The Tragedy and Redemption of Tony Stark

AVENGERS: ENDGAME SPOILERS FOLLOW

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Requiem for a Fallen Avenger            by Shawn StJean

The 22nd film chronicling the MCU, and the culmination of its third phase, is too brimful of elements to treat in a single blog post, and not all of them working.  So I’ll leave alone the inevitable (self-reflexive) paradoxes of a time-travel plot, and the weariness of more multiple quests for magic stones (albeit made here more palatable when sought through time, rather than space, this still feels, in parts, like a video game).  Some are movie-trite and artificial–though still great, for all that–such as the hero moment with Captain (Carol Danvers) Marvel flanked by all the women characters on the battlefield.  Rather, I’d like to reflect on an aspect that packs more wallop than a Hulk punch, and carries more [emotional] heft than Thor’s hammer.  In fact, many in the screening I attended were reduced to audible sobs, at the death of Iron Man’s alter ego.

And this is really the crux of the superior storytelling that has defined Marvel all along, and raises it consistently, since the 1960s, above its counterpart, DC.  Even Clint Barton’s brief, sadistic rampage through the underworld, in anguish over the deaths of his family–clearly an echo of the Batman mythology–seems more believable.  Endgame manages to convey empathy for Ronin, while not aligning with him.  He’s no good guy at that point, and the his fellow Avengers say so; he himself acknowledges it.  There’s no avenging, in the end; there’s maybe possible atonement.  Revenge is only an outward manifestation of anger at oneself.  At failure to protect; and more, failure to love properly, in the first place.  With Batman, it’s simply a willing suspension of disbelief on our part, that unconscious revenge motives can masquerade indefinitely as controlled justice.

Which returns me to Stark, opening the film with a clear visual homage to Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull in his very hand, contemplating his own failure and death.  I might call it the second stage of his arc of tragic development, as a character.  Having passed through his initial phase as a self-aggrandizing egomaniac, in several films, culminating in his alliance with the government in the superhero registration movement, Stark begins a suicidal spiral.  The film does a convincing job of reducing his body to skeletal, and, ranting at Cap about how he was right all along to privilege security over freedom, “Iron Man” tries to tear the electrical heart from his chest, in a melodramatic, verging on infantile, tantrum of self-indulgent masochism.

But, again, Marvel makes us privy to the source of such a tantrum.  In the five years that elapse since Thanos’ immolation of half the sentient beings in the universe, Stark’s life is among the few that improve: he fathers a sweet little girl.  He loves her; any of us would.  And, while the film is still trying to keep the time-travel bit from breaking loose from its mooring, the scientist points out that if history is set right, he will lose what he’s gained in the interim.  So naturally, he refuses to help, at first.  But he wouldn’t be Anthony Stark if he allowed Bruce Banner to out-invent him, so he reconsiders.  But for him, it’s really a “even if I win, I lose” proposition.  His child will never have existed.  And that’s the essence of the Marvel Universe, and, as Stan Lee conceived and ran it, the reflection was close to life.  We suffer.  We lose.  But in those moments of victory lie the kernels of nourishment to keep going.  We individuals may win the battles and lose the war, but it is still worth the fighting, in service to those who remain.

IF you should have the same emotional reaction that I had during the third act (really an epilogue that redeems any of the film’s deficiencies,) examine where it’s coming from.  Stark was never a character we were meant to LIKE.  Arrogant, flippant, encased in armor and thereby distant, his finest hour begins with (another Hamlet allusion) his encountering the “ghost” of his father, Howard.  A more innocent and honest version of himself, is the elder Stark.  Howard confides his ambivalence about the impending birth of his son (Tony himself–it’s time-travel stuff, see the movie).  And in so doing, humanizes himself for his progeny.  What Howard is really doing is humanizing everyone for Tony: authorizing him to see the good, the weak, as well as the bad, in us all.  Joseph Campbell might say that, in recovering the infinity stone in this scene, Tony is really slaying the ogre aspect of the father, in his quest for identity.  “Be your own father, young man,” was advice given to the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s 1950 novel, Invisible Man.  Only with the shadow of the father well and truly vanquished in the light, can a man begin to follow his own moral code.  Luckily for half the universe, Tony abandons selfishness and bows to serve.  Abandons ego.  As with armored heroes going back probably before Beowulf, his masks, his shields and swords, his mechanical and technological shells and weapons, fail him.  He turns to good, old-fashioned hand-to-hand (literally) combat with Thanos to save the day, and the effort overloads his already-debilitated, human frame.

