Disregarding every myth we write… Reassessing the Iron Man trilogy #reviews

Iron Man (video game)
Iron Man (video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Between Batman and Iron Man, a lot of cultural commentary focused on the presentation of wealthy people (invariably straight, white men) as independent arbiters of justice.  They use their fabulous wealth to obtain technological advantages over people they perceive to be the ‘enemy’ and then confront this enemy outside the legal framework.  Following this analysis, it is argued that audiences never get an insight into how the same social, cultural, and economic processes which has privileged the heroes (to the point where they can afford crime-bashing gadgets) simultaneously disadvantaged the people now getting bashed, beaten, and bruised by the heroes.

Watching the Iron Man trilogy as a group, it’s not entirely clear that this is true.  Although the reading is still insightful and thought-provoking, the Iron Man trilogy defies the analysis somewhat.  In the first film, the playboy billionaire at the centre of the film, Tony Stark, comes to realise that his industry is the reason why America’s enemies are getting more powerful.  He wants his company to shift from weapons manufacturing to energy production in order to address global economic issues.

What we see instead is the internalisation and individualisation of military technology.  It’s this theme — the trials and tribulations of the transhuman world — that stitches the trilogy together.

Tony Stark inherited his fortune — including a company which manufactures high tech weaponry for the US Department of Defence — from his father, Howard Stark.  Stark justifies the existence of his company in terms of World War 2: ‘My father helped defeat Nazis. He worked on the Manhattan Project. A lot of people, including your professors at Brown, would call that being a hero.’

The above quote is delivered merely seconds before Stark deploys a cheesy chat up line in order to get a young reporter into bed.  A narcissist and hedonist, Stark indulges in the flesh.

Following the presentation of a new weapons system, Stark is injured by his own weapons wielded by the terrorist group, the Ten Rings.  The bomb causes shrapnel to be lodged in his chest, all but killing Stark.  Another captive of the Ten Rings, an Afghan scientist called Yensin, revives Stark using a car battery and a magnet.  From this point, Stark becomes akin to a reanimated corpse, relying on increasingly advanced machines in his chest to keep him alive.

It is only by extending the non-organic parts of himself that Stark is able to free himself from his capture.  He fully encases himself in technology which is tied into his artificial heart.  But when does Stark himself become subordinate or superfluous to the machine he occupies?

We have a similar relationship with our own bodies.  Although we can identify our limbs as being ours, we can’t really identify which part of ourselves is actually us.  Even when we think (because our parents drank turps when we were in utero) that we are merely mental states identical to our brain states, we can still imagine replacing every part of our brains with technology while we remain ourselves.  Even when we take the strict materialist view, we still don’t seem to identify ourselves in that materialist mish-mash.

The relationship between Tony Stark and his robotic suit becomes increasingly similar to one view of the mind within the body.  Tony Stark becomes the animus to the Iron Man.  The final lines before the credits, Tony Stark declares that he is Iron Man.  There is an interesting puzzle of identity here.  Is the statement true?  Even if we dispense with the Sinn und Bedeutung language games of predicates, there’s a deeper question about the extent to which Tony Stark is still Tony Stark.  If the Iron Man technology is the only thing keeping him from death, does Tony Stark continue to exist or is he merely the fleshy bit of Iron Man?  Later, in Iron Man 2, the government wants Stark to hand over the ‘weapon’.  Stark — dipping into some Ayn Rand nonsense about property — comes to the position that he himself is Iron Man and the request analytically requires him to hand over a part of himself.  We see shortly afterwards that Stark has built several iterations of the Iron Man suit.  Is each iteration of the suit Iron Man or an individual version of Iron Man?  Just as all of the molecules in Tony Stark’s body had been replaced from seven years prior (if that bit of folk wisdom is true), do the new compilations of Iron Man become, in a sense, the authentic Iron Man which is simultaneously the same person as Tony Stark?

What is perhaps overlooked is the role of being Iron Man which Stark shares with the artificial intelligence ‘within’ the suit: ‘Jarvis’.  In this fantasy universe, Jarvis is an artificial being which displays the (apparent) ability to think independently of instruction.  Over the course of the films, it becomes apparent that Jarvis can take significant control of the Iron Man suit and operate it in such a way as to replicate its performance as if Stark were occupying it himself.   When Jarvis takes over the suits, Stark’s role as the ‘mind’ of the Iron Man is diminished.  Indeed, it’s possible to imagine a future in which Tony Stark — for health reasons, say — decides to remain inside his suit at all times, dies in there, and nobody realises that the Iron Man suit is no longer ‘piloted’ by Tony Stark.

The real question arising from that nightmarish scenario is to what extent that’s already the case.  If it weren’t for the machine keeping him alive, Stark would be completely dead.  With the machine keeping him in a half-life situation, he is a cyborg slowly being taken over by machinery which requires less and less of the biological aspect.

