[Spoiler: If you intend to watch the movie Iron Man, go watch before you read this commentary!]
Old time Marvel Comics fans like myself feel that we have died and gone to heaven, celluloid heaven that is. I picked up my first comic books in the 60’s. They cost Malaysian 40 sen (list price US 12 cents) then. Yes, it was that long ago. Now we get to see our favourite comic book characters on screen, played by some of the leading actors and actresses of the day, backed up by state of the art CGI. Not all the recent super hero movies work though. Spider Man 2 still gets my vote for being the best of the recent crop. Iron Man (2008) comes close.
The Iron Man character first appeared in the comic, Tales of Suspense, in 1963. It was at the height of the Cold War and our hero Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man), experiences his near death, life changing experience in Vietnam. In the movie, the setting has been updated to Afghanistan. But by and large the movie is true to the spirit of that first Iron Man story.
The best movies both entertain and inspire. Iron Man does both. Unfortunately, the obvious message is still — human bravery and intelligence, plus superior technology, wins the day. In the movie, the Stark character is sickened by war and wants to give up arms manufacturing. But when Iron Man dukes it out with Iron Monger, his main adversary, it is Stark’s superior technology, and his bravery and ability to think on his feet, that gets him the victory. I wonder how many wars are started, and continued, on the basis of this faith in heroism and killing technology.
Still, the movie does portray sacrifice, and not power, as the most potent human force. In the movie, the captured Stark has a partner, another captive named Dr. Yinsen. (He is Chinese in the comic books, an Afghan, in the movie.) Dr. Yinsen saves Stark’s life twice. First he builds a contraption that prevents shrapnel from entering Stark’s heart. And when Stark and Yinsen are ordered to build a super weapon for the terrorists, Yinsen helps Stark create the first Iron Man suit. As they are powering up the suit in their bid to escape, the terrorists break in. All would have been lost. But Yinsen buys critical time for Stark by intimidating the oncoming terrorists, firing a machine gun in the air. (That he chooses not to shoot at his opponents is consistent with his peace loving convictions.) He gets killed in the process.
Yinsen pays the ultimate price. He dies so that Stark, and Iron Man, can live. In his dialogue with Stark as he lay dying, we learn that Yinsen expected that this would happen and had made up his mind to pay the ultimate price long before the actual moment when he had to do so.
Tony Stark: We gotta go. Come on, move with me. We got a plan, and we’re going to stick to it.
Yinsen: This was always the plan, Stark.
It appears that even the movies realise that Gethsemane comes before Golgotha. And that death gives birth to life. Even in popular culture we see the shadow of the Cross, and the truth of Jesus’ words.
Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-25 TNIV)
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13 TNIV)
Not all of us may have the bravery or the scientific genius of a Tony Stark. But all of us can sacrificially give of ourselves to help others. Few may have to give themselves in one dramatic act of sacrifice. Many of us are called to daily sacrifices, the small dyings to self that result in life for others.
I am constantly aware that I am who I am today because many have sacrificed to nurture me and help me along the way. I think of my parents, middle class civil servants who consistently denied themselves of the good things in life so that they could raise me and put me through university. I think of the many good friends who stood by me in my darkest moments and were maligned for doing so. I think of the many who faithfully contributed money to my family and my ministry when I was all alone, and who continue to do so. And I think of Jesus, dying for me on the Cross.
Which leads me to another line from Iron Man that stayed with me, Yinsen’s last words to Stark before he died.
Yinsen: [to Stark] Don’t waste your life.
In a world hypnotised by consumerism, we think that life is about getting. In truth life is about giving. We are sustained by the sacrificial love of God. And called to be a conduit of that love for others. This is “life that is truly life” (1Timothy 6:19b TNIV). And if watching Iron Man reminds us of this, it would have been worth the price of admission and much more.