If you want to understand the force of the first Iron Man movie—Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, from 2008—it will help to know the writings of Andrew Bacevich, who is a professor of international relations at Boston University. Bacevich was one of the first scholars to put the concept of an “American empire” back into discussion, in 2002—even before the invasion of Iraq, in other words—in a book of that name and has gone on to become one of the intellectual heroes of the anti-imperial Left. He often gets mentioned in the same breath with Chomsky and Chalmers Johnson. The Nation likes to interview him. He’s all over HuffPo.
Bacevich’s original insight was that the Clinton-era doctrine of global “openness” had committed the US to ever-expanding police actions across the planet. As he saw it, the consensus position that emerged in both major parties by 2000—a position that Bacevich considered just plain delusional—was that the US should take on the role of a just and moral superpower without limits and prepared to use violence as a matter of course. The 1990s buzzword, in this regard, was “leadership,” which sounds innocuous enough but actually heralded a new round of imperial expansion: Only the US could lead the planet. The roots of this belief are obviously rather old. A certain providentialism—the idea that the US has been singled out by God to play a unique role in the earth’s history—is older than the country itself. But the ‘90s introduced some innovations of its own. It was, all expectations to the contrary, the decade—Bacevich’s words now—“in which US foreign policy,” let off the Cold War leash, “became increasingly militarized”—the decade of offhanded force or casually dropped bombs.
Here, then, is the interesting thing about Bacevich: He is not, in fact, a man of the Left. He’s retired military—he was a colonel in the army—and calls himself a “Catholic conservative.” This is in one sense precisely why the Left likes to lean on him so much: He projects the authority of the disaffected warrior. But then his conservatism, if that’s what it is, is also what gives his arguments a distinctive resonance—it’s what separates him out from the pacifists and anti-globalizers and the old potheads still hating on Nixon. Bacevich has a soldier’s dislike of consumer culture, some right-leaning attachment to old-fashioned republican citizenship, which he is willing to call patriotism. His writing often laments the complete discrediting of “the nation” or of “nationalism” and the rise in their place of a facile multiculturalism. It’s not wrong, then, to say that he is a critic of the American empire, but it would be more precise to say that he is a critic of liberal empire—a counter-intuitive but nonetheless pervasive amalgam of liberalism and imperialism—which has produced in US foreign policy a bizarre combination of ruthlessness and half-heartedness: fantasies of omnipotence alongside stark limitations on how power gets exercised; an absurd sense of responsibility for the entire planet’s well-being alongside a consumer ethos that is finally anti-political.
Reading Bacevich turns out to be an odd experience, because once you work out that it’s actually this liberal imperialism he despises, it’s no longer clear what it is in this position that he dislikes more, its imperialism or its liberalism. His repugnance for US adventurism often seems heartfelt, but just as often—on the important last page of American Empire, for instance—he seems to be saying that the Clinton-Bush empire could have worked better if only it had had genuine moral purpose, a stronger sense of duty, some old-fashioned civic principles. Empire, he says, needs a real ethics: not the wishy-washiness of a “postmodern, postindustrial, postheroic democracy bent on remaking the world in its own image.”
The question that urgently demands attention—the question that Americans can no longer afford to dodge—is not whether the United States has become an imperial power. The question is what sort of empire they intend theirs to be. For policymakers to persist in pretending otherwise—to indulge in myths of American innocence or fantasies about unlocking the secrets of history—is to increase the likelihood that the answers they come up with be wrong. That way lies not just the demise of the American empire but great danger for what used to be known as the American republic. (244)
On its final page, in other words, a book that almost all readers have taken to be anti-imperialist outs itself as in its own way fully imperialist: There is no non-imperial option. Bacevich’s main recommendation, accordingly, is that we drop the charade and get serious about our imperialism—and above all that we adopt a set of properly imperial virtues. At that point, one can look back over the book and see that he has been of two minds all along, lamenting both the drift towards a militarized foreign policy—and the way the country has been half-assing its very militarism. Bacevich seems, in effect, to be willing himself into becoming a different type of right-winger. He had been a classical republican, dedicated to some textbook sense of America’s highest political traditions. But his hope now seems to be that since those virtues are already extinguished anyway, then at least empire might resurrect some notion of duty, though only if one commits to its militarism—and to what’s best about that militarism: honor, sacrifice, &c.—and not only to what is worst. He also has a strong sense of the old imperial paradox—and this sometimes makes his writing sound like something out of 1780s Britain, as though he were trying to get us to vote for Pitt: The problem with empire is that it generates so much wealth for the imperial nation that it becomes effeminizing, corrupting. Empire makes the metropolis so soft that its residents no longer make good imperialists. Only a kind of imperial counter-program, of militarization and re-masculinization, can undo this. It’s the McCain presidency that could have been.
This gets us over to Iron Man, whose most conspicuous location—Afghanistan!—already procures for it an imperial frame of reference. Superheroes don’t normally fight in countries the US has invaded. Plasticman never shipped out to Mogadishu. Another way to come at this first point would be to say that there has probably never been a superhero movie less urban that Iron Man, and this simple fact actually marks a sharp turn in the genre, the moment when the avenger leaves the no-longer-crumbling-and-crime-choked American city—the sundry proxy Manhattans over which the form has typically kept watch—and sought out instead more remote territories to guard. Superman’s New York was called “Metropolis,” and that’s already half of a vintage colonial couplet right there. Iron Man‘s Afghanistan supplies the missing term; Favreau should have renamed it Periphery.
But it’s not enough to suspect that Iron Man has something to do with empire or US global dominion. We’ll want to be able to say just what that something is. This is why Bacevich is so helpful, because at the center of Iron Man’s plot there stands a transformation, and Bacevich helps us say what is at stake in that makeover: An American playboy—shaker of dice, baller of women—learns that what can give his life purpose is the endless task of keeping the world’s people safe. I want to be careful here. Almost all superhero movies document the making of a new man—or at least their first installments do, and one might suspect that these all more or less meet Bacevich’s requirements: a paladin is fashioned; some joe or schlub molts and is Thor; postheroic America loses its weasly prefix. That’s true to a degree, and yet superhero origin stories are actually quite varied, and surprisingly few of them are cut to Bacevich’s specifications. Spiderman comes close. But Superman’s origins—at least in their classic form—are very much an early twentieth-century story and so no longer our own: A nation of farmers, ingenuous and meek, surprises itself by discovering that it is the world’s most powerful thing. And the last Batman reboot—Batman Begins, from 2005—actually takes Bruce Wayne’s strength and capacity for violence as given; at no point in that movie is he yer average guy; what that movie is trying to imagine—and this nearly reverses the usual trajectory of a young superhero—is that American might could in some sense be scaled back, or at least that it could yet be brought back within ethical bounds or some framework of legitimacy: “You’re not a vigilante! … Am I vigilante? … I’m not a vigilante!”
This last actually brings us close again to Iron Man, but then everyone’s always known that Iron Man was just Marvel’s hot-rod Batman anyway: the rich boy with gadgets instead of superpowers. But then if we put Iron Man—or this Iron Man—smack alongside Batman, it’s still the differences that are going to matter. You might think of the question this way: How far does the superhero have to travel to get from his civilian persona to his ass-kicking one? If we can answer that question, then we can get a glimpse of what kind of changes a given superhero movie would like to enact upon us. And then the point would be that the Batman scenario minimizes the gap: Christian Bale’s Batman begins as a bruiser and ends as a bruiser in a costume. Even the classic Batman is a philanthropist who is also a vigilante, when of course philanthropy was always a form of vigiliantism to begin with. Or the other way round, if you must: Vigilantism is bare-knuckled benevolence. But Iron Man lets the gap yawn wide. It gives its champion much further to travel, because Tony Stark is less heroic than Bruce Wayne—a lout, a lad—and Iron Man is if not more heroic than Batman then certainly more powerful, a bigger caliber, with way more weapons than can fit on a belt. If you pay close attention to where Iron Man plants its flags, from A to B, from starter’s gun to finish line, you’ll see that it is murmuring aloud Bacevich’s quiet wish: One man decides that he can no longer be just another pleasure-seeking consumer and entrepreneurial technophile and becomes instead a man of principle and action. Tony Stark rediscovers the vanished imperial duties.
All I really want to say is that the movie occupies what by the usual standards of American political debate is actually quite an unusual little niche and that nearly every commentator has accordingly misread it. When the newspaper and magazine critics said that they liked the movie because its characters were, by comic book standards, “well-rounded”—or because the movie documented a “spiritual conversion” or, more modestly now, a “rehabilitation” (picture Downey passed out in his neighbor’s house)—then, again, it is Bacevich’s story that they are hearkening to without quite seeming to realize it: the making of imperial commitment. The really baffling thing about the reviews on this one, in fact—and the reason, finally, that it’s worth pausing to bring some clarity to Iron Man—is that it was mostly read as a left-leaning film: “an action movie for liberals,” New York magazine said. It’s a parable of disarmament — lots of critics said that. Tony Stark is a peacenik; he wants to turn off the arms pipeline. Let this one sink in: Our politics are in such a muddle that expert viewers can routinely describe as “pacifist” a character who spends the entire movie designing a superweapon or as “liberal” a character who wants to keep that weapon in American hands, so that it may be used at his discretion in any jungle or desert on the planet.