The cost of war is sacrifice.  Marvel knows that.  These films, at the unconscious level where it counts, are advertisements for heroism, but they make no glorification of war.  A real-life small girl, younger than Stark’s daughter in the film, asked her mom “Is Iron Man dead for real?” during the screening’s denouement.  Indeed, he is.  So are the Black Widow and Vision and Gamora.  Captain America really is old now, and ready to hand over his shield to a younger man, who can lift it.  But, as in the Denmark that Hamlet gave his life exposing the killer of the true king to save, the price for redemption has to be paid, as dear as it may be.  The best any of us can hope for is the dignity of fleeting recognition:  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

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Remember–and Reflect

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By Shawn StJean

A dozen years is barely long enough to see a child born in 2001 to middle school today in the US.  Let us, as we remember our fallen brothers and sisters on the twelfth anniversary of their deaths, also be mindful of the words of Jim Casy in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: “I wouldn’t pray just for an old man that’s dead, ’cause he’s alright. If I was to pray, I’d pray for folks that’s alive and don’t know which way to turn.”  Remember the living twelve-year-olds all over the world, whether they dwell under threat of chemical weapons by their own governments, or bombs and invasion from foreign ones.  Remain mindful of our own twelve-year-olds, who look to us as role models for how to treat others: as enemies to be feared and hated only as a final resort; but more often, rather, as fellow human beings who, like all of us, are deeply flawed and damaged.  Reflect that war, whether conducted by terrorists or under internationally sanctioned police actions, never raised a single man, woman, or child up–it has only laid them low.  And if you would pray, pray for the guidance that makes us wiser than we were yesterday.

Tolkien’s “There and Back Again” Versus Jackson’s “Unexpected Journey”: A Hobbit’s Holiday, or Horror?

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With as many books as I’ve read by and about J.R.R.Tolkien, I’d still hardly pass muster as a Tolkien scholar, yet I do feel qualified to summarily remark upon Peter Jackson’s film adaptations.  Among all the universal praise, there were aspects of Jackson’s LOTR trilogy that some of us noticed were lacking.  Most conspicuous among these was that the director chose not to film the final five percent of Tolkien’s epic (the return of Frodo and hobbit companions to the Shire, occupied by Saruman during the War of the Ring.)  During this original conclusion, two crucial events transpired: the War of the Ring was brought home to the previously sheltered (thus indifferent) Shire community, and Frodo , Sam, Merry, and Pippin proved themselves worthy of that community by rising to protect it–even in the ruins it was reduced to–without the aid of wizards, elves, and dwarf allies.  But alternatively, by disposing of Saruman in an early and convenient way, and focusing on the events of the war itself, and then dragging out to sentimental proportions the departure of the elves with Bilbo from Middle Earth, Jackson redirected our attention from the aftermath and consequences of the war, to the grandeur of the battles themselves.

It’s a truism, among film critics, that our cultural values are reflected in the artifacts we choose to patronize, consume, and revere by imitation.  Jackson’s 2012 dilation, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, upon certain characters/events beyond the simple need of Tolkien’s 75-year-old novel, and the projected expansion of the battle scenes in the remaining 2/3 of this second trilogy–which it will portray even “better” than the book, one assumes–do more than simply add content for hungry fans.  They add up to something, thematically, thus altering the messages of the novel.

My point here, then, is not to pinpoint exactly the sources in and beyond Tolkien mythology Jackson is drawing his eclectic version from,1 but to examine the results.

Among Jackson’s specific revisions to Tolkien’s text, are the visit of Galadriel to Elrond at just the right time, the also coincidental visit of Saruman to the Last Homely House, even the importation of Gandalf’s associate wizard Radagast (all characters present only in the LOTR novel,) as well as the introduction of a new nemesis for Thorin, the Pale Orc, Azog–reanimated from a long-dead “goblin” in the author’s original (interestingly, for Jackson and Tolkien, the most threatening enemies do not speak English, and their words are subtitled in the films, translated in the books,) the much-expanded discussion of the Necromancer (Sauron,) and the ominous direct allusions to the rising threat of Sauron.  Again, none of these are really present in Tolkien’s 1937 book.

