[A spiritual interpretation of the Iron Man films and North by Northwest]
[Warning: This blog contains spoilers]
This week we’ve been watching the George Clooney IRON MAN films. I’ve been looking forward to seeing them, as I’ve heard a lot about them. I wasn’t sure what I would think; they are often cited as ‘high testosterone,’ ‘techy’ and ‘male chauvinist.’ While I found the first two counts accurate (which I like), I found them less guilty on the last count (which was refreshing). Yes, they are certainly geared to men who like ‘gadgets, fast cars and hot women;’ they remind me of the early James Bond films. But I don’t see them evincing anywhere near the degree of sexism as early James Bond films. Quite to my surprise, Tony Stark (Clooney’s character) undergoes a transformation that I would construe as an awakening; a recovery of ‘potential’ and his ‘humanity;’ in spiritual terms, a degree of ‘soul-recovery.’
Tony Stark begins as a bold, self-assured military industrialist who manufactures weapons that he thinks are just what American needs to keep the peace (by blowing up its enemies; ‘strength through superior force’). Stark is a wealthy genius who outshines everyone else in his field. Yet he seems superficial (though he passes as self-assured), emotionally disengaged with the consequences of his weapons manufacturing, and in so many other ways ‘soulless.’ But his life is about to change. He gets abducted in the Middle East and held hostage. He sees the US soldiers travelling with him killed by weapons he designed and devloped, and then sees his company’s weapons in the hands of ‘terrorists.’
Tony engineers (literally: he builds the first Iron Man suit in the terrorist camp) his escape and when he gets back home, declares that he is going to take his company in a new direction. He is disillusioned with the weapons industry. He goes into retreat from the world and starts creating the Iron Man suits that will eventually enable him to become the best ‘deterrent’ since nuclear weapons. However, in the meantime, Tony experiences a second blow; he has been betrayed by his father-figure/mentor Obadiah Stane, who had him abducted and is opposed to Tony’s new ‘turn.’ I would argue that these two events – his abduction and his betrayal – force him toward an existential crisis that eventually pushes him into a recovery of his ‘soul.’ But not before he undergoes more betrayal and opposition.
By the 2nd film, Tony is an international superhero/celebrity on his way to bringing about world peace—and his success has heightened his hubris and put it on a new footing. But then more problems arise. Other people are developing ‘Iron Man’ suits and his own government wants to militarize the suit as a weapon. At this point a new threat from his past emerges. The son of a man who used to work with Tony’s father has created his own version of a suit and comes back for revenge on the man who seems to have ruined his father’s career (or rejected his work?). Tony is forced deeper into existential crisis and his hubris – which is so apparent at the beginning of Iron Man 2 – gets undermined decisively.
Also in the second film Tony’s promotes his long time professional assistant, secretary et. al. – Pepper Potts -- to CEO of Stark Industries! And she is no puppet CEO. Far from being a male chauvinistic character put in the movie simply to be ogled by male viewers and pandered after by the ‘hero’ and other men, Pepper is an intelligent, competent, professional, a businesswoman whose promotion to CEO is refreshing and in the end believable. She is savvy and an equal match for the equally intelligent Tony, though she has to get used to the reins of power she has just been thrust into. There is some of the ‘Pepper has to be saved by men’ stuff going on in the 2nd and 3rd films, but she is no screaming, demure, sex kitten! In the 3rd film she even acquires super-powers and does a moderate share of ass kicking! _Over which she actually experiences appropriate remorse; showing that she has soul. There are plenty of beautiful women in the film, but rarely are the women characters (those who play a role in the plot) reduced to being ‘objects.’
By the end of the 3rd film, I would argue that Tony has gone through a redemptive transformation. He is no longer the genius weapons manufacturer with a naïve male businessman’s ego about how to bring peace to the world through war. He has learned something about the complexity and subtlety of evil in the world and has been awakened to a deeper sense of what justice, peace and power might mean. He has learned to care for people near to him who have suffered through the ordeals brought on by his earlier hubris, and he has learned compassion. He has seen the effects of violence much closer to home, and has also seen the victims of war in their own homeland. He has been awakened through these experiences_ and in so doing has begun to recover from his soullostness.
Tony was empty but brilliant at the beginning of the first movie, but by the end of this ‘trilogy’ of films he has opened to depth, complexity and compassion. He is being humanized. He has given up his ‘fast living’ – though he still loves tech and cars and women – and is apparently in a committed relationship with Pepper Potts (!); the CEO of his corporation. He is apparently neither afraid of women with power, nor does he need to engage in competitive nonsense with them to maintain his manhood. In this film he is faced with an international terrorist – Mandarin – who turns out (it was a nice surprise twist in the plot) to be a puppet of yet another genius whom Tony brushed off and insulted years earlier. (Again, his hubris is catching up with him!) Here again, the consequences of action are again dealt with; and Tony – after brashly and perhaps not all too wisely makes a public threat against Mandarin – has to fight to save Pepper and others when the villain comes and destroys his home. I would say these films show a ]soulless American male’ living in the ‘fast lane’ becoming more human through personal and social crises. He is tried and tempted and undergoes loss and threat, coming through the experience a better person than he was at the beginning of the series. He starts off naïve and self-serving and ends up committed to those around him – both male and female (note his relationship with both Colonel James Rhodes and Happy Hogan) – and to the betterment of society and perhaps even the world (if he can overcome his sentimental patriotism). The ‘soulless American male’ – i.e., a functioning cog in society, often well socialized and well-groomed, carrying on relationships at the superficial level, looking out for the illusory ‘Number 1’ and being obsessed with success, prestige, money and gadgets, but who is ultimately superficial, hollow and soulless—here becomes a human being.
