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  • Annya Pabial

Iron Man: An Icon of American Islamophobia?

First and foremost, I’d like to add a short preface to this article expressing my awareness of just how beloved the character of Iron Man/Tony Stark is; he’s practically a global treasure at this point. This isn't an attack on him or the franchise, but an analytical deep-dive into the very real-life implications behind the symbolism the character and his storylines often hold. I’ve enjoyed these films in the past, not thinking anything of the American iconography put before me, and forced excuses for the actions of my favourite characters. Being caught up in the thrilling anticipation of a new Marvel release seems to mirror that of herd mentality, which is why I felt the need to write about these particular films in such a contentious light.

Tony Stark at a weapons demonstration in Kunar Province, Afghanistan

It’s important to be able to discern how a lot of media you consume—even the media you enjoy—can propagate very specific beliefs that may not always be the most ethical, or perhaps not align with your personal moral compass. Moreso, is the idea of not taking everything at face value. I’d also like to point out that this is my own personal interpretation coupled with what elementary knowledge I have of film anatomy. This is not intended to present a “different” or “darker” side to these films, rather add another layer of understanding to them. So, not to spit on a dead man’s redemption arc and legacy, but let’s deconstruct arguably one of the most biased representations of Muslim culture there is in contemporary, mainstream media.

The Iron Man trilogy is definitely not without its flaws. In between bouts of comic inaccuracy and gaps in the plots, one of the most glaring faults is its overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Muslims in the first instalment which is further continued to the third film.

Tony Stark riding alongside US soldiers moments before the ambush

From the very first frame of Iron Man (2008), the U.S. military’s impact is made abundantly evident. In the middle of Afghanistan’s dry and barren Kunar Province, American industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) travels in a convoy of humvees, returning from a weapons demonstration. Stark parades around his life brandishing a devil-may-care temperament towards anything and everything, including his funding of the War on Terror. Less than ten minutes into the film, Stark and the U.S. soldiers riding alongside him are ambushed by a faction of the terrorist organisation dubbed the Ten Rings.

Stolen Stark Industries weapon [used against Tony Stark]

After receiving a blow from one of his own missiles that should have been fatal—a weapon that was wielded by the very people he was supposed to be protecting his home country from—Stark is kidnapped and tortured by the Afghan radicals. In a morbid twist, the terrorists reveal they are admirers of the billionaire’s destructive works of art, and demand he replicate the Jericho missile, the same weapon Stark was proudly putting on display for U.S. army officials earlier. They promise his release if he follows through. Being the tenaciously conniving man he is, Stark seemingly agrees to this deal, assuming they’ll kill him either way, and decides to use the time to plan his escape instead.

Tony Stark held hostage by the Ten Rings extremist terror group

Throughout it all, the industrialist is assisted by Ho Yinsen (Shaun Toub), a fellow captive and physicist from the fictional Afghan town of Gulmira. Yinsen is responsible for saving Stark’s life by hooking a car battery up to his sternum which prevents shards of missile shrapnel from puncturing his heart. Through this, Yinsen is established as an educated surgeon from the offset. However, the other ways in which the film positions the doctor is extremely important when considering the overall statement it makes about Muslims.

How Kunar Province is displayed in Iron Man I

A tool used in the opening scene that indicates an orientalised version of Afghanistan is that unmistakable yellow-tinted filter that is overlaid on the landscape to add to the mystique of the foreign, ‘exotic’ land. What makes this even more curious is the fact that the actual Kunar Province looks nothing in reality as it is depicted to be; it has lush, green hills with a gushing river that provides sustenance to the bucolic settings it runs through. Then, another feature is utilised when Stark has been separated from the others and left as the only white person amongst Yinsen and the Ten Rings. Through this, he suffers the shock of ‘self-alienation’ since he is now viewed as ‘the Other’—the only of his kind in this strange, unfamiliar place.

How Kunar Province actually looks in real life

While members of the Ten Rings speak mostly in non-English languages, ranging from Urdu to Arabic to Hungarian, Yinsen speaks fluent English and is able to translate for Stark. Through the confusion of the multi-cultural conflation Stark finds himself in, Yinsen acts as a compass for him to navigate with. Instantly, Yinsen has a tie to a higher sense of good through his education and willingness to help Stark, which provides the audience with a reason to favour him. Moreover, he is placed in alignment with Stark as they are both prisoners of the Ten Rings. Yinsen is Stark’s only means of survival whilst incarcerated; the American relies on him and is forced to trust him so, subsequently, we as viewers are also inclined to put our confidence in him. There is an overt display of good versus bad, even if the actions of both parties are negative overall. My personal opinion is that the only moral person present at this point is Yinsen himself. Further on this point is the fact that Yinsen does not kill anyone; he appears to take quite a pacifist approach to his captivity. Contrasted by the terrorists who clearly have no problem with brutality and lethal force, Yinsen is illustrated as a solitary good Muslim.