One could easily propose that the purpose of these alterations was to make the story more interesting to adults, older fans of the franchise and/or Tolkien (drawing some material from Unfinished Tales, for example, like Gandalf’s concern that Sauron might weaponize the dragon Smaug,) by interlocking the entire mythology together.  Or, a more cynical moviegoer might wonder why a 300-page novel takes three movies to adapt, when an 1100-page novel also took three movies—Heavens, might the studio be banking on success, stretching it all out to sell more tickets?  Fair enough.  However, this stretching could have been accomplished in any number of ways (where have the bulk of Tolkien’s Hobbit songs disappeared to?,) so it is useful to analyze the specific route Jackson takes to do it.

I can’t account for how this film will reflect on, say, Japanese culture, or British, or Australia and New Zealand (where Jackson films his stuff.)  But speaking as an American viewer, one can hardly escape the subtextual implication that we must trust those in the know (the government,) because everything’s part of a bigger picture we citizens are too small to see.  The Generals (White Council), the analysts and pundits and military advisors, from the vantage of their towers, in their wisdom, perceive (even if, like Saruman, they choose to downplay their insights for their own purposes,) the threat looming beyond the horizon, not we.  It looks to me as though the War on Terror was being almost systematically reinforced here, not coincidentally for an audience including many children and teenagers—tomorrow’s soldiers.  But all this anxious suggestiveness pales in comparison to the plain old endorsement of War that such an expansion entails, with its onscreen battle glorification and spotlighting of individual heroism–while thousands die in the obscure background, to a martial soundtrack.  Not unlike the Audie Murphy and John Wayne WWII flicks that lured starry-eyed kids like Ron Kovic into the military to fight in Vietnam, two generations ago.

The one minute of screen time that it takes for the compassionate Bilbo to spare the helpless Gollum at his mercy, is preceded and counterbalanced by 10X that time in the dwarves’ spectacular cleaving of hundreds of sub-human goblins.  And then, his leaving Gollum alive is directly followed by Bilbo not only impaling a ferocious Warg on his sword Sting, but then, unaccountably–in that it’s completely out of character–savagely killing an Orc executioner, in defense of fallen Thorin Oakenshield.Neither act is Tolkien’s creation.

This episode unfolds quite differently in the book.  The eagles are only interested in spoiling the mischief of the goblins, and do not respond as cavalry-like allies to a summons from Gandalf (whom Tolkien tells us twice was very afraid, “wizard though he was.”3)  Beyond the fiery pine-cone throwing, there is no battle between the dwarves and the goblin/wargs at all–the company barely escapes the trees by the grace of the Lord of the Eagles (whom the wizard had long ago healed of an arrow wound.)  Meanwhile, the goblins taunt the treed company with one of the many songs omitted from the film.  Can you appreciate the shift in tone here that these details support?  It is not simply from an intermediary episode in a children’s book, to the climax of a PG-13 movie.  Coupled with earlier scenes, like the military-style council at Rivendell, the transformation of small, individual concerns to epic-scale conflicts invests the entirety of Jackson’s adaptation.

With a projected 5+ hours remaining in the trilogy of Hobbit films, and having so far gotten ahead, by about 10%, of Tolkien’s written material even WITH all his additions to it, one can only speculate how Jackson plans to manage his remaining screen-time.  But I think it’s safe to say, on the evidence so far (much of which I extrapolate from the LOTR films,) that we can expect more battles, more added, individual heroics, and more relatively bloodless killing of enemies (recall that the climax of The Hobbit is the “Battle of the Five Armies.”)  Tolkien himself, having survived the trenches in World War I but losing almost all of his friends, knew better than to portray the scourge of war minus its substantial sacrifice and death (I’ll refrain from a spoiler here.)  Jackson will have to follow suit, of course, but I can’t help feeling this all adds up, at least subconsciously/subtextually, in the films, to glorification, if not justification, of war and the culture of violence our children are growing up in.

None of this is to say its not great filmmaking, especially the visuals.  So. . .why not see it with your children–however, before rushing to purchase the Blu-ray, why not first do what four previous generations of Tolkien fans have done: Why not read the book to/with your children first, so that they are not only not deprived of the use of their own imaginations, but can also can absorb the language, the craft, and above all the thematic humanism of the creator of the Middle-Earth mythology?

