It is a rare occurrence when Hollywood produces a film that neither glorifies the welfare-warfare state, nor vilifies capitalists and businessmen. Yet that is exactly what Marvel Studios has managed with the Iron Man series. In the character of Tony Stark we see the pinnacle of the capitalist fantasy: an ingenious businessman who values property rights and self-defense, and who does not compromise those fundamental rights in the face of government intimidation and force.
Iron Man is the ultimate superhero for the advocates of the free market.
In the second film in the series, Tony Stark is forced to appear before a Senate committee seeking to confiscate the Iron Man suit for the sake of national security. Stark rejects the edicts of the government, walking out on the committee while claiming to have “privatized world peace” (more on that later).
The character of Tony Stark is an intractable opponent of government overreach. He demands that he be left alone with his own invention, without the meddling of the state. The beauty of the film is that it creates a remarkably sympathetic portrayal of Stark’s position, something very rarely done in films of this kind. It is a testament to Marvel’s willingness to push boundaries that they would approve a storyline that tears down the government and the misguided notion that property rights are optional when the government is involved.
The power of the free market is further defended in the film by comparing Tony Stark’s Iron Man technology to the government subsidized Hammer Industries. Hammer’s armor is buggy, grotesque, and ineffective. The comparison between it and Stark’s Iron Man armor offers a potent parable on the wastefulness and worthlessness of government intervention into business.
Armed Society, Free Society
Iron Man does not blanch from the twin topics of the right to bear arms and the disparity of arms between citizens and government. On the issue of armament itself, the films are unequivocally in favor of people’s right to defend themselves with weapons. The Iron Man suit represents the ultimate advancement of individual protective and defensive technology: virtually indestructible and capable of going toe-to-toe with most conventional military forces and equipment. It is that access to a new kind of “great equalizer” that will usher in the era of privatized world peace of which Stark speaks.
Imagine a world in which the government is unable to enact its will through force and physical coercion, a world in which all citizens have the capacity to defend themselves from any harm that might confront them. That would represent a fundamental shift in the relationship between citizen and state, one perhaps more akin to the power relationship that persisted in the early American republic when armaments between citizen and military were virtually at parity.
The future implied by Iron Man is a pleasantly optimistic one. It is one that respects property, individual freedom, and a more reasonable relationship between citizen and state.
Waiting for Tomorrow
Unfortunately, technology like the Iron Man suit appears to be a long way off yet. The federal government still wields a massively disparate military power relative to the citizenry. But it is valuable to imagine the future we want to see and to visualize ways we might get there.
It has become a matter of conventional wisdom that citizens, whether armed or not, are no match for the government (which, perversely, has been used from time to time as a justification for greater restrictions on owning weapons). Whether true or not, the status quo need not be static. The free market usually finds a way to meet demand. There is reason to be optimistic it will do so here, though the solution may not be as cool as Iron Man armor.