With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

No matter how niche or forgotten the franchise, the question, “Why did this exist?” always has an obvious answer: A first film was made and turned a profit, and its formula was revisited until it no longer made fiscal sense to do so. The question, “Who still watches this franchise?” is sometimes trickier to answer, the Iron Eagle series being a fine example. Four films were released between 1986 and 1995, united by Louis Gossett Jr.’s hard-ass Air Force pilot “Chappy” Sinclair and copious aerial footage. This is not a series with much of an extant cultural footprint.

Researching the franchise, one answer came from a YouTube user who’s uploaded aerial footage shot for the first film and set it to a super-metal soundtrack: “While this movie was dreadful the aerial photography was outstanding and the raw footage is freely available from the Israeli Defense Force public relations department.” Aviation aficionados, anyone longing for the MAGA restoration of America’s sovereign right to bomb away at any time, and viewers for whom any dose (no matter how shoddy) of prototypical ’80s action will serve for a nostalgic rush: These are the most plausible contenders for who might still be watching the series.

The first Iron Eagle establishes the formula revised by each successor: Chappy leads an illicit mission to right a wrong the U.S. government simply can’t handle. (One of the inherent contradictions of the films is a rah-rah patriotism that supports God and country while being absolutely convinced that even the most right-on hawk administration won’t go far enough.) In this case, it’s a rescue mission combined with a mentorship: When pilot Ted Masters (Tim Thomerson) is shot down by a rogue regime, Air Force brat son Doug Masters (Jason Gedrick) is frustrated that the State Department sticks to the weak tactics of “negotiation” and “diplomacy” rather than proceeding straight to bombing. Only Chappy, a Vietnam veteran hanging around the base, has the strategic and practical chops to lead Doug and a ragtag band of teens on a rescue mission, complete with great gasoline explosions, against a rogue Middle Eastern dictator (a pre-Poirot David Suchet) whose fictional country is introduced to the strains of someone yelling “Allahu Akbar.”

Iron Eagle
Photo: Tri-Star Pictures/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

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At a commercial low ebb of a career that started in the late ’50s, Canadian filmmaker Sidney Furie (The Ipcress File, Ladybugs) came up with the idea for Iron Eagle himself, then cowrote the screenplay with Kevin Elders, production designer of his previous film, the derided Vietnam War-backdropped romance Purple Hearts. The name “Chappy” is in tribute to black Air Force pilot Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., noted for his service from WWII to Vietnam, for becoming the first black four-star general, and regularly denouncing the “lawlessness” of the Civil Rights movement. Shopped around as Junior Eagles, the script was passed on by all the Hollywood studios before finding its way to former TV exec Ron Samuels. Samuels had set up an independent production company, in which a key funder was an anonymous Texas investor who “doesn’t want pornographic stuff or things that are off-color, or violence for violence’s sake. He wants things that make a statement, that you can feel good about, that a family can go watch.” As he told The Film Journal, Samuels was all for jingoism: “It’s Americana, it’s patriotic, it’s positive, it’s saying let’s go out there and do something.”

What exactly is that “something”? In conscious keeping with the wave of ’80s action films whose unmistakable motivation was a desire to refight, and this time win, the Vietnam War on screen, the first two Iron Eagle films rewrite historical bombing raids as unambiguously triumphant affairs. The production was in keeping with the martial tenor; the Israeli Air Force (which did the flying for the first two films) had to take a day off production to go bomb Lebanon. Iron Eagle celebrates the departure of wimpy “Mr. Peanut” from office in favor of “Ronnie Raygun,” who’s in no mood to (in one otherwise disposable character’s words) “take shit from no gimpy little countries.”

This isn’t subtext but straight-up text, complete with a peak ’80s soundtrack mostly sourced from groups that wouldn’t go anywhere in particular (e.g., Adrenalin and its endearingly overwrought “Road Of The Gypsy”). Top Gun had “Take My Breath Away” for a flagship song; Iron Eagle settled for Queen’s “One Vision,” written by Freddie Mercury in post-Live Aid exuberance. His belief that solutions for hunger were around the corner fired him up, but lyrics like “one voice, one vision, one true religion” inadvertently come off as fascistic. It’s entirely appropriate that it serves as Iron Eagle’s theme song; a few years later, the band Laibach covered the song and took it to its logical conclusion—that music video ends with concentration camp ovens. When the kids set out to bomb Suchet’s character out of existence, we get Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” After take-off, explosions go off, vilely, to “Gimme Some Lovin’.” And of course there’s King Kobra’s inevitable theme song, which sticks to contemporary norms of repeating the title song as many times as possible.

Though its 1986 release date might signal a conscious attempt to rip-off Top Gun, Iron Eagle came first, in January of that year, in a deliberate attempt to avoid comparisons. It started strong, to Furie’s ambivalent pleasure. “We starting writing the story during the Olympics,” he noted, “but that was long before Rambo came out and encouraged all this chauvinism. […] I admit I consciously set out to make a mass-entertainment kind of picture; I did think, ‘Will millions go for this?’ But there’s no alternative these days. Nothing else works.” The film ultimately underperformed; the sequel was green-lit only after it sold disproportionately well on home video. Two years later, Iron Eagle II is no less belligerent while superficially adapting to the times. The film begins by unceremoniously offing the colorless Doug Masters (shot down by the Russians) and giving Chappy a new mission: In the spirit of glasnost, U.S. and Russian forces go on a joint mission to bomb the shit out of another country. The first Iron Eagle fictionalizes the 1981 bombing of Libya, with Suchet as a stand-in Muammar Gaddafi; the second is based on Israel’s 1981 bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor, which had the unexpected long-term effect of convincing Saddam Hussein to significantly ramp up the country’s nuclear science endeavors.