These films and their theme remind me of another film – NORTH BY NORTHEST (1959) in which a ‘hapless’ advertising executive (played by Cary Grant) has his mundane life upset when he is mistaken for a government agent, is abducted, framed for murder, and is then pursued across the country by spies who want him dead.
There is much to ponder in this the old Hitchcock film. What I see today is that this “hapless advertising exec” is another example of the “soulless American male” who experiences an awakening though the course of events into which he is plunged by being mistaken for the (actually non-existent) American agent George Kaplan. At the start of the film he is shown to be vain, self-serving and egotistic. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant’s character) is concerned about whether his suit makes him look fat, he has his secretary send flowers to his mother with a note in his name, and he jumps a cab – taking it away from another potential fare – telling him the story (a lie) that the woman with him needs to get to the hospital, or some such thing. This, he explains to his secretary once they are in the cab, will make the person he hijacked the cab from feel good about themselves, because they’ve done a good deed. (!?!)
But then he gets mistaken for a spy by foreign agents, he is abducted, his life is threatened, and then he escapes_ by nothing but sheer luck. He tries in his bumbling way to figure out what’s going on, goes to the UN to find the man in whose house he was being held, and ends up being framed for the man’s murder. He runs, gets on a train, and meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), with whom he gets romantically involved. It turns out she’s a double-agent. She is pretending to work for the foreign spies, but is really trying to get information about their smuggling ring for the US Secret Service. Over the course of his adventure Roger now begins to really care for someone (for perhaps the first time in his life) and ends up attempting to save Eve Kendall from the fate into which the US Secret Service has thrust her! He risks his life to get Miss Kendall away from the foreign spies once he realizes they are onto her and are going to kill her (by dropping her into the ocean once their plane takes off). In the process, Roger Thornhill becomes a superhero of sorts (i.e., climbing around on ledges of buildings and dangling off the front of Mount Rushmore)! At each stage in the story, I would argue, this advertising exec is thrown ever deeper into an existential crisis. By the end of his adventure, his former world has been shattered, and he is on the verge of new life possibilities.
You could see the film as ending with Roger and Eve married and going back to NYC, where they might stay happily married for six months or so, after which she will become another cast-off in the soulless life of Roger Thornhill, advertising exec. But I always see a potential at the end of the film for something else. I think it possible that Roger has begun to under an awakening – via the ordeal he has gone through – and that, by rescuing Eve Kendall from certain death, he has come to a point of genuine compassion and even love. He has recovered his ‘soul.’ He has become a human being.
Roger Thornhill – even more than Tony Stark – represents that ‘soulless American male’ who is nothing but a functionary in the system; a momentary blip in the wheel of business; not a fully-fledged individual. He has no real depth; he is self-centered and does not understand the nuances and complexities of life outside his proscribed formal public world (which becomes apparent through his dealing with the police and the foreign spies). He appears to be a drone; going to work and performing his duties with the appropriate level of decorum, finesse and in total conformity to the ideal of male selfhood perpetrated on him by his sexist society. But Roger Thornhill has no soul at the beginning of the film; when we first see him he is empty and ‘hapless.’
By the end of the film, he is on the cusps of potential change. Will he go back to NYC and become the superficial ad exec he was before, or will his awakening to compassion lead to a transformation of character and humanization of his professional life? We might well see him continuing to be an advertising exec after the end of the film. There’s no reason he shouldn’t. Might he treat those around him – his peers and others in his professional circles – with more compassion and genuine concern that before? His experiences might even lead to a different attitude toward advertising and the whole business in which he is involved. While we have no “NbyNW 2” or “NbyNW 3” to show what happened to Roger, as we do for Tony, I’ve always thought this kind of positive scenario possible. Like Tony Stark, Roger Thornhill has been re-ensouled by his life-threatening experiences. … Sometimes the foundations of a person’s life have to be shaken before they are able to wake up.
[I hope I have not gotten any of the details of the stories wrong; but I think the overall story does allow for the kind of interpretation I have put forth here.]
 I am using ‘soul’ here in the sense of “the whole of being; genuine in becoming.” I do not simply mean a flitty counter[part of the self that goes somewhere after death. I.e., nephesh in the old Hebrew sense, not an Orphic sense of ‘soul.’
 The ‘home destruction scene was one of the more over the top sequences in this has film, but it doesn’t come close to the totally unbelievable, unrealistic action sequences in last year’s Star Trek: Into Darkness and the two Hobbit films (esp. the Goblin fight scene in Hobbit I and the Smaug sequence at the end of Hobbit II. Iron Man 3 seems to have been temped in that direction, but reigned in the action nonsense that so plagues so many films right now. I could stomach this sequence -- and the battle scene late in the film -- but only because the rest of the film was so good.
 I’m not picking on men, ok? There are plenty of soulless women walking around in the world and plenty of people in other countries who have lost their soulfulness. But as I’m male and an American, the ‘soulless American male’ is a glyph for me; an anti-icon--reflecting on these characters helps keep me from becoming them. At least_ that’s my hope.