Yinsen is portrayed as the mediator between East versus West

Furthermore, if we consider the type of clothing Yinsen is wearing, we can understand how he is physically positioned to appear more like a Westerner. Members of the Ten Rings wear traditional Middle Eastern garb like kurthas, head wraps, shawls, etc.—Yinsen does not. Instead, he wears a shirt, tie, waistcoat, and formal slacks which not only denotes his education, again, but also homogenises him with Stark who was wearing similar attire before, albeit more expensive and stylish. Clothing is incredibly important when understanding a character; wearing a suit can signify a number of occupations and personal backgrounds. As CEO of his family company, Stark wears one to properly present himself; Yinsen’s clothing is humble but occidental, derivative of his working class background from a small, occupied Afghan village. The difference in the two men’s clothing is indicative of their contrasting lives, but the overall similarity between them when compared to the terrorists shows they are ultimately on the same side.

The Ten Rings extremist terror faction in Afghanistan

Another thing to note is that some of the terrorists wear a kufi whereas Yinsen does not. While it is a personal choice for any Muslim to adopt traditional clothing, the decision to have some of the Ten Rings appear more conventionally Muslim than Yinsen is a telling one. The statement the film makes by having non-English speaking terrorists pitted directly against the scholarly, multilingual captive is a strong one for anyone who is able to notice the differences between the representations of different Muslims. It implies one is better or more tolerated than the other.

Yinsen portrayed as the moral compass for Tony Starks character redemption

Yinsen is depicted as a “good” Muslim. By speaking English, he is shown to “assimilate” and cater to the American, which is evocative of the idea that all “good” foreigners should behave this way when in predominantly white countries. This is also similar to the idea of what makes a “good” immigrant. Yinsen possess all the elements of a moral, acceptable, palatable type of Muslim; one who is agreeable to the white man, and will assist him at every turn without any question. He helps Stark out of the goodness of his own heart, knowing he doesn’t have a home or family to return to as both were destroyed by the Ten Rings, and selflessly sacrifices his life so the billionaire can keep his own.

Yinsen working on escape plan with Tony Stark

However, with Yinsen knowing exactly who Stark is, and how his weapons aided the destruction of his family and village, it begs the question of why he would. From their first scenes, Yinsen is shown to have sentimental leniency towards the arms dealer. He sympathises with him when discussing family, questions him on whether manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and hands stained by the blood of innocents are all he wants his legacy to be. For the most part, Yinsen is used as a prop for the protagonist’s sake; to debate his ethics, service him when he chooses to build the Iron Man suit, and will him on when he loses hope in his escape.

The initial plot point with Yinsen and the Ten Rings serves as an impetus for the rest of Iron Man (2008) and is the result of the modernisation of the classic superhero. At the time of his creation in 1963, Iron Man was caught up in strings of politics surrounding the Vietnamese War and U.S. military propaganda. Ho Yinsen was originally a Vietnamese man, and Tony Stark travelled to Vietnam instead of Afghanistan to observe the testing of his newly invented micro-transistor-powered weapon for U.S. defence officials. The inventor was very much conceived to be an extension of the nation’s governance, and not even intended to be a likeable character which is fitting for an arms dealing capitalist tycoon.

Stark has an intrinsic link with the government that would have been impossible to omit from his live-action adaptation. Remodelling the character’s origin story to fit a contemporary reality required a change in villain so, to do this, the writers simply had to look at who the American government held as an enemy of the state at the time. Unsurprisingly, this meant having disenfranchised people of colour whose homelands were invaded by U.S. armies in the firing line again. The war in Afghanistan is flagrant for being the longest war in American history; real life billionaires have contributed to the U.S. military’s war efforts for their own benefit in the past, and still do.

Something that makes this re-working easier to comprehend, and supposedly justifies it, is the fact that the film is set in a post-9/11 world. Stark is clearly positioned on the side of the American government, opposing Middle Eastern extremists, as he was in 1963 to be against the Viet Cong.

This fact also allowed more recent superhero films a cinematic resurgence compared to earlier efforts. Many comic book films, like Spider-Man (2002), Superman Returns (2006), or The Dark Knight (2008), have taken compelling imagery from 9/11 and re-imagined, re-written or even re-invented them to have the hero swoop in and save the day. With a planet left shaken by the terror strike, audiences sought out relatability and comfort in their stories. Threats such as aliens, robots, and human deviants can all be classified as the ‘Other’ or, more crudely, represent society’s minorities. Even if done subconsciously, people enjoy what soothes their fears or prejudices. Superhero films do exactly this as they present a reality that isn’t too far off from our own with dedicated protectors we can count on to always preserve society’s way of life. The threat of danger is still present but vague enough that it doesn’t encroach too much with our own actualities…and can be indulged in as a form of escapism.

