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An analysis of American exceptionalism within Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2020

On the 26th of April 2008, director Jon Favreau sat down for an interview for Iron Man (Favreau, 2008). Here, he explained that “since 9/11,” (Favreau, 2008), although his own political view changes from year to year, the majority of people “share a common frame of reference,” (ibid.) in 9/11. Here, he cites the terrorist attack and it’s subsequent discourse, as his drive for many of the choices within the film. In the following weeks, Iron Man went onto gross $318,412,101 domestically (Greenspan, 2019), making it the second highest earning film of the year. Audiences were certainly interested, if not in the questions behind the film, then certainly in the film itself. Although Iron Man was hardly the first successful film adaptation of a superhero, it was one of the first to directly address the context in which America, and a considerable amount of the ‘western world’, now faced following one of the most highly publicised terrorist attacks in history. Furthermore, it was the starting point for one of the largest global film franchises in the world – the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose latest entry, Avengers: Endgame (Joseph and Antony Russo, 2019), is currently the highest grossing film of all time. The films within this series, especially Iron Man, have had a near unprecedented global impact, and therefore should be studied in as much depth as possible. This essay will look at two films in particular, in the hope that they will provide some insight into the impact that this film series has have had on specific areas if American identity. Much like the film series, the United States has attained global influence in recent years, and so it is important to understand their cultural exports, to which Hollywood’s film industry belongs.

Iron Man follows weapons manufacturer, and “visionary genius,” (Iron Man, 2008) Tony Stark, as he develops missiles and robotics for the military. Throughout the film, we follow as Stark is kidnapped by terrorists who use his weapons against him. Stark escapes and builds a technological suit of armour with which to take revenge. Within the second scene of the film, we are greeted with a video flattering not only Stark, but also the United States of America. Here, seemingly global advancements in engineering science, are hailed as achievements that protect America “and her interests around the globe,” (Iron Man, Favreau, 2008). Already, we can see an example of how the film represents the United States – as a nation in which the international stage is important.

Although this theme is seemingly not explicitly explored within Iron Man, an attempt will be made within this essay to understand how, despite this, ideas surrounding American superiority and exceptionalism manifest themselves, and how they are important within the film’s extra-textual influence. However, to date, the Marvel Cinematic Universe consists of about twenty three separate films. If an analysis of each one was attempted then this essay would become considerably longer; as a result only two films will be explored here. Naturally, the first text that will be subject to analysis is Iron Man, as it is the first film within the series, and possess some interesting paradoxes regarding it’s views on exceptionalism. However the second text, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Joe and Antony Russo, 2014), differs greatly from the first. Instead of the rather simplistic and problematic approach that the first film takes to the idea of moral reasoning within America at the time, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is considerably more complex and somewhat contradictory to Iron Man, whilst, interestingly, being remarkably similar. The key aim within this essay then, is to understand how American exceptionalism appears within these two films, and how it is represented as a result.

To conduct this analysis, there will firstly be a brief overview of the history of American exceptionalism, and it’s role within the stories of American mythic heroes, an idea that has cemented itself in modern super-heroism within film. Here, in the first chapter, ideas surrounding the founding of the United States, and the inception of it’s exceptionalist rhetoric will be explored. Throughout this chapter, core ideas of exceptionalism will be observed in three separate, yet linked, genres: the ‘War movie’, the ‘Western’, and the ‘Superhero film’. Within each of these genres, ideas of exceptionalism and the American mythic hero will be explained, explored, and developed, in an attempt to gain insight into the films that will be analysed. Furthermore this will allow for separate scholarly opinions to be compared and contrasted, in regards to what American exceptionalism actually means. This is important not only for the ultimate goal of this essay, to answer how the two chosen texts represent American exceptionalism, but also because the concept of exceptionalism is highly debated. As a result, a careful analysis of the ways in which the definition of American exceptionalism can be interpreted, is a key issue that needs to be overcome before each of the films are analysed. Core research within this area is focused around Madsen’s American Exceptionalism (Madsen, 1998), and is followed by Ignateiff’s American Exceptionalism and Human Rights (Ignateiff, 2005), with specific reference to Ignateiff’s introduction, and Koh’s Jekyll and Hyde Exceptionalism (Koh, 2005). Here, ideas of individual exceptionalism and institutional exceptionalism are explored. This essay will then progress into exploring how War and Frontier cinema, helped to shape the idea of the American Mythic Hero, and how this hero is representative of exceptionalism. Here, core areas of research focused around John Lawrence and Robert Jewett’s American Monomyth (Jewett and Lawrence, 2004), along with several other scholars. Following chapter 1, the second and third chapters will explore the chosen texts themselves. Here, Dittmer’s paper on American Exceptionalism, Visual Effects and the Post 9/11 Cinematic Superhero Boom (Dittmer, 2010), will start to link ideas of exceptionalism and the Frontier Film, to the Superhero genre, and allow for specific context regarding the film. Chapter 2 and chapter 3 are very similar in their methodology, in that they will both explore the specific production contexts behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man, before being linked to the War and Frontier film genres. This will enable the essay to draw comparisons between the American mythic heroes of the 1950s, to contemporary superheroes. It is here, within the American mythic hero, that themes of exceptionalism play out.

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