There’s nothing that makes Hollywood more nervous than portraying Islamist terror. As far back as 1994, James Cameron’s True Lies was denounced as racially insensitive for imagining a chillingly plausible Islamist terror threat involving nuclear weapons. Cameron, anticipating accusations of unfairly linking terrorism with Islam and Arabs, took care to try for “balance” by placing an Arab-American character on the good guys’ side (the actor who played him, Grant Heslov, this year won an Oscar as one of the producers of Argo). Yet the advocacy group the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) slammed the film anyway. The hysterical 1998 movie The Siege imagined that, in an overreaction to a terrorist attack, Brooklyn would be placed under martial law and all young Muslim men would be interned in Yankee Stadium. Ridiculous.
Since 2001, of course, Hollywood has almost completely avoided showing any Muslim involved in terror, changing the bad guys in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears from Palestinians to neo-Nazis. The 2005 Jodie Foster movie Flightplan, about an abduction on an airplane, used a hint that Arabs might be responsible as a red herring. The actual villain: an all-American air marshal played by Peter Sarsgaard. Several Middle East themed movies like Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies essentially saw a moral equivalence between the U.S. and the Islamists, saying both sides were up to comparably nasty stuff in the War on Terror.
Iron Man, though, is a smart franchise and initially, despite its comic-book soul, took an admirably unsympathetic view to Islamist terror, portraying Tony Stark as an unapologetic arms merchant who properly believed his weapons were keeping America safe from the barbarians, and who was in turn kidnapped and abused by Taliban-types in Afghanistan who hoped to get him to make a weapon for them. There’s a nice scene in which Tony uses his Iron Man suit to rescue innocent Afghan villagers from their evil oppressors.
Yet Iron Man 3 is a huge step backward that openly mocks the War on Terror via the villain the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). With Islamic imagery introducing his regular hijacking of TV airwaves, he denounces America and warns of more terrorist attacks such as the one at a Chinese theater in L.A. in which a human bomb detonates, Palestinian jihadist-style, in a crowd, nearly killing Tony’s bodyguard (Jon Favreau).
The Mandarin (despite being based on a Chinese character in the Iron Man comics) is meant to remind us of Osama Bin Laden and the Islamist brutes who beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl on camera for the crime of being Jewish. The Mandarin does something very much like this in Iron Man 3.
And yet the character is apparently supposed to be… an American. Who, by his accent, is from the south or perhaps the rural West. Tony quips that the Mandarin “talks like a Baptist preacher.”
What’s going on here? In an age of repeated attempted attacks, some of them successful, by foreign-born Islamist savages, is the director, Shane Black, who wrote the muddled script with Drew Pearce, trying to make the case that it’s homegrown Americans we need to be worried about? Is he afraid to be accused of racism if he depicts terrorists as what they tend to be in reality — foreign Muslims?
Spoiler alert: Read no farther if you don’t want a central plot twist ruined. But what happens in the second half of the movie is critical to understanding the spinelessness of Hollywood and its revolting willingness to reduce the War on Terror to a cheap laugh.
It turns out that the Mandarin is actually an actor, and a bad one — a Cockney hired from the fringes of the British stage scene by mastermind Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). We first begin to suspect the Mandarin isn’t actually a terrorist when we meet him behind the scenes — he’s warning a couple of gorgeous babes he shares a bed with that after his latest trip to the bathroom, “You might want to give that 20 minutes.”
Millions of fans too young to remember 9/11 will line up to see Iron Man 3, but it’s not just to them that Hollywood’s leading filmmakers have a duty. Reducing the alarmingly durable threat of Islamist fundamentalism to potty humor is an insult not just to Daniel Pearl’s family but to the millions of Americans who continue to wage the War on Terror. It’s as if, a decade after Hitler, a movie portrayed a Hitler-like villain as a harmless oaf who was no threat to anyone.
Am I asking too much of a comic book movie? Actually, I’m asking very little. The Dark Knight films proved that a superhero series can reflect serious real-world issues in an adult way, to a large and appreciative audience. Most blockbuster movies are, of course, lightweight and meaningless. But though the first two Iron Man films, especially the second one, engaged with the real world in an interesting way, the third entry is worse than silly: It’s frivolous. With respect to the War on Terror, it’s a travesty.