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The sequel is actually campier fun than the original, which peaks early with a plane-vs.-car race sequence and is mostly fairly torpid when not setting off vast explosions. Whereas the first film was shot half in Israel, half in California, Eagle II goes all in and relocates overseas for the entire production; there’s a scene on the streets of contemporary Jerusalem that’s at least interesting as a period location snapshot. The hilarity increases thanks to most of the heavily-accented Russians being nothing of the sort (you can get a sense of their generic presence in the trailer above); watching noted Canadian character actor Colm Feore as “Yuri Lebanov” is a particular howl. Distributer TriStar didn’t allow critics into pre-screenings, and rightly so. “What we have here is best described as a glasnostrum—a heartfelt argument that Soviets and Americans can indeed work together in peace and harmony, as long as they keep dropping a few bombs on the Arabs,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Ryan Desmond accurately wrote. “Some might feel that the kind of bottomless ignorance and naiveté required to sit through Iron Eagle II with a straight face is hard to come by. But, remember, a recent National Geographic survey found that one out of five Americans questioned couldn’t name a single country in Europe.”

The liveliest of the films, Aces: Iron Eagle III, opened to by-now-predictably dismal reviews but has aged comparatively well. The only film in the franchise directed by someone other than Furie, Aces was helmed by John Glen, best known for working as a second unit director on select James Bond films from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service onwards before graduating to directing the franchise’s ’80s installments. Where the first two Iron Eagles are fine in the flying footage department, they’re shaky on the action front: Coherently filming planes flying at 400 mph and translating that speed realistically on screen is admittedly tough, but the films court laughter every time they smash-cut from a missile being fired to a fiery jet explosion, with seemingly no time between the two. Glen cuts back on the missile combat and goes for goofier stunts and sequences, which is no surprise given his background; at one point, a baddie is killed when a gigantic church bell falls on him. (Besides Gossett, the only other significant figure involved with all four films was producer Samuels. For this film, he added cast member Rachel McLish, his wife and one of the first female champion bodybuilders, who breaks out of handcuffs by essentially performing a still rings routine.)

The Cold War having ramped down, the concern for 1992’s Aces is narcotics trafficking (“Cocaine is killing our country!”). Now part of a troop of elderly pilots who recreate past dogfights at state fairs while representing their respective countries (Sonny Chiba for Japan, Horst Buchholz for Germany and so on), Chappy must go bomb a small Peruvian village being held hostage by a Nazi-loving drug lord who keeps photos of Hitler on his wall. Combining the dumb thrills of Roger Moore-as-Bond with the old-guys-on-a-mission movies of Moore’s post-Bond career, Aces is lively, silly, and racist. Its two-block set portrayal of “Brownsville, Texas” (actually Arizona) is cartoonishly dangerous, pandering to the worst kinds of fearful “inner city” imagery: a grimy motel on a deserted block, seemingly populated primarily by Latino gangbangers committing mayhem, their assault on the leading lady stopped by a black man introduced stealing a TV—future Wayans Bros. show player Phil Lewis, who gets to say comic relief things like (to an uncomprehending Peruvian villager) “You got an opinion on 2 Live Crew?”

Drubbed for stupidity upon release, Aces now comes across as mildly charming, if only because it’s from a time when practical effects rather than hazy computer animation were the norm. It’s also the only film in the franchise to have a tie-in video game:

The incredibly listless Iron Eagle IV (a.k.a. Iron Eagle On The Attack, quietly released with no advertising in Toronto and Montreal, seemingly DTV everywhere else) brought Furie back to the franchise. With him returned the least interesting anchor protagonist imaginable: Doug Masters, the teen rebel of the first film, who’d unceremoniously been disposed of when shot down by Russians at the beginning of Iron Eagle II. Turns out Masters did not die but did spend time locked up in some kind of Soviet prison being tortured by an officer who said things like, “How long can a man live without water?” (Given that Iron Eagle II takes place in 1988, it’s unclear how long Doug could have been kept locked up before the U.S.S.R. dissolved, but nobody seems to have bothered with details like that.) Instead of Gedrick, who portrayed Masters the first time around, the character is played by Jason Cadieux, who bears no resemblance. We know he’s traumatized because he chain-smokes, drinks too much, and acts perpetually sullen. Without even the familiarity of seeing a familiar face from a decade ago, we’re asked to invest in the moral reformation of Doug Masters, via lots of dialogue like, “That’s not the Doug Masters I remember.”

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The plot is mostly Bad News Bears redux, with juvenile delinquent teens in a flight training program getting whipped into shape by no-nonsense Chappy when they’re not eluding a buffoonish Southern sheriff straight out of the Smokey And The Bandit playbook. There’s a drug dealer who inexplicably owns a tank, which is a nicely absurd touch, and some inadvertently hilarious dialogue. Still, it’s a slog.

It’s worth noting that Gossett, at least in public, was a fan of his part: He found it rare and satisfying to play a black man who was respected as a dignified authority figure on screen, even if he’s basically playing an increasingly self-parodic version of his part in An Officer And A Gentleman. But what remains is a franchise of unremitting belligerence, conveyed in a tone so upbeat and unambivalent as to convey an entirely different era. Or maybe not: Configured for the Reagan years, the unabashed rhetoric of the first film once again sounds perfectly consonant with the new official presidential line.

Final ranking:

1. Aces: Iron Eagle III (1992)
2. Iron Eagle II (1988)
3. Iron Eagle (1986)
4. Iron Eagle IV (1995)