That being said, in the case of Iron Man (2008), the perceived threat isn’t all that vague since it isn’t an alien or an android but an extremist terror group. By pairing a character whose story is moulded by the direct impact he has personally made in a war-ravaged part of the world—with a villain who represents the real-life threat that many American news outlets such as Fox have so openly maligned—Marvel created a very particular narrative for who and how their first hero of the MCU served. 9/11 had a never-ending span of fallout that reached every part of life; the media that was cultivated in result of it has treated the concept of a terrorist as an instrument to show contempt towards Muslims/Brown people.

Ben Kingsley portrayed as the Mandarin [main enemy] in Iron Man 3

This very idea is exhibited in one of Iron Man’s sequel films, Iron Man 3 (2013). The Ten Rings didn’t feature in the 2010 instalment of the trilogy but returned for the third film. This time, they are seen to be led by a man named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who promises to enact his deadly lessons on the U.S.A. and its corrupt government. Early on, and throughout the entirety of the film, we see fear-mongering broadcasts of the terrorist leader in vaguely Middle Eastern settings. Within the video, there are clips of men being lined up and shot, crowds cheering, cutaways to the American flag, and an airbase in flames. Music that is reminiscent of Arabian flutes and kamanchehs plays in the background to underline the East/West divide the Mandarin is monologging about. Through this, the word ‘terrorist’ maintains imagery assosiated with Muslims/Arabs and anti-Western ideology. Just as the first film did, a very specific narrative of the ‘terrorist,’ his background, his philosophy, and methods are all spotlighted.

With the secondary acts of Iron Man showing Stark’s awakening to the depth of harm he has been contributing to, and actively having him save civilian families in Gulmira, it is odd to me why the final film in his trilogy basks in micro-aggressions and general oddities at the expense of Muslims. The idea of personal reform and tangible opposition to his earlier stance as a war profiteer is undermined through strange jabs that poke fun at Islam and its people.

The Real Mandarin as seen in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Something I found to be particularly interesting was the decision to cast Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin. As comic book fans would have known before the film’s premiere, the Mandarin is actually Chinese. One of Marvel’s 2021 releases, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, cleared this up by denouncing Iron Man 3’s Mandarin (actual name Trevor Slattery) as an imposter. Kingsley has mixed race ethnicity of English and Indian, allowing him to pass as a white man for most of his roles. For the Mandarin, however, Kingsley is spruced up as someone who is ambiguously tribal. This was done to accentuate the terrorist’s ethnicity, despite the character of Trevor Slattery being a native to the English city of Liverpool - complete with a Scouse twang. It seems as though each identity was utilised for specific reasons that serve the agenda of the film.

During a scene where War Machine (James Rhodes, played by Don Cheadle), an enhanced U.S. agent/liaison, has been sent to investigate a suspected Mandarin broadcast point in Pakistan, a very casual and offhand stereotype about Muslims is reinforced. He shoots the doors of a warehouse off their hinges and bursts into a room full of Muslim wearing black niqabs, sewing at individual desks. Clearly, this is not the place he or his superiors are searching for but a sweat-shop, as we infer from Rhodes’ remark: “Unless the Mandarin’s next attack on the U.S. involves cheaply made sportswear, I think you messed up again.”

War Machine [Iron Patriot] "investigating" in Pakistan

Very rarely do we see female Muslim characters who are autonomous, driven or anything outside of a generalisation. Then, in 2013, representation of a strong Muslim woman was even scarcer. The group in the film are portrayed as weak, fearful, and trapped. The fact they wear niqabs not only explicitly points out their religion, but strips them of their personal identities as they are all in the exact same looking attire. What makes this scene even worse, I find, is what follows. After Rhodes informs the women they “are free, if [they] weren’t before,” which is ignorant in itself to assume liberal Western interference is required for their emancipation (if that is even the case), a white Extremis soldier working for the Mandarin takes off her niqab and incapacitates War Machine. The implication here, intended as such or not, is that under the traditional Islamic wear hides evildoers or, more specifically, terrorists. Within the short space of thirty seconds, two harmful stereotypes play out as something to be considered normal.

Emphasising my earlier point of 9/11 serving as a catalyst for the lionisation of comic book movies, the genre has seen a re-vamp and a new type of fashionability it never has before. With the fear of terrorism being made such a point of globally, the world’s media reflects this back to us. Not to say it is an easy theme to centre a superhero film around, but the War on Terror, as with the war on other infractions such as drugs or crime, comes with platitudinal figures of society that are moulded into easy targets. Most film genres have established archetypes that subserve specific tropes or intentions but, with the close tie that has been drawn between terrorists and Brown people, this one has been agitated by the racialisation of the terror attack.

