This piece first ran on Comixology.
I’m the last person in explored space to see the first Iron Man movie. I watched it this month and am pleased to report that it hasn’t dated a moment. We’re still wandering around Afghanistan haplessly blowing and being blown up; arms traders are still sexy/cool; bad boys with hearts of plutonium still get the girl; Gwyneth Paltrow is still frighteningly thin and brittle, with little flecks of poisonous spittle flicking out from behind her girl-next-door façade. Also, random Westernized foreigners with doctorate degrees are always happy to sacrifice themselves for the callow American so that said callow Americans can continue to be callow but with a mission; black guys are sidekicks; male womanizers are rakishly hot/forgivably flawed, but women who open their legs are trashy bitch sluts. Also Americans save all the brown people. Or maybe kill them. It’s hard to tell.
You probably know that though. After all the film is two years old. And superheroes are, what, going on 80? There’s been some finessing of the template, of course. Semi-socialist Superman beat up crooked industrial robber barons on behalf of the working man. In the post-Marvel age of superhero realism and relevance, Iron Man beats up crooked industrial robber barons on behalf of crooked industrial robber barons who have had a change of heart. But the main point is truth, justice, the American Way, and uber-violence on behalf of peace. The gods are us and we like to hit things — but in a good cause.
It’s not just sanctimonious Americans who find this sort of thing appealing, though. Perverse Frenchmen want to be superheroes too. Or at least that’s what I’ve gleaned recently from reading some of the poems of Georges Bataille. Bataille, like Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark aka Iron Man, is obsessed with sex and pleasure — surely Stark, for example, would appreciate a poem titled “I Place My Cock…” Like Strark, too, Bataille dreams of being more than human:
the glory of man
no matter how great
is to desire another glory
the world is with me
pushed outside the possible
I am only the laughter
and the infantile night
where the immensity falls
I am the dead man
the blind man
the airless shadow
like rivers in the sea
in me noise and light
lose themselves endlessly
I am the father
and the tomb
of the sky
the excess of darkness
is the flash of the star
the cold of the grave is a die
rolled by death
and the depths of the heavens jubilate
for the night which falls within me.
(from “The Tomb,” trans. Mark Spitzer)
The poem almost makes more sense if you decide it’s about Iron Man than if you don’t. Even all the talk about death — “I am the dead man/the blind man/the airless shadow” — fits, since Stark is essentially a walking corpse, his heart powered by the same technology that runs his suit. His weakness is his strength as he pushes outside the possible, in a hyperbolic apotheosis of noise, light, and self-dramatization.
In another poem Bataille declares, “I fill the sky with my presence.” And that does seem to be the point for ecstatic modernity, whether pop dreck or snooty highbrow philosophizing. Presumably it’s Nietzsche’s fault that God is dead and all we’re left with is the will to power of arms traders and self-proclaimed radicals. Or maybe Jung’s right and it’s just a mythopoetical heroic something — though it seems telling that we’ve only recently decided that we require one hysterically hyperbolic hero with a thousand faces rather than making do with all the dinky little heroes with one face each.
In any case, theirs is undoubtedly a thin poignancy in the desperation on display. It’s not enough to be Robert Downey, Jr., not enough to be Robert Downey, Jr. and a genius — you’ve got to be Robert Downey, Jr. and a genius and have enough fire-power at your fingertips to make Afghanistan right. Or, if you’re Bataille, it’s not enough to fuse romantically with nature, you have to actually fuck nature to death and tramp on her corpse before stabbing yourself in the eyes with Christ’s nails. When Paltrow, as Stark’s assistant Pepper Potts finds her boss fooling around with his armor, Stark laughs it off by commenting wryly that it’s not the most embarrassing thing she’s ever caught him doing — but I’m not so sure about that.
Tom Crippen had an article in The Comics Journal sometime back in which he referred to Superman as Siegel and Schuster’s “big dumb dream.” That dream is alive and well, but I’m not so sure it was Siegel’s and Schuster’s, or at least not theirs exclusively. Superheroes are just one, somewhat popular way to wrap the world around man or man around the world like some clunkily gaudy suit of CGI armor. As Bataille says, “the universe is within me as it is within itself/nothing separates us anymore/I bump against it in myself.” You can hear the dry “thunk” of his head on the inside of the helmet before he powers up and goes off to deface some idols or beat up some bad guys, whichever comes first.