War Criminals as Super Heroes

As Iron Man 3 graces our screens, guest writer Nathan Coe, a Model Effects student from the University of Hertfordshire, examines the moral binary that makes Iron Man tick, and in this essay argues ‘mass murderer’ Tony Stark may even be the villain…  

Tony Stark - a "mass murderer"?

Tony Stark – a “mass murderer”?

Iron Man (2008), directed by Jon Favreau, is an action adventure film based upon a billionaire weapons manufacturer, Tony Stark and his transaction from man to the well renowned superhero Iron Man after having to build the suit to escape the imprisonment of his captures. It is this transaction from an “ordinary” man to the superhero that is the topic of this discussion and how it depicts a moral universe in this film.

To do this analysis we will be using the structuralist analysis technique, Binary Opposition. Binary Opposition is a tool for analysis developed by the works of Levi Strauss and Roland Barthes. According to Nick Lacey (1998, 69) in his book, Image and Representation: Key Concepts in Media Studies, Binary Opposition is a tool where “signs are contrasted with other signs which have meanings which operate in opposition” so we take two contrasting concepts such as black/white or good/evil for example. When oppositions are structured together we can formulate a meaning from them.
In this essay, we will be observing the change that Tony Stark experiences between the two opposite environments of which one is his home, in America, and the cave in which he is taken hostage in Afghanistan, and the change in his character through the use of Binary Opposition.

To do this we will be examining the first half of the film. This is where the protagonist, Tony Stark’s transport convoy travelling through Afghanistan after a weapons demonstration, his Convoy is attacked and Stark is taken hostage by the terrorist group, the Ten Rings. It is when the protagonist is taken hostage that I would argue is the flight of Iron Man and the fall of Tony Stark.

Here is a table of the Binary Oppositions we can observe when watching the first half of the film.

Before Taken Hostage/ America/ In Vehicle

As a Hostage/ Afterwards



Confident/ Relaxed

Afraid/ Doubtful

Light (Outside)

Dark (Inside)

















Alcohol/ Under the Influence













Close Relationship





Dark (Empty Heart)

Light (Arc Reactor)

The film begins with Tony Stark, the protagonist, being escorted through the desert in a convoy. We can observe that the environment he is in is bright and open. Tony has a very confident and relaxed demeanour considering the setting he is currently in. He is escorted in a car with young soldiers who feel opposite to him and appear nervous and tense. This setting is then halted by an attack on the convoy and Tony is left alone. We are then taken back in time to see what Tony’s life was like before the attack. Here, in the west, the setting is bright and everywhere is clean. Stark can always be seen wearing a clean, well pressed suit and with a glass of some sort of alcoholic beverage. He lives a wealthy lifestyle surrounded by those who fall at his feet, but none he feels friendship for. He is also living, metaphorically and physically, in the fast lane, private jets and sports cars and always on the move. Although his assistant, Pepper Potts and others around him try to organise his life, Tony is unstructured and it is very defiant to what is asked of him. This we can consider as he original flight on the path of success.

“The call to adventure signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual centre of gravity from within the pale of society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented… but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds and impossible delights.” (Campbell, 2003)

The quote above best describes the events of what takes place after the attack on the convoy. Tony, the hero, is taken from his “his centre of gravity within the pale of society” in the West to an unknown area being the cave in Afghanistan, the East. Tony is taken against his own will and imprisoned in this dark and cramped cave. Here Tony’s attire is tattered and dirty. His life is on the line as an electromagnet is all that is keeping him alive. Whilst here, he is put through the “unimaginable torments” of torture to force him to follow orders given to him to create a Jericho Missile with the Stark industries weapons they already have.

Here in the cave, Tony forms a close relationship with his fellow captive, Yinsen. After constructing the Arc Reactor, the leader of the Ten Rings takes Yinsen and prepares to kill him but Tony intervenes, saving Yinsen’s life. This can be considered as Tony’s first act of compassion and the beginning of his flight. This act is later repaid when the pair construct the suit of armour and prepare to escape but time proves not to be on their side and Yinsen sacrifices his own life. This Sacrifice is the price of Tony Stark’s freedom. At this point two of the oppositions on the table combine: Tony, a man, embraces the suit of armour, a machine. This could be considered as being placed in the zone of anomaly but I would argue that it does not fit in the grey zone as Tony inside of the machine is not a fusion of the pair, but a combination, as an extension to his human form. As Tony becomes one with the machine this is the symbol of his transformation from man to hero, where his take off from the base represents his flight on the path of a hero.

Another point of interest is the reoccurrence of light and dark on the Binary Opposition table. As we have previously seen, light can be represented as the freedom of the outside environment in America and dark can be seen as the enslavement inside of the cave. On the other hand, the second pairing is represented on the opposite sides of the binary table. With this pairing we are referring to light as the Arc Reactor. We can consider that the Arc Reactor is a representation or perhaps a symbol of Tony’s “change of heart” and morals. The reactor replaces his old cold calculative heart with an artificial pure heart. This point is backed up by a shot in the film (Favreau, 2008 01:05:24) of a gift given to stark by Pepper Potts, his assistant, with the original Arc Reactor he built in the cave with the caption “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart”

In the film, one of Tony’s captives – Abu Bakaar – welcomes him with this statement:

“Welcome Tony Stark, the most famous mass murderer in the history of America”

This statement backs up one of the more interesting pairings on my table of binary oppositions on first glance may appear to be on the opposite sides. The pairing I refer to is evil and good. For the sake of this argument we would suggest that before Tony’s capture in the cave, he was playing the villain. He currently owns Stark industries, a weapons manufacturing company who supplies the American forces with the most advanced weapons technology keeping them in the forerun and retaining ‘peace’ in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. When he realises that the weapons his company produced had been used to harm and murder people (in this case himself and the young soldiers) he sees the error in his ways and chooses to close down the manufacturing of weapons and pursue a good cleaner path.

“Stories are built around protagonists who are archetypal, with character traits that are easily recognised… Something happens, an event producing a state of disequilibrium, of imbalance, which has to be corrected or resolved. In the resolution we may read a message, a moral – about valor or self sacrifice”

This quote by James Watson (1998, 132) concludes well what we have discussed in our analysis using Binary Opposition. A state of disequilibrium has been produced when the protagonist, Tony Stark, is attacked and captured by the terrorist group the Ten Rings, this represents his fall. The action is resolved by the creation of the Arc Reactor and the suit of armour making way for Tony’s escape from the cave. This resolution was the cause of the self sacrifice and valour shown by Yinsen and helped pave the way for Iron Man’s transformation, and his flight on the path of the hero.


Campbell, Joseph. (2003) The Hero’s Journey. San Francisco: New World Library.

Favreau, John. (2008) Iron Man. USA: Paramount Home Entertainment

Favreau, John. (2008 01:05:24) Iron Man. USA: Paramount Home Entertainment

Lacey, Nick. (1998, 69) Image and Representation: Key Concepts in Media Studies. New York: Palgrave

Watson, James. (1998,132) Media Communication: An Introduction to Theory and Process. London: MacMillan.



Campbell, Joseph. (2008)The Hero with a Thousand Faces. San Francisco: New World Library. 3rd Edition.

Campbell, Joseph. (2003) The Hero’s Journey. San Francisco: New World Library.

Chandler, Daniel (2010), Semiotics for Beginners. [online] Available at: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/semiotic.html [Accessed 22th November 2011]

Favreau, John. (2008) Iron Man. USA: Paramount Home Entertainment.

Lacey, Nick. (1998, 69) Image and Representation: Key Concepts in Media Studies. New York: Palgrave

Priestley, Brenton. (2003). Narrative Structure and Social Meaning:
Strictly Ballroom and Dead Heart. [online] Available at: < http://www.brentonpriestley.com/writing/strictly_ballroom_dead_heart.htm&gt; [Accessed on 22nd November 2011]

Turner, Graeme. (1999) Film as Social Practice. London: Routledge.

Taking the Ride: Structuralism – Some notes (2011). [PDF] Available at: http://www.studynet2.herts.ac.uk/crs/11/5ARD0006-0901.nsf/Teaching+Documents/802578FE003921CF802577B30072A9CF/$FILE/somenotesStructuralism.pdf [Accessed on: 25th November 2011]

Watson, James. (1998) Media Communication: An Introduction to Theory and Process. London: MacMillan.

Jones, Roger. Post Structuralism. [online] Available at: http://www.philosopher.org.uk/poststr.htm [Accessed on 22nd November 2011]


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