This was possibly the week my students were most looking forward to, since many of them first came to know these characters through their movies. I have to admit, I initially regarded the unit as a bit of a chore, something covered more out of obligation (and because I figured the class could probably use an easy week late in the semester) than any scholarly passion.
I was more interested in teaching the critical readings, which paired noted film scholar David Bordwell and Will Brooker, who is evidently pleased to identify himself as a Batman scholar. They make very different arguments--Brooker traces all the political readings of The Dark Knight that Bordwell more or less dismisses--yet they end up at the same point, noting the "strategic ambiguity" (to use Bordwell's phrase) of blockbuster films that want to seem topical and important without taking any coherent political stances that might alienate part of their potential audience.
When I first sat down to write up my lecture notes, that political balancing act intrigued me more than the movies themselves. For all that it marked the beginning of the superheroes' current reign at the box office, Spider-Man looks incredibly immature compared to what followed; one of my students compared it to a Power Rangers episode, and she's not wrong. The Dark Knight is simply ponderous, and holds the distinction of being the only text I did not rewatch or reread for this class. We had a rewarding discussion about Heath Ledger's Joker (and specifically the ways critics and viewers have appropriated or misread him) but I just couldn't bring myself to sit through another two and a half hours of grim pronouncements and quasi-meaningful catch-phrases. Some men do just want to watch the world burn, but after the fifth or sixth time it gets kind of old, you know?
The surprising exception was Iron Man. Jon Favreau's movie is no more ideologically sophisticated than the others (by design, Bordwell would say) and yet it carries that ambiguity better than any of its peers--that is, without veering into juvenile simplicity or sulking pretension.
Condensing three movies into one week left us woefully unprepared to discuss the visual narrative strategies of film the way we have with the comics, and frankly, few of these movies would offer much to reward such a reading. But we did manage to fit in a highly productive look at the scene where Iron Man travels to Gulmira to battle the Ten Rings. That sequence crystallizes the power fantasies at the heart of the contemporary superhero movie--not just the fantasy of having power, but of using it in just the right way, taking out swarms of terrorists with precision strikes without harming their civilian shields, or knocking out a lumbering tank with a toy rocket whose design you trust so implicitly you don't even have to watch it impact. These are fantasies of technological superiority, but also of wisdom and flexibility and moral purpose. Much as I appreciate Bordwell's warnings against "zeitgeist readings," this scene is perfectly pitched to both acknowledge and shore up America's foundering self-image, right down the gunfighter twitch in Stark's gauntlet.
All the other old fantasies are there too, including the adolescent sex fantasies of Robert Downey Jr.'s Bond-style Tony Stark. Yet they felt like a major step up after the prepubescent chastity and self-denial of the Nolan and Raimi movies, where girls are only good for pining after and occasionally kissing and of course saving from the bad guys. Or not saving, as the case may be. (At least Rachel Dawes doesn't get attacked by a gang of rapists in the middle of what appears to be a wet t-shirt contest.) RDJ's Stark is a boor, and all the women around him have a nasty habit of validating his boorishness, but at least he's an adult.
And he eventually realizes he's a boor and sets out to fix himself while every single person in his life--even Rhodey--even Pepper!--pushes him to go back to his old carousing, womanizing, munitions-dealing ways. The guy gets more emotional support from his AI and his robot helpers, a post-human hero if ever there was one. Not to mention a post-traumatic hero whose origin adapts itself seamlessly to the War on Terror without losing a single important detail. If the movie is still as ideologically timid as its vacillating competitors (selling arms is bad, but mostly when they get used against our boys, mmkay?) at least it delivers the carefully ambiguated message with strong performances and the kind of self-mocking humor that has always been a key ingredient of the Marvel style.
In the end, I had so much to say about Iron Man that I regretted condensing both Marvel movies and the Nolan into a single unit--either one could easily support their own week. I'm not sure I would have wanted to do two weeks of contemporary superhero movies, not when there's so much else to add, but I know that when I come back to this course, Iron Man is going to get the space it needs and the space it deserves.