Cinematic Soulmates: Iron Man and Robocop

The concept of the double feature may have fallen out of favor as a business model, but it endures among hardcore film fans because there are films that complement one another so perfectly that when they are taken together, the viewing experience becomes twice as rich and rewarding.  Sometimes, the connections between two films are obvious, but there are other times when a little digging is required to find a common thread that links them.  This can often yield even greater rewards, as it often opens up entirely new ways of looking at both films, and unlock things that you didn’t even realize were there.  These are cinematic soul mates.

Thanks to advances in special effects technology, superhero films have become all the rage these days.  Tales of superhuman characters have existed throughout the world since the beginning of time, but modern superheroes are generally associated with the United States.  Since the early days of the genre, characters like Superman and Captain America have spent their days defending not only the concepts of Truth and Justice, but the American Way as well.  While most superheroes are pretty closely tied to the concept of the American Dream, some exemplify it more than others, even when they embody this notion in radically different ways.  Some of them represent the can-do spirit of America, singing the praises of mom, baseball and apple pie as they smash foreign invaders into little bits.  Still other characters serve as metaphors designed to expose the dark side of the American Dream, and we thrill as they mount crusades against the evils of corporate greed and unregulated capitalism.  That brings us to the subjects of this first installment of Cinematic Soulmates: Robocop and Iron Man.

In Iron Man (2008), Tony Stark (brought to brilliant life by Robert Downey, Jr.) is the personification of the American Dream.  More than that, though, the character embodies the very notion of American pride, exerting his dominance over other nations through the use of superior technology and firepower.  He is the pretty boy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and achieved wealth and fame through a combination of hard work and overwhelming charisma.

Robocop (1987) on the other hand serves as a stand-in for the everyman.  He is the average blue collar guy who is just trying to get by, and barely making it.  The title character (played by Peter Weller) is used and abused by a massive corporation that favors profits over people, and his very life is snatched from him and twisted into something that is almost totally unrecognizable.  He is literally broken down and turned into a machine whose sole purpose is to do the bidding of its corporate masters, and it is only the power of his dreams that allows him to break free of the programming they forced upon him.

Technology also figures strongly in the origin of each character, but whereas Iron Man fetishizes and exults in it, Robocop presents it as a living nightmare.  Officer Murphy is blown to bits by the vicious Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), and the only way to keep him alive is to rebuild his body using the most technologically advanced hardware available.  Murphy rebels, and strives to assert his human side over the program that compels him to do nothing more than fight crime.  Thus Director Paul Verhoeven seems to be implying that technology has invaded every aspect of our lives, as it has Murphy’s body, and thus we are all trapped within it ourselves, unable to escape its hold or even survive without it.  The ubiquity of the Internet in the modern era seems to bear out this assumption.

Tony Stark is also reliant on technology to survive, having been mortally wounded by a missile manufactured by his own company.  Rather than view it as a prison, however, he chooses to see this technology as an extension of himself, one that grants him powers far beyond those of any other mortal.  Technology is his savior, and it gives him a new lease on life, as well as a new, more humanitarian outlook.  Not only does it keep his heart beating, but it also seems to have reinvigorated it, making him more compassionate and considerate than ever before.  Director Jon Favreau does not view technology as a burden or a curse, but simply as another tool that we can use in our ongoing effort to achieve greatness.

The corporate world also looms large in both films, and as with everything else, it too is portrayed in fundamentally different ways.  In Robocop, the villain comes in the form of the callous Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), the very face of Reagan’s America, his loyalty to his own self-interest being the only thing that comes before his loyalty to Omni Consumer Products.  Jones is a company man to the bitter end, and is focused solely on the bottom line, especially when that bottom line ensures another promotion.  His mind is more alight with thoughts of all the juicy military contracts he hopes to secure than it is with concern for the poor underling who was just turned into hamburger by ED-209, the latest unthinking killing machine to roll off the assembly line.  In Robocop, corporations are the enemy of the people, and the unchecked greed created by Capitalism is the true villain of the piece.

Contrast this with Iron Man, in which the hero is a corporate CEO, although one who is more fun and charismatic than evil and uncaring.  Tony Stark revels in his riches, and uses them to fund his playboy lifestyle rather than to willfully destroy the lives of others.  But even then, there is a dark side to what he does, as Stark Industries primarily churns out high tech weapons, many of which are employed by both sides in the War on Terror.  Stark is destroying lives whether he wants to admit it to himself or not.  He is still better than Dick Jones, however, since Stark at least makes an attempt to amend his ways when he sees how his technology impacts others.  Of course, it’s only after it comes back to bite him on the ass that Stark makes this change, but it’s a start, and it is still more than Dick Jones would have done in a similar situation.

Pop culture can often provide unique insights into the identity of a particular nation or way of life, and superheroes have long been a bridge allowing outsiders to understand the American identity.  Robocop and Iron Man are perfect examples of this because they are quintessentially American heroes, and both are inexplicably tied to the concept of the American Dream, even if they embody completely different sides of the same coin.  One shows us that America is a nation of rugged idealists who can reach amazing heights despite being faced with insurmountable odds.  The other reminds us that there is a dark side to the United States, and that if we are not careful, we can become slaves to our own greed.  It is these two opposing views of the same idea that make Robocop and Iron Man complement one another so well, placing them firmly in the realm of Cinematic Soulmates.

  • Very interesting comparison that focuses on the political economic aspects of these two films. I really like how two characters, with similar technology, can have different relations to that technology, and what that relationship says about how technology is viewed by the director, and perhaps by the culture at large at the time.

    One thing regarding your discussion of Dick Jones — would his comparison be more akin to Obadiah Stane than Tony Stark? Those two seem to be more similar, and both are opponents to the stars of the films. Perhaps that relationship — antagonist/protagonist — is another way to see social commentary?

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