Iron Man 3:
Reviewed by John David Ebert
In ancient Mesoamerican myth,the superhero was the figure of the Aztec eagle warrior: with the jaws of the eagle wide open, the hero’s costume revealed him as a human being swallowed up into the gullet of an astral creature, for the great superhero of Mesoamerican civilization, from the Olmecs to the Aztecs, was the shaman who could shape-shift into an eagle or a jaguar and commune with the earth’s elemental spirits.
In Marvel’s new Iron Man 3, the equivalent image is that of the opened face plate of the Iron Man suit, revealing Tony Stark’s human features staring back at us from out of a mechanical exoskeleton. The image signifies that in our civilization, the human being has been swallowed up by the machine, not by the astral spirit. The ontological problem is an entirely different one, and so the superhero of our civilization must be able to slip in and out of biological communion with the machine. But in Iron Man 3, the hero’s ability to flip in and out of a cyborgian mode becomes beside the point, for in this film, the human being is becoming excluded from the machine’s closed circuit feedback loop, which no longer requires his services. The human being has now become a superfluity in the age of drone operated global warfare.
The plot of the movie concerns a villain named Killian who has appropriated a formula from one of Tony Stark’s old girlfriends called “Extremis,” which enables the human being to retrieve the plant, worm and lizard-like ability to regenerate lost limbs. Initially, Killian uses this to restore the lost limbs of war veterans, but in a plot to assassinate the President of the United States, he creates a fake Islamist character known as the Mandarin whom the U.S. government assumes to be behind a series of terrorist attacks. But the attacker is really Killian and his army of super-regenerative veterans, and Tony Stark is one of their main targets. They blow up his house and Stark finds himself thrust into the ocean, from whence he emerges. He has lately been suffering from panic attacks due to the attack on New York City in The Avengers movie, and so he has put himself to creating a sort of Iron Man army of drone operated suits that can be remotely controlled, exactly like drones, and so no longer require his physical presence.
The powers of Killian and his war veterans, however, are those of fire: their genetic superpowers allow them to summon up vast reserves of heat in their bodies in order to melt things, burn holes through people, spew fire and so forth. But these were precisely the abilities of a mythical creature known to the alchemist Paracelsus in the 16th century as the Salamander, an elemental spirit which Paracelsus imagined as the indwelling being inside fire, just as he saw Gnomes in earth, Undines in Water and Sylphs in Air. (When you cut off a salamander’s tail, of course, it grows back). And these elemental spirits, common actually to all the world’s mythological traditions compose the very architecture of the earth’s “etheric body,” that is to say, its regenerative abilities.
And it is precisely the earth’s etheric body personified by these elementals that Killian and his army represent, for they configure an etheric attack against the attempt to overcode the earth by the global capitalist consumer Anti World, which has imprisoned the planet on the inside of a mechanized global geo-dome.
In my earlier book, Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons, I developed the argument that the superhero, in origin, was part of the immune system of New York City, designed to repel astral attacks on the city by creatures from the mythical consciousness structure. But with Tony Stark and his army of Iron Men suits, operated by a central A.I. which he calls “Jarvis,” it is apparent that the superhero of Post-Classic cinema is really part of the immunological structure of the Anti World, which scans the surface of the planet, through the digital eyes of its roving drones, for anyone it regards as not fitting on the inside of this geodesic planetary sphere, people too closely tied, say, to their local soils and their ancient traditions.
The film’s climax shows Tony Stark remote controlling his army of Iron Men drone suits, using them to battle Killian’s army of genetically souped up war veterans: it is the battle of the ancient alchemical Salamander, spirit of fire (which melts metal) and the World Vision Machine of the global order of free trade and corporate interests, which it is now the superhero’s job to protect. Today’s superhero, like big government, is working on behalf of corporate interests, not against them.
In the final climactic battle, in which Tony Stark, for the most part unadorned by his cyborgian exoskeleton, remote controls them to finish off the Salamandrian army, it becomes clear that the ontological status of the superhero is now shifting, for drones are really today’s immune cells in the global world order of Empire: they represent the enclosure of the machine back upon itslelf, a closed-circuit loop that renders the human being outside the loop completely superfluous, just as Stark himself is superfluous in the film’s final battle sequence.
And as though to insist, in a kind of Freudian Verneinung, that Stark is still part of Iron Man, he says in the film’s last words, “I am Iron Man,” but it is no longer convincing and we don’t believe him and we know that he doesn’t really believe himself, either. His drone suit technology has rendered his own deeds unnecessary. He does not even need to be physically present any longer in order for an Iron Man Deed to take place.
He has become his own ghost.
And so, like the army of empty suits of armor that Mephistopheles builds for the Emperor in Faust Part II, Stark now finds himself in command of an army of drones that no longer need him anymore than our real drones any longer need physical human soldiers. It is war at a distance, in which the soldier has been removed from the battlefield, and the superhero, paralleling him, has been removed from the scene of the action.
This is a huge crisis for the superhero mythos, because it undermines the very essence and notion of the concept of the superhero as an originally localized human presence tied to the specific pavements of New York City. His actions were never deeds done from a distance, which minimized the danger to his own body. That would have been regarded as cowardice and unheroic.
As, in fact, it is.
The presence of shadowy authorities who are no longer on the scene is a ubiquitous and widespread development in what Zygmunt Bauman has termed “Liquid Modernity.” Bosses are never on the scene, there to troubleshoot the employee’s problems and to interact with him. They are always “somewhere else,” ensconced in a High Castle, where they give remote orders like Walt Disney or Citizen Kane from somewhere in the depths of their shadowy castles, where they can no longer be reached, and so no longer held accountable for their actions, either. This is the Chinese Mandarin model of governance, for in the days of the great Chinese Emperor T’sin Shihaungdi, he too was unreachable, never to be seen, wandering the labyrinthine corridors of his palace, forbidden for anyone to see him.
And so, the aptly non-existent character in Iron Man 3 known as the Mandarin is quite appropriate to this new form of Mandarin governance, in which the Emperor can send out commands that he never actually has to be held accountable for because he was never on the scene in the first place.
His army of shadow robots, conjured up by the smithy of Mephistopheles, is there in his stead, doing the work for him. The rest of the world is simply expected to comply.
But of course, as Killian’s army suggests, the powers of the localized inhabitants of the earth’s gritty places will mostly, and more and more increasingly as time goes by, fail to comply with such irresponsible dictatorial authority. More shadow warriors, in ever larger and larger profusion will be required to execute these Mandarin-like commands and orders to quell an ever-rising multitude of terrorist attacks and rebellious actions that are cries for accountability to those who are no longer on the scene locally and can afford to use their wealth to rule in their cybertronic fortresses from a distance.
How soon before that army of fire-blown Salamanders comes calling at the gates of these cyber fortresses, looking for accountability?