Five essential tech lessons I learned from 'Iron Man 3'
Marvel’s latest superhero opus, Iron Man 3, opened in the U.S. this past weekend. I liked it, and thought its first 90 minutes were better than its climax, but because this is a tech site, I'll keep my movie criticism to a minimum. Instead, here’s a list of some of the most interesting technology takeaways that I gleaned from my glimpse into Tony Stark’s high-tech playground. (Warning: There are some spoilers ahead, but I've avoided the biggest ones.)
Biotech is scary, computer tech isn’t
In a world that has largely embraced computer technology, where can we find high-tech bogeymen? In Iron Man 3, the answer lies in non-computer tech. Tony Stark’s tech innovations, while amazing, are essentially mechanical. It’s right there in the name: He’s an Iron Man with amazing metal creations.
The villains of the film are powered by Extremis, which is biotechnology or nanotechnology or some villainous combination thereof. And so our face-off is between the powers of good, who use metal weapons and computer tech, versus scary bio-modified humans who can regenerate limbs and set things on fire.
The conflict says something telling about our society: While a human-machine hybrid (Tony injects receptor pellets into his arms so he can make his armor fly right onto his body) is actually kind of cool, bioengineered humans who can regrow arms and survive serious trauma are creepy. Tony Stark is hardly RoboCop, but we’re comfortable with the Iron Man armor's head-up display in a way we simply aren't with actual biological modifications.
The medium is the message
Without giving one of the best bits of the movie away, it’s safe to say that one clever message of Iron Man 3 is about terrorism being about marketing as much as violence, and (of course) that marketing anything is a largely cynical pursuit.
The Mandarin’s attacks are always accompanied by a TV broadcast—though in true “Max Headroom” style, they’re actually broadcast via hacking into TV satellites, rather than just posting a video file on the Internet like Al Qaeda does it. The Mandarin takes his media savvy one step further by always ending his messages with a cliffhanger, teasing his next attack.
Eventually we get to see behind the scenes of the Mandarin’s TV studio, and we learn some of the details about how the videos are produced. Those scenes, which I won't spoil here, are a funny demystification of the media in general and terrorist videos in particular. In some ways, it reminded me of how Mel Brooks mocks Hitler at every opportunity. We must take the crimes of terrorists seriously, but there’s something powerful about mocking them too.
You’re a handsome billionaire. You’ve got some awesome suits of armor. And you’ve also got JARVIS, an artificial intelligence who speaks with the educated English voice of Paul Bettany. (You may remember Bettany as the man who played another talented guy's imaginary friend.) So if you're Tony Stark, why put yourself at risk at all?
In Iron Man 3, we see that while Tony sometimes takes command of his suits himself, he can also let JARVIS do the work—without Tony inside at all. In the film, this serves the purpose of getting Robert Downey Jr. out of the suit and forcing Tony into situations that would seem much less dangerous if he was packing Iron Man’s heat.
But there's a larger point here, too; Computers exist to serve us, though sometimes it feels like it’s the opposite. The whole point is that technology should be working for us. We send robots to other planets. We use them to defuse bombs. Why wouldn’t Tony Stark let JARVIS and his suits do the work for him?
Let’s strike a cautionary note: You can’t let the tech do everything for you, as Tony learns when he sends a suit of armor to welcome Pepper Potts back home after a hard day at the office. Bad move, Tony. Some events require a personal touch.
The Mechanic beats the playboy
When Tony Stark ends up in Tennessee with his armor’s power drained, he breaks into a workshop that’s guarded by Harley, a 10-year-old boy. Tony doesn’t connect with the kid by telling him about being Iron Man—in fact, he’s so scarred from his experiences in The Avengers that he’s having panic attacks. Instead, he explains to Harley that he’s just a mechanic.
It’s easy to focus on Tony Stark and see the glamor, the billions of dollars, the cliffside Malibu retreat (oops). And the suggestion all long in this film series is that Tony, when he’s at his worst, focuses on those things too.
But this film never lets us forget that, at his heart, Tony Stark is an engineer. When he’s in his darkest days at the beginning of Iron Man 3, where does he retreat for comfort? He goes into his workshop and "tinkers." The act of creation, of engineering, is where he truly finds comfort—not drinking or socializing or (problematically) spending time with the woman he loves.
Granted, this also points out that Tony has a bit of an addictive personality and (like many geeks) can kind of overdo it with whatever his current enthusiasm happens to be. It also says something about who the real Tony Stark is. And that’s why he signs his final note to Harley at the end of the movie, “The Mechanic.” That’s the real Tony Stark.
It’s about the people, not the tech
If there’s one overriding theme of Iron Man 3, it is—somewhat surprisingly—that people are defined by who they are, not by the technology they use. For most of the film, Tony Stark is outside of his armor, surviving by his wits. He uses his intelligence to get out of numerous scrapes with super-powered, lava-hot Extremis baddies. Tony's even out of his armor for much of the film’s final battle scene on an oil tanker.
In the end, Tony Stark is a hero because of who he is, not the armor he wears. That’s the final note of the film, in fact: He declares that even after he’s divested himself of most of his former Iron Man equipment and technology, he’s still Iron Man.
It’s a lesson every lover of tech should remember. No matter what equipment we add, no matter how tied in to the Web and the social media sphere we are, in the end it’s the people inside those shells of technology who really matter.