Wardrobe Malfunctions: The Weaponization of Persona in Iron Man

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston bomber who lived, has been the subject of countless articles in the last few weeks, most of them trying to make sense of who he ‘really’ is. There is a particular obsession with his social media presence, the flood of articles about his Twitter and Facebook activity serving as evidence that we find something unsettling about the fact that this 19-year-old’s online persona looks just like the online persona of every other 19-year-old. There is a compulsion to find the cracks, to scour the photos and the tweets for clues that his life as a perfectly sociable student was somehow just an act, a disguise, a costume that, as one New York Times headline put it, “carefully masked” a “dark side.”

The impulse to understand the boy behind this criminal act is understandable, but that doesn’t mean we should suddenly start to imagine that his real life as captain of the wrestling team was any more of a false facade than the image any other angst-ridden adolescent presents to the world. All teenagers, all people, dabble in masking their dark sides. Most people aren’t plotting heinous acts of violence, thank goodness, but that doesn’t mean they don’t put on a mask or keep their darkest thoughts off Facebook. In that regard, Dzhokhar is not exceptional. The difference is just that his mask, his social facade, even hisrace and his face itself, are talked about as a kind of disguise or costume, a ruse allowing him to live among us, in large part because it seems to have helped him to blow things up. 

And now comes Iron Man 3. Of course the film was made before Boston and in a very narrow sense has nothing at all to do with and nothing at all to say about the bombing. Nevertheless, the film arrives in theaters and enters the discursive landscape just in the moment when we as a nation are struggling with these questions about Tsarnaev. As a nation, at least since 9/11, we have talked about acts of terror striking us ‘like a movie,’ and there is inevitably cross contamination between our ways of representing terrorism in our newspapers and in our blockbusters. So let’s say Iron Man has something to contribute to our anxious negotiation of the question of appearance, the idea of identity as disguise, and specifically with this troubling trick we would attribute to Dzhokhar (if only we really believed him to be as calculating as we want to say he was)—a trick we might call the weaponization of persona.

Iron Man 3 takes as given the notion that an identity is also a disguise. All superhero stories do, to some extent. But Iron Man takes it further, considering more fully the often violent implications. We know that an identity can be a false identity, a persona can be an act. We know that this can be dangerous, but must it always be? Must every kid be suspected of harboring a deadly secret? Can one’s performance of self ever be true? Can it ever be defused and rendered safe? As I see it, one of the central questions explored by the film is this: When is a costume just a costume? When is a costume not also a weapon?

The film is full of dangerous costumes. There is Iron Man himself, or more precisely, Iron Man itself — the movie’s title could refer to the man or to his getup. Then there is the collection of previous iterations of the Iron Man suit, all armed and ready even as they hang in the closet. We also have the Iron Patriot, itself a costume wearing a costume, the ‘War Machine’ with a Captain America paint job. This costume is compromised by another costume, the one Western media finds so persistently troubling: the burka. The presumed evil villain in the film turns out to be little more than an elaborately costumed persona, but becomes no less dangerous despite this revelation; the defrocking is not a defanging. The physical appearance and bearing of Aldrich Killian is also presented as a kind of costume, the result of physical therapy and no small amount of makeover magic.

The amputees with the real/false limbs that they grow/wear stand as perhaps the most challenging borderline cases; do the regrown limbs make their newly-restored bodies into a kind of false costume? Is the amputee’s authentic, un-costumed body the one that had been maimed, or is their true self the intact body that existed prior to the loss of limb? (There’s much more to be said about the figure of the amputee as it cuts across this film and contemporary news reports: the figure of the marathoner/amputee as product of the Boston bombing; the veteran/amputee produced by our various wars; the amputee/cyborg/hero/fraud as subject of scrutiny in the complicated narratives of Oscar Pistorius — and if you count orchiectomy as a kind of amputation, we can throw Lance Armstrong into that mix as well.)

With so much costume drama, Iron Man plays like one big game of dress up. There are maybe a dozen scenes of Robert Downey, Jr. getting into and out of the Iron Man armor, often quite spectacularly. Even characters not known for their heroic drag get a chance to slip into the livery—Pepper Potts and POTUS both find themselves donning iron. The film contains a reference to another costume drama: Downton Abbey. The clip from the show included in the movie was purportedly chosen with a very specific purpose. I don’t know the official intention, but I can’t help but notice that the quoted scene features Branson, the one character in Downton who, very self-consciously, transitions from uniformed chauffer to tuxedoed gentleman. He is the only Downton character who seems to be aware that he lives in a costume drama — and, oh, he also happens to be, at least for a time, a nearly terroristic revolutionary. The tiger can change his stripes, but not without a bang.

In the Iron Man film (unlike Downton Abbey) most of the conspicuous costumes are presented as profoundly effective killing machines. They are all easily triggered, often (and not incidentally) by accident, and they are nearly impossible to stop. I think it’d be possible to watch the movie and give each dramatic moment the name of some wardrobe malfunction, each one wrestling with an elaborate permutation of the question of costume: What happens if we have trouble putting it on? What if we have trouble getting it off? What if someone tries to force it off of us? What if we can’t find it? What it if falls apart at the seams? What if we leave it in the closet? What if the closet gets blown up? What if we talk to our costume? What if it talks back? What if we wear it to the wrong venue? What if that turns out to be the right venue? What if the costume fits so well it can’t fit anyone else? What if we wear just one piece? What if we take it off only to discover it is still inside us?  What if we put it on someone we love, as protection? What if we put it on someone we hate, as an act of violence? Does it matter who wears it? Does it matter if they consent? Does it matter if everyone knows it’s just a costume? Does it matter if we think of it as a turtle shell or a suit or a disguise or a trap or armor? What does it do when no one is wearing it? What if it has a mind of its own? What if it tries to kill? What if it tries not to?

All of these questions are answered in a way that return us to the central question, and we see over and over again that regardless of these permutations, the costume remains a dangerous weapon. We are not safe until the costume arrives at its (always strategically accidental) destination/detonation. Chekhov tells us that every gun must go off; Iron Man shows us that every costume must explode. The detonation is absolutely necessary in this story: as we come to discover that good and evil are each little more than costumes themselves, we learn that the real risk is that both outfits might end up as two sets of clothes hanging in the same man’s closet. This is terrorism. This is Dzhokhar’s friendly Facebook page. This is the scenario that we want to see avoided, that we want to explain away — in the case of Iron Man with nothing less than a big explosion dressed up like a display of Fourth of July fireworks.