Iron Man (2008) is a work that was constructed in a very particular American political era; Bush was still in office, the same man who declared the War on Terror, and a specific air of fear was put on the American citizen throughout this time. When Obama ran for President the following autumn, more of his policies were dedicated to covering foreign affairs in the Middle East than issues that needed attention back home.

Where other comic book films mentioned in this article, like The Dark Knight, bring the horror to American soil, and portray a Western understanding of the word, more akin to an organised crime syndicate, Iron Man seeks to associate the word ‘terrorist’ to a very particular cinematic connotation – the violent, militant Muslim. They also tackle how the threat of terrorism affects the ethos of their societies while Iron Man seems to brush over this, and places all responsibly of undoing decades of a nation’s prejudices onto the shoulders of one man. This difference makes a substantial change on how terrorism as a whole is perceived. White school shooters in America are often diminished as ‘mentally ill’ individuals, or a ‘lone wolf gunman' who is merely a deviance from American ideals, rather than being a direct result of the nation’s domestic affairs.

Candidly speaking, the character of Tony Stark within the first forty minutes of the film is very much a product of his time, and largely irredeemable, until he makes a press address, announcing the immediate termination of his company’s weapons division. This sentiment stands for the feature as a whole and can be plainly seen through the plethora of sociopolitical-bred quandaries that had sprouted within the beginning of the millennium. With its release being fourteen years ago, a lot of questionable content was published without a second thought. A film such as this, showing what it does, sending the message it does, wouldn’t have been pulled up as harmful or even inappropriate.

The standard for ‘political correctness’ was much lower then; the film’s leading man co-starred in another flick which was released the same year titled Tropic Thunder. Here, he is seen to engage in blackface and acts out derogatory stereotypes concerning Black people. You may think this performance was denounced, but the exact opposite happened. RDJ was nominated for an Academy Award for Tropic Thunder, one of the highest acting accolades, and thus rewarded for the transgression with the revival of his spotty career. So, the negative depiction of Muslims displayed in Iron Man is just a small splash in the sea of what Hollywood deems opportune for the sake of their stories.

Members from The Ten Rings (Iron Man I)

Since the start of recorded film, Muslims and Arabs have been portrayed stereotypically, violently, derogatively, insultingly, and completely inaccurately. Spanning back to the 18th century, Asians as a whole in Western artforms have received a similar treatment through the cinematic movement of orientalism. It has been a very damaging phenomenon, and has set back the understanding of many cultures to general audiences so much so we are still overcoming its effects today.

That being said, scattered throughout the last decade, there have been considerable improvements for positive representation of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians, even if it doesn’t reach the same standard our white counterparts are issued everyday. Marvel themselves have taken to correcting the perception of these peoples and their cultures through two of their Phase 4 releases of Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel. Arabs and Muslims have been depicted as regular, living, breathing people, not figures of fear or weapons strapped in suicide vests. When I watched both shows, I thought it to be surreal that the infamous crimson Marvel logo flicked by with its usual set of mostly white superheroes but, this time, was underscored by Arabic, Punjabi and Hindi songs.

While the mantle and man behind Iron Man may be long gone from the MCU by now, it is a fact that the foundations of the cinematic universe rest squarely on his shoulders. The story of a seemingly innocent white American billionaire being abducted by Muslim terrorists was the premier arc for whole universes of heroes and villains that followed. The tone the film announced continued onto the rest, whether it was intended or not, until Marvel decided it was time to introduce more heroes of colour and less villains. It has always upset me that the very first iteration of Marvel’s heroes rose up from a story so entrenched in harmful stereotypes of people who are facing oppression and hatred from practically all areas of society. Muslims are judged before they have the chance to speak; they’re labelled as dangerous; relentlessly vilified beyond justification; scorned by racists in every country across the globe. People tend to forget that where there are those who seek to destroy the world under the rule of a religion, there are also those who are simply trying to lead regular lives following a belief system that is in actuality peaceful and benevolent. Extremists, in any form, are astray from the real ethics of a cause.

All media creates backlash for the figures of society it tears down. 9/11 brought about the significant rise of Islamophobia towards global citizens who were just as horrified and devastated by the event as non-Muslims. Iron Man took the concept of Muslim radicals and ran with it since it was an easy, understandable target that white, conservative audiences would agree with and child fans wouldn’t comprehend its severity. While I’m relieved Marvel is diversifying its cinematic universe, the sentiment these films hold are irreparable and Muslims will always be known as the very first villains of the MCU.

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