Like all good Marvel products Iron Man is new to the 21st century world of aliens and fundamentalist terrorists. Captain America fought Nazis while he fought the Viet Cong, and other red threats. However, when the franchise was rebooted by the Robert Downey Jr. films in 2008 the cold war was just a vague memory and a sour taste to US foreign policy in Asia and the rest of the Americas. Iron Man’s new enemy had to be something of its age- Middle Eastern brand terrorism!
Whilst the second in the series barely glanced at the Middle East the latest offering reboots Iron Man’s old communist China-born nemesis, the Mandarin, as a seemingly nationless but overtly ‘Arabic/Asian’ looking ‘enemy of the west’, played charmingly by Ben Kingsley. It also brings the 10 rings back, revamped for ‘the age of terror’ with the threat of presidential kidnappings, indiscriminate bombings and national networks being hacked with Bin Laden style national addresses, featuring montages of bearded men in deserts firing at the sky. The organisation, formally a terrorist organisation named after comic-verse Mandarin’s ten alien rings, had made an appearance in the first of the trilogy. In film 3 the 21st century Rings have international reach and initially dominate every twist of the tale, in their brand new keffiyeh and beard combos.
However, despite the new use of international terrorism in part 3 in contrast to that which took place in the war zone itself; this film takes a step forward in its presentation of the Middle East for we popcorn munching hoards. The first film showed a painfully orientalist Middle East, particularly given that Stark was kidnapped and Iron Man created in Afghanistan, in a desert-like version of an Afghan state normally known for its pine forests. Part 3 is more ambiguous. The first feature contained lines like ‘technology- always your Achilles heel in this part of the world’ uttered by the corrupt capitalist and Stark’s partner, Obadiah Stane played by a scowling and cackling Jeff Bridges on fine form, and featured this sharp dressed, cigar smoking business man as a man not only capable of running a weapons firm but also one double dealing with the terrorist threat.
The ambiguity in Iron Man 3 comes from (spoiler alert) the revelation that there is no terrorist leader, no fundamentalist group, just a sauced up British actor with an elaborate beard and a top knot and a few tanned employees of a mysterious think tank. And whilst the government and Iron Patriot (War Machine’s new alias) still make their first point of search for the Mandarin Pakistan, Miami becomes the new root of terror.
The government quest for Mandarin however does throw up more of that charming paternalism and colonialism from the States to the Middle East from the first film, when Stark single-handedly rescues a Farsi village (of rather un-Arabic looking citizens) from very Arabic looking insurgents. During the search for the transmission point we see a scene of terrified Niqab clad women who gain their freedom from a sweatshop thanks to the Iron Patriot’s misguided sweep, showing us an exploited middle east, where the terrorists are missing but, to the more astute viewer perhaps, western exploitation and modern slavery is not. However as Iron Patriot is thanked by the terrified women we get the gentle whiff of the old paternalism of the US to the ‘Rogue states’ of this world.
However whilst the paternalism and orientalism continue, ultimately Iron Man 3’s world of smoke and mirrors and hoaxes gives us a far different Middle East to the one of technological backwardness, terror and AKs the franchise offered 5 years before. Here we see a far more jaded glance eastwards, and one which seems to suggest any real threat to the States is one dreamed up by the country itself, and proudly manipulated by the media and anyone else who might profit, just as the first part of this trilogy had done, as it crafted a threatening east and a lone villain in the east.