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The Clash of Ideas in Iron Man 3



This essay explores the thematic portrayal of Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” in American national security as featured in Iron Man 3. Spoilers follow.

The Clash of Civilizations

Samuel Huntington describes post-Cold War global conflict as a “Clash of Civilizations.” He theorized that conflicts in the post-Cold War world happen between groups with cultural or religious differences both within (i.e. Christian-Muslim conflict in the Philippines) and between (i.e. the Persian Gulf) states as opposed to clashes of ideologies as in the Cold War or clashes of nations as in World War II. Though beyond Huntington’s original theorizing, the American War on Terror can be seen as such a clash between American liberalism and radical Islamism.

Interestingly American popular media, led by the comic book industry, may have foreshadowed Huntington by framing these conflicts through use of two clashing symbols: the bomb and the hero. In World War II, Superman, a symbol against oppression when he was created in the late 1930s, was coopted into the war effort and made to fight Nazis with Captain America following suit. The Cold War era began with comics, like the Flash and the Fantastic Four, which encouraged kids to get into the sciences to overtake USSR in the Space Race, and ended with the Watchmen, which saw the heroes themselves dropping the bomb. Comic movies like the X-men before and Batman Begins after 9/11 saw our heroes battle threats like Magneto’s mutant bomb and Ra’s al Ghul’s fear bomb. If Grant Morrison is to be believed, all of these stories were fundamentally the choice between one idea (the bomb) and a better idea (the hero) played out on a grand stage.

Iron Man and National Security

Perhaps no comic book character embodies the consistencies and variations in this framing better than Iron Man. Tony Stark’s original origin saw him captured by an analogue of the Viet Cong, which held him in captivity to make weapons, leading to his creation of the Mark I armor and escape. His rogues’ gallery included Crimson Dynamo and the Mandarin, analogues of the USSR and communist China respectively.

After 9/11, the 2005 “Extremis” comic book arc, followed by the 2008 Iron Man movie, refitted this origin for the War on Terror by having Stark kidnapped by terrorists. By employing a fake terrorist in the form of a re-imagined Mandarin, the third Iron Man movie tackles the bomb-hero conflict more blatantly than comic book movie before it as it takes on the idea of terrorism itself rather than a specific threat (conveniently avoiding any racial controversies). In doing so, it explicitly identifies the characteristics of archetypal bomb and hero in the American psyche.

The Bomb

Joseph Nye explains that the goal of terrorism is less the loss of life or destruction of property and more the spectacle it creates, noting that while AIDS and Climate Change kill more than terrorism does, the latter is feared much more. This emphasis on appearances drives the most of the villains’ key moments in the film: Aldrich Killian’s change in appearance, the over-the-top attack on Stark’s home in response to his challenging the Mandarin, and especially the reveal of the Mandarin’s true nature.

The value the villains place on appearance suggests the filmmaker’s support for the view that terrorism is more terrifying than harmful, the same comforting story too often told by a parent or teacher to a bullied child about a bully, regardless of whether or not it’s actually true. The threat of terrorism is further downplayed by Killian’s and Trevor Slattery’s (the actor playing the fake Mandarin) eccentricities (“They’re just weirdoes.”) and the literally random nature of the terrorist attacks, which in reality are accidental detonations of Killian’s Extremis agents (“They just got lucky.”). Subtones of autocracy and demagoguery were also featured in the fake Mandarin’s videos, reinforcing terrorist stereotypes.

The Hero

While the true nature of the film’s villain may have drawn the ire of some fans, they likely weren’t disappointed when the threequel’s tone was heavier as advertised. Though Stark’s endearing humor remained throughout the movie, his self-doubt issues over his experiences in the Avengers film humanized his character. Visually, this was translated into Stark’s time outside his armors, which included good portions of the film’s fight scenes unlike in the previous films. Furthermore, this creative decision showcased the libertarian American notion of the hero who relies on one’s own ability rather than external powers to solve one’s problems.

The images of little guys saving the day are the highlights of the film: Stark’s little friend Harley, the freefalling crew of Aircraft One (the most heartwarming scene of the film in my opinion), Tony Stark himself without his suits in both the invasion of the Mandarin’s mansion and the final battle, and Pepper Potts in the end. These images are juxtaposed with those of the Iron Patriot, a simultaneously subtle and blatant caricature of the government, whose efforts at fighting the Mandarin range from ineffectual to counterproductive. Even Col. Rhodes fares better outside the Iron Patriot armor than in it.

One can wonder whether this movement from armors being essential to almost burdensome represents a shift in attitudes towards national security efforts from before to after Bin Laden’s (Loki?) death. Or could it just be the last logical step of the Iron Man trilogy’s theme of “privatizing peace” as Stark puts in in the second film? Or maybe still, this just could be film using reality to enhance fantasy with no intentional social commentary as the Dark Knight Rises claims to.


The film’s message can be summarized thusly: Your problems aren’t that bad. You don’t need great power to solve them. You can do it yourself. Uplifting to some, hegemonic to others, Iron Man 3 presents a clash of America’s ideas of good and evil where good always wins. It presents a tried and tested alternative to the bomb, but is this the end of history for the hero? Or will the conflicts today and to come shape him into something more?

Works cited

Morrison, Grant. Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From
Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011.

Nye Jr., Joseph S., and David. A. Wlelch. Understanding Global Conflict and Cooperation: An Introduction
to Theory and History. 8th. New York: Pearson Education, 2011.

About the author

Francis Joseph Dee is an aspiring political scientist and proud geek currently seeking the Anti-Life Equation.