Pleasant Fascism In Two Superhero Movies

I woke up two mornings ago and I realized that I had not seen Iron Man.

Between then and now, I decided to remedy that woeful state of being. The movie gave me exactly what I expected from the trailer except for one single fact: that it is enjoyable.

Still. Iron Man is formulaic. It goes through the motions, setting everything up in the first act, messing things around a little in the second, and then bringing the story to a relatively satisfying climax in the third. There’s no screwing around. We are never in any doubt that Iron Man will triumph over the bad guys. Furthermore, like many, many other genre films, the one unnecessary main character—of course—turns out to be the main villain. Yes indeed, everyone involved in the production paid attention in their film classes, especially when it came to preserving traditional stereotypes: the Middle Easterners depicted in the film are either bloodthirsty fanatics, helpless and innocent civilians, or noble savages who need to be sacrificed for the greater good, while the American government acts out its destined role as the world’s noble but beleaguered police force. These are incredibly simple and weary ideas. In fact, in the black-and-white comic book world, it’s so effortlessly easy to tell friend from foe that even a computer can do it, though in real life the distinction is not quite so simple.

The film also doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test—the two women with speaking roles in the film are little more than walking talking sex objects, and when they have a few seconds to speak to each other they don’t discuss anything except the man they either want to sleep with or have already slept with.

On top of all this, while Iron Man begins with what may have been an interesting premise in a different kind of film—a weapons manufacturer who has a change of heart and decides to fight the military industrial complex rather than those previously mentioned Middle Easterners—it soon degenerates into the same sort of fascist entertainment that one finds wherever one looks: the masses are helpless without the intervention of elites who are amazingly powerful and unquestionably good. From Kurosawa to Star Wars and everywhere in between. I wonder if it’s possible to make a superhero film that reverses this idea: Borges at least penned a page or two about a dream he had had in which anonymous crowds murder the gods. It might be difficult to deliver something so brainy to the masses—of which I am a happy part—and which are just as hungry for action and blood and spectacle as they were when gladiators were slaying lions in the coliseum.

In spite of all these complaints, I enjoyed it. The man had a nice beard. It was cool to watch him play around in the suit. I dream of one day making a film in which I can see fingers drumming over a beeping console, with a sleek spaceship of some sort taking off from a glassy landing bay. I can’t make that film now—though in the future, who knows?—but for the time being movies like Iron Man will have to slake my thirst for cool technical things that go boink!

I also had a look at Hellboy 2, and also thoroughly enjoyed it, because the fact is that although I bitch and moan about all sorts of bullshit, I generally enjoy most works of art, both high and low: these days I spend the evenings devouring as many movies as possible while the mornings go to Keats.

Hellboy likewise suffers from the possibly inevitable fascist conceit that the populace is helpless to defend itself against its purely evil enemies without the benefit of supremely good, and powerful, superheroes. And the story is formulaic, too, taking virtually no narrative risks: one reviewer even called it a sitcom. That’s fair enough, but what’s remarkable here is that there are new images to discover that I haven’t really run across before. I liked the steampunk binoculars that allowed the wearers to see the true nature of things—though wouldn’t everything be invisible if this were actually true?—and the woman who ripples with flames looks even more amazing than she did in the first film, though when she is not blurred with fire her face is curiously dull and emotionless for a Hollywood actress. At the same time, the elves turn into white chocolate when they die, and I found that intriguing.

But while this film is so packed with all kinds of amazing monsters that they seem to be bursting out of the screen, few of them are really unique. The giant tree spirit thing that attacks the city was ripped right out of Princess Mononoke, while the spirit of death—with eyeballs blinking in its wings—was so obviously borrowed from del Toro’s previous films that I’m sure there must have been theatergoers groaning about it—loudly—when the film first came out. O, ennui! O, to forget all the wonderful movies I’ve seen—O!, to see them as though I’ve never seen a movie before! Eyeballs pop up in all kinds of weird places, actually, throughout his oeuvre: even in back of a facehugger.

The end.

The search for new words, new thoughts, and new images, continues.

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