In Iron Man, Stark discovers that the person who had been running his company, Obadiah Stane, is actually evil and has been knowingly supplying terrorists with weaponry.  This puts Stark directly in conflict with the resources of the company that he has inherited.  In order to take his place as the head of his father’s company, he must kill the man who occupies the role of his father, the man who has the resources of his father, the man who — emotionally — has been like a father.

Stane, meanwhile, is threatened by Stark’s coming of age.  He first attempts to get rid of Stark by having him kidnapped by the Ten Rings.  When that fails and Stane cannot replicate the technology currently powering Stark, Stane uses technology to paralyse Stark and rip the technology from his chest.  It’s here that we again see the similarity between the material body and the Iron Man technological body.  Although Stark is still conscious and aware, his ability to control his body has been disabled.  In a real sense, he occupies a shell that he cannot power.  Later, Stark uses a similar technique against Stane.  Where Icarus was burnt when he flew too close to the sun, the Iron Man suits freezes when it flies too high in the atmosphere.  Although Stark knows this, Stane does not have similar knowledge.  The suit freezes up with him being unable to control it.

The body horror aspect of the Iron Man trilogy is often overlooked.  The shock of being unable to control one’s own body, the sensation of being a prisoner within one’s own body, is perhaps the most horrific aspect of the series.

In Iron Man 2, this body horror aspect is revealed in a few more ways.  The device in Tony Stark’s chest is taking over his body with some sort of toxin.  In order to combat the technological disease, he consumes chlorophyll — the chemical which allows plants to convert energy.  The technology that Stark has incorporated (in the literal sense) in order to save him has now become the cause of something which threatens to kill him.  To combat its effects, Stark turns back to nature for help.

In a way, this element of body horror resembles the folk wisdom about technology.  Although it’s great in the short run, nature will win in the long run.

But this would be out of place in the transhumanist fantasy of Iron Man.  This story is about finding bigger and better technology to make up for nature’s shortfalls.  For this reason, Stark must tamper with the building blocks of matter itself in order to create a new element to power himself.

Iron Man 2 is a film which doesn’t quite move forward the idea of Iron Man significantly.  In the first film, we discovered that the company founded by Howard Stark had become corrupted.  Tony, in his transformation into Iron Man, was able to restore the position of his father’s empire.  Iron Man 2 treads similar grounds.  We discover a family who feels betrayed by Howard Stark.  The family seeks revenge upon Howard’s son, Tony.  Tony has to defend his position as Howard’s heir.

Just as Tony has inherited the company with its associated problems, Tony has inherited blood feuds from his father.  Perhaps strangely — and confusingly — for the resolution of the story, Howard Stark has also bequeathed to Tony the technological cure for the infection caused by his cyborg-implant.  How did Howard Stark know that Tony would one day need it?  Who knows?  Don’t ask.

Iron Man 2 puts Tony in the position of being a passive recipient of fabulous wealth from his father.  His dead father — who, in the film, represents a sort of God-like force who is distant and poorly understood, but also somehow omnipotent and full of love for his dying son — continues to solve the problems confronting the protagonist.  Tony never has to learn how to cope by himself because he always has the safety net of his father.  And that safety net is, of course, technological.

The key villain of Iron Man 2, Whiplash, has been coerced into building Iron Man suits for the US Department of Defence.  He instead decides to build drones — with no human pilot — and to upgrade an Iron Man suit that the Department of Defence has seized.

The upgraded suit involves a mechanism whereby the suit can be controlled remotely and without the consent of the person in the suit.  What is surprising is that the feature which apparently made the suits so wonderful in the first place — that they were controlled by a real human being — becomes the major design flaw: you care if a human is killed, but remote-controlled ones (which work just as well) have no human cost.

When the suit is controlled remotely, we see again the body horror issue of the Iron Man series.  Rhodey — the military officer ‘piloting’ the suit — is unable to control his own actions.  Instead, he is controlled and a prisoner within his own ‘body’.

In the examples of Tony becoming dependent on technology and the several examples of people becoming paralysed by technological means, we see something of the risks inherent in the transhumanist position.  Our dependency is a vulnerability which can be exploited.  Our dependency empowers us while simultaneously making us weak.

The greater the power conferred by technology in the Iron Man trilogy, the greater the weakness.  In Iron Man 3, we see deity-like powers conferred through technology (the ability to regenerate and produce vast amounts of heat) tempered, in a sense, by the risk of massive explosion.  Here, technology is used in order to correct deformity and disability by bioengineering the person themselves.  This makes it slightly different to the technological ‘correction’ of Stark in the first movie.

What is perhaps unusual then is the way the bioengineering is treated as an aberration.  In Iron Man 3, Stark’s accomplice and paramour, Pepper Potts, is given the injection which engineers her as a superhuman.  Tony Stark promises to ‘fix’ Pepper several times through the film.

