stories are still relevant, now presented in different forms. For the USA the Hollywood Westerns once performed this critical role, the underlying premise being the ‘frontier thesis’ (a myth for the formation of the USA) that gained popularity in the early 1900s as the country tried to define itself. Central to this was the Cowboy, a man formed by the frontier, who cast off the burdens of complex European society to relearn autonomy and resilience and thrive in a hostile environment. There was also the underlying theme of the open road, whereby the endless movement west was a metaphor for constant expansion and progress, whether economic or political. This competitive, virile, democratic culture was seen ‘exceptional’ and an essential part of US identity, remaining even after the ‘civilising’ of the frontier by fences and the railroad in the late 19th century. Being especially popular in the 1940s and 1950s these films were critical to differentiate and elucidate American ideals at a time it was cementing its place as leader of the West.
So Westerns, and the characters within them, were dramatised conversations with their audience epitomising the values of the United States and representing what the US was (or was not), using the empty expanse of the western USA to symbolise the open horizons and future possibilities of globalised (capitalist) economy, unimpeded by unnecessary rules and bureaucracy. Within that environment, rogue individuals (countries) were dealt with by honourable heroes: the Shanes and Rooster Cogburns, tough, flawed and lacking sophistication but bound by an honour code. However post-Vietnam the Western faded in popularity, being replaced by science-fiction in the Star Wars era (a blatant mythical piece), itself being partially superseded by superhero films.
Iron Man is a recent but highly successful addition to this genre (first appearing in 2008), drawing on early 20th century comic books with elements of the private investigator, warrior and vigilante-gunslinger. Possessing no physical powers he is aided by complex technology, funded by his income from creative enterprise. With this mix of Sam Spade, knight errant, Clint Eastwood and Steve Jobs he uses unilateral military action to solve crises, demonstrating the continuing existence of USA’s exceptionalism (even after Vietnam) and the importance of international intervention. Iron Man’s alter-ego is Tony Stark, the chief executive of a military hardware firm. When he turns his back on this business, rejecting the arms’ trade, his solution is not to support peacekeeping but to build a suit loaded with weapons: the USA’s global policeman role. In Avengers Assemble he is supported by Captain America, symbolic of the USA’s ‘greatest generation’ of wartime heroes, and Thor, representing divine support for US activities and tapping back into earlier myths from the USA’s (cultural) past.
As a moralistic loner Iron Man embodies the tough individualism from the frontier myth, though flavoured with 007′s exotic consumerism and sense of duty. Like the PI or the lone gunman he is forced to step in and support the weak when the state and public services cannot. But rather than improve these services and provision, he demonstrates that only an informed (rich) individual can rescue us. This is the 21st-century twist, celebrating his wealth and defining him as a high-status citizen even before donning the suit. His Wild West is the open frontier of the global economy (and cyberspace) where he is free to act without the constraints of rules or red tape, and his relative invulnerability, more so with other superheroes, reminds us of the gods of old.
Because these films are set in post-September 11th and financial crisis, debt-riddled USA, roles have shifted so that the Western’s Native American antagonists have become terrorists and the bandits are rogue businessmen, though aliens — representing inscrutable foreign cultures — still endure. Of course, they are dealt with by a straight-talking, white-male hero using his own skill and ingenuity.
Despite (or possibly because of) the important messages woven into the narrative, these films do not ask searching political questions. There is no consideration of the motivation of subversives or what larger issues are raised. The answers are always provided by technology and violent engagement, not social change or compromise. Like the USA after the financial crisis there is little analysis of the system, blame being attributed to rogue individuals that need to be purged. With a political-realist perspective we are reminded that bad things just happen. Some people commit evil acts and that is why we need our protectors, our heroes.
But these heroes are not ordinary people. They are the superheroes, the new gods, the unique individuals — in the case of Iron Man, a wealthy benefactor — who ensure our society is protected. With their actions the world can continue on its safe track towards a bright future. Led by the USA, civilisation can advance. As long as we trust in light-touch liberal democracy, Iron Man, the technologist-hero-gunfighter-god (and his like) can be free to protect the American Dream; maintain the open road. As the need arises the free-market will (Gaia-like) spawn further superheroes to save us, allowing progress to continue unimpeded.
And that is the films’ real message: times are tough but don’t worry. The exceptional (entrepreneurial) individuals will save us as long as we give them space and freedom (from regulation) to act as they will. If we just trust the system, try not to intervene, the competitive, democratic culture of USA will naturally keep producing these unique individuals. These films suggest that despite signs of collapse, American-led globalisation is alive and well, waiting to fight back and carry on with the neoliberal project. Our gods will save us if we just keep the faith. Like all previous civilisations on the verge of collapse, we can retreat into myths as society unravels around us.
Ian is a writer and lecturer living on the edge of the English Lake District with his partner and three children. He recently published a paper on peak oil which is part of his academic research into the metanarrative driving global crises. His creative work examines dystopian scenarios and he has recently completed the first novel of a trilogy of Northumbria Westerns.