  1. For more specifics on the origins of some of the added material, see http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/The-Tolkien-Nerds-Guide-to-The-Hobbit–185546102.html, and this graphic:  http://media.smithsonianmag.com/documents/The-Hobbit-Graphic-FINAL.pdf
  2. To be fair, Jackson seems often to deplore war, as in the fine overlaying of Pippin’s song “Edge of Night” in Return of the King with the montage of Faramir’s suicidal return to Osgiliath, juxtaposed with Denethor’s indifferent eating.  However, he also seems far more often to visually eroticize—with special effects and other magic at his command–the violence.
  3. In Unfinished Tales, Frodo recalls Gandalf as far less omniscient or omnipotent  than the wizard-warrior of the Jackson films ever could be, and indeed often self-deprecating:  “I did no more than follow the lead of ‘chance,’ and made many mistakes on the way.”  (“The Quest of Erebor”).ImageImage

A Moment of Silence, Before the Spectacle Begins. . .

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Amid ever-increasing commercialism of both professional sports and the holiday season in general, this is sobering to see.  My two favorite NFL teams will be battling it out today, in the latest in a long-standing tradition of AFC East grudge matches.  But the question of whether the New England Patriots can defeat the Buffalo Bills pales in comparison to the awesome gravity of Veteran’s Day itself, and its tribute to the real-world battles and wars fought outside relatively small arenas like Gillette Stadium, so that we Americans can continue to enjoy our very way of life.

The Patriots football organization has dedicated a permanently empty seat, above their south endzone, to American POWs and MIAs since World War I.

For those who will never get the opportunity to visit this small but important shrine, click and read the plaque in enlargement.  And take a moment today to acknowledge the veterans around you, living or dead, no matter what their age, service or conflict affiliation, length of service, or discharge status.  None of us wants war for any reason, right or wrong, and those who fight, and stand ready to fight, shoulder that burden for all of us.

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Speech May Be Free, But It Sure Ain’t Cheap

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Now that Election Day has arrived, we might take a moment (perhaps while standing in line for a booth, waiting to vote for one of the two available parties,) to be thankful for our freedoms [insert your favorite one here.]  The freedom to publish the following post is vitally appreciated, believe me.

I’ll be especially grateful to be free of campaign advertisements of the smear-and-attack variety.  I haven’t seen much bash-Obama or anti-Romney stuff on TV this past week, but I sure hate it when the local Democrats and Republicans pre-empt my IPad endorsements, just to sling mud back and forth like two-eleven-year-olds who never have to come home to dinner.

The brilliant strategy being, I guess, to make potential supporters negatively associate one’s opponent’s name with bad leadership, waste, and lying, as least as much as they do oneself.  Because if I see/hear Brand Y’s ads 12 times per hour, and Brand X’s only 7 times per hour, and being as uninformed/ignorant as I am, well, I have damn-near no choice but to mindlessly go and cast a ballot for Y, right?

I’d really just rather get back to being sold on some product I don’t need, a service that promises what it fails to deliver, an idea that can’t be put into practice, or persuaded to take an action that makes me believe I matter.  Yeah, that would be a nice, refreshing change from politics.

Speaking of dinner, ask yourself: in order to run all those “necessary” attack ads, how many teachers went without needed seats, books, and supplies, how many veterans without physical and mental therapy, how many police and fire departments and hospitals without vital staff and equipment for protecting the community?  And how many people got laid off this year because the corporations that employed them made big donations, or otherwise supported the political machine? How many people in the path of Hurricane Sandy could use the reported $50,000 the American flag shown above cost?    http://www.luxurylaunches.com/other_stuff/football_field_sized_american_flag_costs_50000.php

How many little election trinkets have we all seen that would never in 100 years change our minds about who to vote for, let alone huge billboards, candidate biographies, countless phone calls by robots, and all those lovely e-mails?  Elections aren’t quite the monsters at throwing good money after bad that wars (of the military variety) are, but they sure seem like it, when the war in your back yard is a media war.

My point is a simple one.  Some people will try to convince you that all money is not the same, just like during the Vietnam War, when they told Martin Luther King that the billions spent on that war were not coming out of social programs in the U.S.  He disagreed, and 45 years later I still find his position more compelling.  If my oversized hunk of the pie didn’t take anything out of your mouth, whose mouth did it come out of?  They don’t grow on trees.

How many kids are losing decent futures in our country, by slow degrees, because the people with access now to money spend it not only foolishly, but downright selfishly?

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