This is particularly unusual given that Stark himself is the one with the actual physical abnormality.  He has to go about life with a great big metal device in his chest due to the shrapnel that will kill him if the device is removed.  This is despite being back in the first world where some surgery would probably fix the issue.  In the Iron Man universe, becoming a transhumanist hero is within the male sphere and women should not transgress into the arena.

Iron Man 3 is, on the one hand, delightfully intricate while being, on the other, something of a blunt object.  I’ll start with the latter.  While Tony Stark is being slowly consumed by his technology, and the villain of the piece has completely bioengineered himself, Pepper Potts is the character in the film who is utterly degraded to the status of an object.  At one point, Tony Stark commands his suit to engulf her, completely stripping her of both identity and gender, in order to save her when the building falls down.  Stark has learnt how to control the suit psychically, and it is flat out weird having a female character lose autonomy over her body.  During the course of the film, the villain decides that he wants Pepper as a trophy indicating his rise in social status.  In order to achieve this, he injects her with the serum which bioengineers her into a superhuman like him.  Pepper demonstrates no ability to control the use of her body.

Where Iron Man 3 excels is in its exploration of the technophobic response to the threat of the science.  To cover up the mistakes of the bioengineering experiment, the company behind the technology fabricates a terrorist scare.  Each fiery explosion caused by the failed bioengineering is covered up by the fictional terrorist claiming responsibility.  Transhumanists are creepy people, and robots routinely cause us uneasy reactions (in folk psychology, it’s called the Uncanny Valley).  When the company needs to avoid responsibility, they manipulate the public’s innate distrust of technology being in the wrong hands.  It’s entirely plausible.  There’s a reason why we are more comfortable with the US having a vast number of nuclear weapons, yet get uneasy when, say, Pakistan gets its hands on merely a few.  The US is permitted to send all the rockets it likes into space, but we hate the thought of North Korea doing the same.  And only one country is allowed to have drones.  We fear technology because it could one day be used by The Wrong People.

Iron Man 3 captures this perfectly.  If it were found out that an American company had an unsafe product, the public would demand that the company be shut down.  When the company provides a strawman terrorist, it is both intuitively plausible and — importantly — completely unfalsifiable.  What is interesting about this depiction is that the villain of the movie is entirely of Stark’s world.  An industrialist who modifies himself with technology.  Unlike the villain of the past two films, this was an enemy created of Stark’s own misdeeds (being a narcissistic jerk) and is a villain that Stark must overcome without his fathers direct help.

The film also had interesting things to say about the nature of psychological damage.  In Iron Man 3, Stark begins to have panic attacks, triggered by the events of The Avengers.  This depiction is a bit of a double edged sword.  When something was wrong with Stark’s body, he ‘fixed’ it with technology.  Yet when Stark suffers from mental illness, he seems resigned that there is no technological solution to it.  On the one hand, it was good to see a film grapple with mental illness in a way that didn’t have a nice, tidy resolution by the end.  Stark has to come to the realisation that his anxiety is going to be with him forever and he has to learn how to cope.  On the other hand, this depiction treats mental illness as a bit of an ‘unsolvable’ problem in the Iron Man universe.  They can cure disability, deformity, and death, but the brain chemistry which causes mental illness is still a baffling mystery which lurks beyond known science.

The Iron Man series familiarises us with the transhumanist hero: the wealthy, white, English-speaking industrialist who can afford a higher level of technology to enhance his life.  This aspect — more than the wealthy industrialist who goes on a justice kick, as in Batman — is what makes Iron Man different and unique.  It is exploring the final few years before our technological ability outstrips our social ability to manage that technology.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

5 thoughts on “Disregarding every myth we write… Reassessing the Iron Man trilogy #reviews”

  1. A few notes I jotted down as I read:

    I presume, at the start of the article, that you refer to Stark’s ‘artificial heart’ as a metaphor since the arc reactor is simply keeping the shrapnel from reaching and damaging his heart.

    As for the folk-tale of all your cells being replaced over a seven year period I may point out that studies suggest that the cells of the heart operate on a much slower regeneration rate, only shedding mass amounts during trauma such as cardiac arrest. Should this be true, such a slow turnover of new cells could allow somebody to live for one or more decades with the same heart cells.

    You referred to Stark killing Stain with the verb ‘must’. I disagree with that sentiment. He felt obliged to dethrone him, to take him out of his position of power of himself, the company and his beloved new technology. After all, he didn’t just fire a tank missile at him when he first arrived as HISHE suggested.

    Howard Stark didn’t know that Tony would need his next-gen arc reactor technology to save his own life, he only devised the element in theory but had not the means to instantiate it. He believed that his son could in his own time. The fact that it cured him is a fringe benefit.

    Technically speaking Hammer Industries had their contract suspended so Whiplash wasn’t building for the DoD, he was building for Justin Hammer so he could get back inside the DoD’s pockets.

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