Sunday, May 04, 2008

Summer Subtext: Only a Billionaire Arms Dealer Can Save Us Now

For the past few summers it seems that every blockbuster film has made some kind of oblique and often lazy reference to the "war on terror." There were references to secret government agencies operating outside of the law (The Bourne Ultimatum), to the difficulty of sustaining an occupation (28 Weeks Later, War of the Worlds), to the politics of fear (Batman Begins, Land of the Dead). This seems fitting, since the "war on terror" is itself a fiction sustained by fictions.

So this afternoon, when I went to see Iron Man the start of the summer blockbuster season, the question lingering in the back of my mind was one of subtext. (I am not totally sure why I saw the movie. An afternoon of grading may be the biggest motivation, but I was also curious to see how a film about a second rate comic book character ended up getting such rave reviews). As a work of ideology the film offers much to work with, terrorism, American exceptionalism, militarism, racism, etc.

It occurred to me at some point during the movie that superhero movies are not so much governed by specific ideological content (nationalism, militarism, etc) but by the form of ideological interpellation itself. The central drama concerns the question of belief or purpose, some kind of final cause. To put it in Aristotle's terms, the films often deal with the disjunct between the final cause, the purpose of the hero, and the efficient cause, the power, skills, or gadgets that make it possible to fulfill the cause. Sometimes the final cause comes first, as in the case of Batman, in which case the hero's origin is a search for the tools and skills necessary to complete the cause, and sometimes the efficient cause comes first, as in the case of Spiderman, and the hero's origin concerns some kind search for a purpose or meaning.
Iron Man fits in the latter category, Tony Stark is immediately presented as a man with skills but no purpose other than the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, in that way he stands in for the general subject of consumer capitalism. The hero's journey is complete when the causes come together, when powers find a purpose. Superhero's are almost defined by their purpose, their bit of ideology, Spiderman's "with great power comes great responsibility" and Superman's "truth, justice, and the American way." (Of course one would want to make a distinction between these two ideologies, but the point is that the ideology, the cause, is as central to the character as the costume.) Thus, one could argue that the appeal of the superhero film is not just in watching someone with amazing powers, gadgets, or skills, but in watching someone with a purpose, someone who believes. The superhero film does not so much interprellate its audience with an ideology, but with fantasy of truly believing in an ideology.

1 comment:

unemployed negativity said...

As something of a self-criticism, I have to say that I really liked Kim Dot Dammit's take on Iron Man, specifically the role of work in the film. Check it out here:
you have to scroll down a bit.