Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Making Iron Man 3: A Geopolitical Perspective

It now appears that Chinese company DMG will invest nine figures in the production of Iron Man 3 – an unprecedented collaboration between a Chinese business and Hollywood, which will also see DMG distributing the film domestically.

I was immediately struck by the irony of the news given not just the fact that Iron Man's most famous antagonist is the Mandarin (as many a comic book fan has already pointed out in the comments pages to various reports of this development), but the story of this particular hero. Tony Stark, after all, is just a Victorian Edisonade protagonist updated for the world of the Cold War-era military-industrial complex – who began his adventures while fighting "Asian Communism" in Vietnam (the Cold War hawkishness of the early '60s Marvel comics being especially pointed here).

Certainly much has changed in world politics in the half century since that tale was first penned. Yet, while some more recent writers (like Warren Ellis) have offered relatively nuanced treatments of the comic, the movies pretty much stuck with the simplicities of the original vision, trading the Cold War for the War on Terror, and Vietnam for Afghanistan, while playing up the idea of Iron Man as an unapologetic embodiment of U.S. military superiority, and military interventionism - which one would certainly imagine to be problematic from a Chinese perspective.1 In the second film, China is even cited as a possible antagonist to the U.S. (when Joshua Hammer names it along with Iran and North Korea while speculating about potential foreign buyers of the Iron Man technology). Moreover, there has been reason to think that such politics matter, in the wake of the complications faced by the producers of the recent remake of Red Dawn.2

Of course, it may simply be that business trumps politics in this case. The attraction of this particular business opportunity, and perhaps, a closer relationship with Hollywood over the long-term, may appear too great to resist (especially with a staggering $3 trillion worth of foreign exchange burning holes in that nation's pockets, and the prospect of the movie being partially filmed in China itself). Additionally, while it is hard to think of a major comic book hero that would be more offensive to the sensibility of a country run by a Communist Party than Tony Stark, China's establishment has long since ceased to be Communist in anything but name – and in the post-Mao era in which "To be rich is glorious," and the Chinese Dream looks not unlike the American Dream, it could be that a figure like Stark (a tech industry Gary Stu if ever there was one) enjoys a greater appeal than may seem the case at first glance.

1. For a critical take of the politics of the Iron Man films, check out Cristobal Giraldez Catalan's review of the first movie and Hiram Lee's reviews of both the first and second films.
2. Worried by Chinese disapproval, the producers changed the absurd premise of a Chinese invasion of the U.S. to an even more absurd one in which North Korea appears as the would-be conqueror of the United States – by editing the already-shot film, a procedure I expect will appear clumsy when the film actually hits theaters. (Incidentally, the scenario of a North Korean invasion and occupation of the U.S. was presented in last year's video game Homefront, written by John Milius, director of the original Red Dawn.)

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