I remember one of my sociology teachers saying once, “I go to the movies as a sociologist; I watch TV as sociologist…” and so on. The point was that he thought like a sociologist even when he wasn’t in the classroom. Similarly, I think as a critic when I am watching Iron Man 2 or Transformers, or whatever the case may be.
I have said before that war is all around us, that it infiltrates every facet of the imagination, the films we see, and the books we read. The evidence for this seems clear enough. For example, one of the most popular movies this year was The Hurt Locker, and we can see the market for “War Movies” is continuing to gain a larger audience. But even if you look closely at recent films, films you wouldn’t expect to be about “War,” you can see the heightened paranoia of living in a Post 9-11 world forcing its way into popular culture. Iron Man 2 is no exception.
I am only pointing out a symptom of the age, what the larger illness is is yet to be determined. To begin with, the film opens with a trial scene where, Tony Stark, the owner of Stark Industries is defending himself in court. The U.S. Military would like him to turn in the Iron Man suits he has in his possession. Stark defends himself, saying he, “has officially privatized World Peace.” This scene shows the anxieties associated with Starks’ attempt to undermine the state’s monopoly on violence. The fact that Stark possesses military technology that the state doesn’t, seems to be the principal reason for the interrogation. It also makes larger comment on the potential threat of technology, used for the wrong reasons, which I have written about previously. Later in the film, we see the question of Drone usage enter into the discussion.
I have expressed my dislike of the Drone program in the past, and I find it important to note here that this is not the first film where we see Drones being used. Just watch Eagle Eye, and in the first fifteen minutes, you see a Drone on the screen on full display.
In Iron Man 2, however, the discussion of representation of Drones begins when we see the “evil” physicist, Ivan Vanko, who tells Starks’ competitor Justin Hammer, of Hammer Industries, that “Drones are better.” The technology Ivan was working on was supposed to be controlled by a human who was “in” the suit, but Ivan feels that his idea is better. Towards the end of the film, we see all the branches of the U.S. Military, fully replaced by the new drones. This is a especially troubling image to grapple with. We have on stage, Justin Hammer, an arms manufacturer celebrating the inception of “Robotic Warfare.” This concerns me because, I have a great concern for a battlefield without boundaries. Especially one that uses machines, to make warfare more “efficient.”
While I realize this is “just a film,” it makes me wonder if the new anxiety associated with warfare will not be who has the biggest gun, but who has the biggest leap on technology. I realize I am not the first to point this out (P.W. Singer would be one of the authors I have learned a great deal from, and whose book “Wired for War” I highly recommend) it seems to be a recurring topic, one that I believe should be discussed. So, to disregard this as “just a film” ignores the opportunity to engage in a serious discussion about how war is represented in film.
As Mary O’Hare in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Slaughterhouse Five,” points out, regarding how his book would portray the war, “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.” I think Mary is right. How war looks on film matters. That being said I think it is important to understand the “how” and “why” of representations of war in film. I will leave you with that thought for now, and I encourage you to share your thoughts and comments.