This is madness, though it’s not hard to figure out why the critics were confused. The movie is certainly anti-corporate: the people in Iron Man who most need protecting are ordinary Afghans, and in order for imperial peace to be established, Tony Stark is going to have to rein in not only the movie’s Taliban-by-another-name, but also American weapons manufacturers, whose aim it is to arm every last Indonesian widow and Kirghiz orphan. In fact, the movie’s plot, which funnels down to that final showdown with Obadiah Stane—trading punches with the COO!—works by shifting the geography of our concern back from tribal Asia back to the US. In that sense the movie proves only semi-interested in what empire will require of the US abroad, but very interested in what empire will require of Americans in their own country, how the nation will have to be refashioned if it is to take on its allotted Roman-British role. And sure enough, the movie’s sense is that someone is going to have to roll back corporate power, but Favreau’s is an anti-capitalism of the Right, and this is a position that has become so uncommon that watching Iron Man is like spotting a rare woodpecker in the wild. History, however, furnishes the precedent that American political rhetoric lacks: For most of the eighteenth century, British holdings in India were literally governed by a corporation. I’m not saying that British officials subcontracted out important government services to a corporation or that a corporation exercised undue influence over India’s colonial government. Not at all. The East India Company, which traded openly on the British stock exchange, was the government of British India. This will sound like most to us like the nightmare scenario of dystopian science fiction: The government of India was organized for profit. One could buy shares in it. This scenario didn’t change until the 1780s, when, after a series of colonial scandals, the British government began, though only gradually, to sideline the company so that it could assume direct political control over the region. That policy was in some entirely literal sense anti-corporate. It was also the beginning of what most of us think of as the British Empire proper—imperialism for real. That’s Iron Man in a nutshell: Warren Hastings retried.
So the movie’s point is, classically, that businessmen do not make good imperialists and that they will have to acquire extracurricularly the paramilitary skills they did not learn at Wharton. But then we’ll want to note where Iron Man breaks with imperial precedent, and not just where it follows it. The movie is trying to imagine a forthright shift over to a relatively de-commercialized version of empire, and yet it is unwilling to transfer the basic political and military tasks of colonial rule to the US government. At issue is Tony Stark’s ambiguous institutional location. Corporate, but not corporate: He remains head of Stark Industries but seems to be withdrawing the company from its core product lines and won’t allow it to so much as market his latest invention. Military, but not military: He has close ties to the US occupying forces—he has an attaché-sidekick even—but says at one point that the Iron-Man jet-pack-weapon-suit is “not for the military.” That suit, let it be quickly said, is in large part a meditation on the new, hyper-technological military as it really exists: It is the smart weapon that US brass keep promising and never quite deliver; and also an extrapolation from the American machine-men or earth-astronauts currently in the field: begoggled, sat-linked, wandering Kandahar in their Kevlar-swaddling. Stark’s refusing to share the suit, meanwhile, is an utterly conventional image of the imperial monopoly, the exclusive control of force on which a properly global sovereignty would depend—the way that nuclear weapons were meant to function but haven’t. What the movie can’t find a way to do in good conscience is assign this sovereignty undivided to the US government. The movie, in other words, is careful to preserve the superhero’s customary independence, which is, of course, hard-wired into the genre; it’s just that in the current instance that independence articulates a rather surprising distrust, given that the movie’s politics otherwise seems to be pointing towards a state-driven solution. This is where the movie shifts over to sheerest fantasy, since there is nothing and no-one in the real world that even approximates Tony Stark’s position in the film, part-government, part-corporation, but finally neither: a vigilante NGO or bunker-busting Red Cross. Here, too, historical memory echoes: The movie’s first act, in which Tony Stark spot-welds his first crude metal suit from spare parts in some Afghani cave, provides the visual, picture-encyclopedia gloss on the Iron Man moniker: With its steely-grey visor and creaking arm joints, it is plainly a suit of armor, and Tony Stark turns out to be a knight, which is of course the model that European history supplies for the free-lance imperialism that is the movie’s hope and plan: A white man dons metal and heads east, having adopted a new code of nuclear chivalry.
But then “chivalry”—really?—boy, that sure sounds ponderous. This, then, helps us identify Iron Man’s most unusual achievement, which all goes back to Downey’s performance, flip and unforced, in which we find the promise of a new imperial style, the reassurance that we can all get serious about empire without, however, having to act serious; a chivalry, then, without gravitas; an imperialism fuelled by sheer exuberance. We’ve had a pretty good lesson already this past decade in how to flatten cities. What we haven’t yet properly learned is how to strut through the rubble.