I think I was somewhere in the third (the third!) Iron Man movie when I finally wondered “Why am I here?”
If you asked me who my favorite Avenger was, I’d say “Tony Stark”. But I was completely unable to articulate why I liked him. When all was said and done, there wasn’t much about him to like– canonically, he’s an alcoholic playboy, and even the more cleaned-up version Robert Downey, Jr. plays dresses like he has a copy of The Game on his bookshelf.
And yet I had figurines. I had the Essential Iron Man. I even had (when no one was looking) tried on an adult-sized Iron Man mask in a Target toy aisle.
But why do all that, if the character is such an asshole?
My love for other hero franchises–such as the Riddick saga–was much easier for me to articulate. Especially the first movie, Pitch Black.
The plot is simple, a sci-fi variation on the “And Then There Were None” style of horror movie. Vin Diesel (lead of many of the Fast and Furious movies and curator of his own Facebook page) plays the gloriously muscled convict Richard B. Riddick, who spends a lot of time in various bondage gear as he’s being transported to an intergalactic prison by a “lawman” called Johns. When the spaceship carrying Riddick crash-lands on a planet with two suns, it leaves only a mismatched group of survivors. When the survivors start to die, they blame all their troubles on Riddick… only to find that the planet is home to all manner of flesh-hungry aliens. And they’re going to need his help.
Fortunately, Riddick–wanted across the galaxy for murder– is scary enough to give even aliens pause. During the entirety of Pitch Black, he’s portrayed as the ultimate survivor, able to perform feats such as dislocating both his shoulders in order to get out of the bonds Johns has put him in. He’s also a perfect Alpha Male, as much of a Gary Stu as Stark or Batman is, though instead of having limitless wealth or engineering genius he has the body of Vin Diesel and the street smarts of someone raised in the penal system. He even has a superpower: special “night shine” eyes that allow him to see in the dark, especially helpful for a planet that that is bathed in darkness for a full month of the year, not to mention populated with beats that want to turn his head into an appetizer. And it’s his eyes that draw one of the survivors–a thirteen-year-old boy named Jack–right to him.
Jack is a boy desperate to be a man, so it’s no surprise that he mimics Riddick’s appearance and swagger despite the disapproval of the other survivors. (Riddick, like a lot of Vin Diesel’s characters, could be the poster boy for the Joys of Manliness, and later in the franchise he is actually dubbed the “Alpha Furyan”.) Even though they’re marooned on a planet filled with head-crunching aliens, Jack plays at being a badass, sneaking up on one of the crewmembers simply for the fun of making him scream. When they rescue another screaming crewmate, you can hear Jack in the background taking credit, trying to puff himself up and seem more important than he is. And when Riddick tells him that to get his magic eyes, “You have to kill a lot of people,” Jack makes it very, very clear that he wants to be a murderer too.
In fact, if you follow the trajectory of the first three movies–and I’m even counting the made-for-DVD anime, Dark Fury–Jack seems destined to become Riddick’s successor. He commits his first murder, joins up with bounty hunters and eventually ends up in Crematoria, one of the worst prisons in the known universe.
When it’s revealed in Pitch Black that Jack is a girl, it’s done in the nastiest, most humiliating way possible.
Riddick mentions that the aliens were following the scent of the blood from their wounds, and Jack looks stricken. When one of the crewmembers says that Jack isn’t wounded, Riddick reveals that “she” is on her period, which Riddick smelled out with Hannibal-like precision. To add to the humiliation, Johns yells at Jack to “butch up” and at the others to “stuff a cork in this fucking kid.”
I wince every time I see this scene, (and my repeat viewings of Pitch Black are in the double digits by now), as Jack is betrayed by her own biology. But I also remember how the secondhand embarrassment was mixed with the same kind of pop-eyed thrill I got when I saw that Pepper Pots was finally going to get to wear the Iron Man suit. Jack was a girl– a girl who’d set her sights on following in Riddick’s footsteps. She was going to get the superpower.
For a long time, I searched for clues as to why Jack’s character had been created at all. I found very little, all the more frustrating in that there are so many small things that seem to indicate that Jack was more than someone who was simply putting on pants to get through the day. She tries on Riddick’s goggles the same way kids try on the Iron Man mask in the toy aisle, and memorizes his story about bribing a prison doctor to give him the eye shine the same way she might a treasure map. She doesn’t want to be just any male: she wants to be the Alpha Furyan, the monster that even other monsters are afraid of.
Perhaps, I thought, Jack’s character was a subtle statement about gender to go along with the other subversions in the Pitch Black story. After all, writer David Twohy turns a common horror trope on its head by having a black Muslim man be one of the final three who escapes the dark planet. The pilot Fry is a fully realized character, and when she is jerked out of cryo-sleep she leaps into her uniform without the act of getting dressed being remotely sexualized (unlike a more recent sci-fi blockbuster I could name).
But Jack’s story doesn’t seem to be a nod to queerdom, trans masculinity, or anything else. She is just an accident, born of Twohy being stuck for a “secret” for Jack and then being inspired once the casting took place.
In the sequel–Chronicles of Riddick, set five years after the events in Pitch Black–we learn that Jack never gets the power to see in the dark. Instead of a shaved head and goggles, she has waist-length hair and a belly-baring shirt. She tells Riddick that she has renamed herself Kyra, and further embraces her femininity by using her body to lure her fellow prisoners close enough to stab them. There’s even an aborted “love” scene between her and Riddick, where he literally lifts her up using a hand between her legs, and she returns the favor by cutting his face with a razor blade held sensuously between her lips. She has, in short, become every Strong Female Character ever made, and at the end of the movie she dies to inspire Riddick’s character development.
Five years later, watching Iron Man 3, I realized that Pepper Potts only gets to wear the suit for a moment, and felt the same crushing disappointment. I would feel that same disappointment over and over again, in different genres and under different writers, as female characters went through magnificent arcs that seemed to build towards them taking on the roles of their male counterparts, only to have the rug ripped out from under them. And just like with Jack/Kyra, I found myself searching for answers, only to find none. If Robin can become Nightwing, if Sean Boswell can learn to Tokyo drift, then why can’t River Song retain her powers and become the doctor we all hoped she’d be? Why does Mako Mori pass out at the final moment of heroism, when before she reacted to stress by almost blowing up the Shatterdome? We’re told that Kyra/Jack simply couldn’t find another surgeon, that there was only a single nameless person who could give her the superpower and now that they were gone, there was nothing left for her.
I watch action movies (and fantasy movies thinly disguised as action movies) for the same reason the basement dwelling fanboys do (in an odd twist of fate, I do currently live in a basement.) I fork over the $14 charge to see The Wolverine in IMAX so I can get a taste of what it’s like to have the power to survive anything. I sit through every Iron Man movie to better imagine what it’s like to fly in a machine that’s an extension of my body. I want to own the fucking Batmobile. I want to be the girl monster, “huge and whole,” because that is always the most fun thing to be.
Imagine what it would be like if Jack got her eye shine. If her years in Crematoria—a prison worse than any Riddick had ever been in– shaped her to be a bigger monster than even he was.
In the beginning, Riddick himself was conceived as a woman named Taras Krieg. Perhaps, in another universe, Gwendoline Christie wears the goggles, but in the real world, I’m getting tired of waiting.
A little while ago, I watched a video of a fandom discussion where people asked themselves what they’d do if they met Iron Man.
Knock him out, I mentally advised the girls in the audience. Then steal the suit for yourself.