This summer, I watched an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki for the first time. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, based on Japanese manga (comics), creates a vivid, fantastical world of giant insects, flying humans and a toxic jungle created by human greed. Though Nausicaa’s post-apocalyptic world differs greatly from our own, the story still manages to comment on the consequences of our consumptive approach to the earth and toward our enemies.
The Iron Man films, also based on comics, hit closer to home, with a world even more reminiscent of our own, where the prime threat is not mad insects, but terrorism. In the first film, out of necessity to escape captivity in Afghanistan, Tony Stark builds a weaponized super-suit that defeats all real and potential enemies. Back home, Stark has a change of heart about his complicity in military violence around the world through his business of manufacturing weapons for the U.S. military. He shuts down company operations, but proceeds to improve his own suit’s powers…you know, just in case. And “just in case” turns out to be his late father’s business partner, who strongly disagrees with Stark’s new corporate strategy. In a battle of the super-suits, Stark defeats his antagonist and then boldly announces to the world in a press conference that he is Iron Man.
Iron Man 2 picks up the story with Stark using his suit to maintain world peace and honoring his late father’s legacy by re-introducing the Stark Expo to showcase creative inventions. In the meantime, Stark has stowed away a private awareness that he’s slowly being poisoned by the element embedded in his chest that makes the suit function. Knowing of no other alternative in the face of impending death, he commences his characteristically reckless behavior as a filthy rich party boy.
Like the first film, Iron Man 2 raises the question of whether weapons intended to control others through the threat or actualization of violence can ever be fully managed by their creators. Stark’s nemesis in the sequel is Ivan Vanko, the son of another ex-business partner of his father’s—a partner who was exiled to Russia for trafficking weapons and, before dying penniless, charged his son with revenge against the Stark family. Vanko comes to the U.S. and ends up building a whole fleet of suits, recognizing that he’s up against not only the Iron Man himself, but public perception of the Iron Man as a god-like hero. Undeterred by the immense task before him, Vanko proclaims, “If you could make God bleed, people will cease to believe in him.”
But in fact: God did bleed. According to the Christian story, God bled intentionally, and so that people might believe in him. If we’re critiquing the film with the Christian narrative as our lens, Vanko’s statement illuminates where the comic book universe breaks down as a commentary on our own world. Jesus demonstrated sacrificial love unto death—a gesture that prophetically upended the comic book narrative in which the good guy wins through a show of strength and power.
But Tony Stark’s lessons aren’t completely antithetical to the biblical story. The film also raises the issue of interdependence among individuals and institutions. “This whole lone gunslinger act is unnecessary…. You don’t have to do it alone,” Col. James Rhodes reminds Stark. As much as the hero tries to push people away, limiting the scope of mutual responsibility and love, he’s forced to acknowledge his need for others—for the wisdom of his dead father, for the affection of his business partner, for the help of his friends.
Though professional critics generally agree that the sequel lacks something that made the first film great, it maintains high-quality acting, superb special effects and carries the comic book action forward with what critic Josh Hurst calls “childlike enthusiasm.”
- Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma