Cultural stereotypes expressed by media permeate rational thinking and supplant misconceptions about other countries and ethnicities. It can be seen in advertising, television, and most prominently in film. Stereotypes of cultures outside of the U.S. are represented in film with a laundry list of characteristics that are not only considered clichéd, but also offensive. This typecast of cultural stereotypes can be seen in the hero-villain relationship in comic book movies, and this relationship is typically a representation of the U.S. (the hero) versus a foreign threat (the villain). In this, the villain character is a culmination of cultural stereotypes the U.S. maintains, and it is reinforced through the hero’s victory over them. A prime example of these stereotypes in film media is Marvel’s Iron Man trilogy, using non-white villains as a vehicle for the racial and cultural stereotyping of Middle Eastern, Russian, and Asian persons.
The Iron Man trilogy kicks off with an arrogant billionaire genius, Tony Stark, who makes his money inventing weapons technology for the U.S. military in their conflict in Afghanistan. Stark is perfectly representative of how the United States sees itself: wealthy, super-intelligent, surrounded by beautiful women and expensive things, and primarily, he represents the unsurpassed military power of the world. After a masculine display of weaponry in Afghanistan, Stark and company are attacked and Stark is taken hostage by a terrorist group and held in captivity. His captors interrogate him for information and demand him to build a deadly weapon, but in a stroke of American genius, he decides to build the Iron Man suit to escape. The trope of the Middle Eastern terrorist versus the American genuis is emphasized in this film as it “posits binary systems of Arab as animal, white man as savior; Arab as terrorist, white man—even one who makes weapons of mass destruction—as peacemaker” (Catalan, “’Heckuva Job, Tony!’ Racism and Hegemony Rage in Iron Man”). The contrast between the “hysterical Middle Easterner” and the “rational and collected American” reinforces the American stereotypes of Middle Eastern persons through this widely released piece of media.
In the second Iron Man film, the villain role shifts its eye from the Middle East to a Russian threat as Tony Stark faces Ivan Vanko, a Russian scientist with a vendetta against Stark. Similarly to superhero movies of the 1980s, Iron Man 2 faces and ultimately defeats a stereotypical Russian antagonist to symbolize America’s superiority. Vanko is a typecast Russian person, speaking few words in broken English, grunting through a tough exterior while drinking vodka and plotting revenge. This reinforces stereotypes of Russian peoples as cold, angry, tough people whose sold drive is to exact revenge on those who have wronged them. Iron Man 2 perpetrates cultural stereotypes just as effectively as the first film had by casting a stereotypical foreigner as the threatening villain that reinforces fear and hatred towards these cultural groups.
The third and final film in the trilogy, Iron Man 3, “perpetuates the stereotype of the inscrutable, maniacal Fu Manchu” through its interpretation of Marvel villain, the Mandarin (Kim, “Just how racist is Iron Man 3’s ‘the Mandarin?’”). Though half-Indian, half-British actor Ben Kingsley portrays the Mandarin, the interpretation of this villain represents Hollywood’s search for actors that are “brown, but not too brown” (Kim, “Just how racist is Iron Man 3’s ‘the Mandarin?’”). Kingsley portrays an clueless British actor in the film, as he simply posing as the terrorist figurehead, so his part is not to play an Asian character, but the villain role still represents a foreign threat to American hero Tony Stark. Though this Ben Kingsley’s portrayal nor the characteristics of the Mandarin are explicitly racist, the character trope of the foreign terrorist figure still finds itself alive and well in the third installment of Iron Man, contributing to American stereotypes of cultural groups, such as Asian persons, as seen in this film.
Iron Man movies, however, have a tendency to have “the initial non-white villain turn out to be a red herring for a white guys in a suit” (Kim, “Just how racist is Iron Man 3’s ‘the Mandarin?’”). This creates a stereotype that though foreign terrorists pose a threat to Stark and his American values, this can show how the non-white villain is not a capable adversary of Iron Man, and American threat, or the white guy in the suit can only pose real danger to the great Tony Stark. The adversarial nature of superhero films presents an opportunity to infuse cultural stereotypes into the hero-villain relationship as a symbol for American dominance and superiority to foreign cultures. The Iron Man trilogy employs these cultural stereotypes to inform the public’s perception of foreign ideologies and behaviors and relate them to negative, terroristic connotations.
Catalan, C. G. (2008, July 31). “Heckuva Job, Tony!” Racism and Hegemony in Iron Man. Retrieved December 7, 2016, from http://brightlightsfilm.com/heckuva-job-tony-racism-and-hegemony-rage-in-ironman/#
Kim, C. (2013, May 9). Just how racist is Iron Man 3’s “the Mandarin?” Retrieved December 7, 2016, from http://thegeekiary.com/just-how-racist-is-iron-man-3s-the-mandarin/1713
Kuchegemachi, T. (2013, July 18). Box Office Race: Refiguring Asian Villains in ‘Iron Man 3’ and ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ Retrieved December 7, 2016, from http://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/blog/?p=1960