Podcast #27: I Am [Not Using That Stupid] Iron Man [Cliche]

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The hype has calmed down a bit for Iron Man, one of the most wildly successful movies of the summer so far, which makes this a perfect time to sit back and have an in-depth discussion about what many assume to be a morally neutral action film. Is it? Or is it something more? Listen as Ben and Rich discuss that, plus our top 5 Sci-Fi Elements.

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  • I guess I am one of the few fans of Iron Man who doesn’t still live in his Mom’s basement sleeping on Star Wars sheets. I loved Iron Man growing up, he has always been my favorite superhero, he taught me when I was young that if I was smart enough and successful enough, I could make myself super. I have average physical capabilities, and (unlike Batman) I wasn’t born into a wealthy family, but I’ve always been bright, so being a realist, he was the super that I always aspired to, plus the suit is sweet! So, needless to say, when I heard about the movie, I nearly wet myself.

    I have to agree with Rich on the question of whether or not who the badguy was makes a difference. Iron Man appeared in the early 60’s right in the middle of the cold war. But writers have updated the war in which Stark is injured. In the original 1963 story, it was Vietnam. Later, in the 1990s, it was updated to be the first Gulf War, and then updated again to be Afghanistan. Over the years, Tony Stark has stayed the same, but the cultural climate has changed. The comic took an anti-Communist stance in its early years, which was softened as opposition rose to the Vietnam War. So I think it is fitting that this latest Iron Man saga would nestle into our current world situation. I think if Iron Man were fighting Vietnamese communists, it would be forced to be a period piece and Iron Man would lose his just past the technological cutting edge feel.

    One ethical thing I love about Iron Man is that he is a critically flawed individual, in the comics one of the main story lines is Stark’s battle with substance (primarily alcohol) abuse. Through the history of Iron Man this issue has proved to be his worst enemy. I relate to that as a Christian because like Paul in Romans 7 even though my Spirit longs to serve God and be obedient to him, my flesh is constantly pulling me towards that old sinful nature.

    And finally, if you are going to criticize Rich for having Pre-cogs as a Sci-Fi element, you can;t have light sabers, because they exist in a non-science fiction world. Star Wars is a fantasy, it happened a long time ago in a galaxy far away, and it constructs its own world much like Narnia and LOTR, it may include quasi technological or scientific elements but at its heart it is a fantasy because it is not speculative but imaginary.

    My #1 sci-fi element would be the Iron Man suit, because I have drooled over it and its numerous technological advancements (which I won’t delve into here) over the years. With a close second being the ability to upload information to your brain (Johnny Mnemonic, and Matrix). To have limitless instant knowledge at the press of a button would be amazing.

    Logan Mauldins last blog post..Obama’s Future

  • Logan,

    I don’t think the fact that Iron Man seems to just pick the most recent enemy necessarily supports the idea that the movie wouldn’t be popular if the bad guy were different. I honestly believe that if the opening sequences led to a showdown with German or Irish terrorists (like in the movie Patriot Games or Die Hard) it would have done just as well-because it is that good of a movie. Remember, the ultimate bad guy wasn’t the terrorists… it was some dude in a (larger) metal suit.

    Also, check your local bookstore or video store- Star Wars is definitely science fiction. This is because it is largly built on advanced technology to advance the story. My beef with Rich was that he was choosing story elements that show up in multiple genres of fiction, so they were story elements and not science fiction concepts.

    Good call on brain uploads… if I had thought of that at the time it would have made my list.

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..Fun notes and pictures.

  • Alan Noble

    Man, I need to go to the movies so I can listen to these podcasts!

  • Things to discuss.

    If we classified the precog concept both according to its ethical implication and its basis in developmental function, I think we could squeak it into the sci-fi realm. Precognition as the crux of ethical dilemma is (so far as I’m aware) pretty much wholly a concept of speculative fiction. Also, the nature of precogs a la minority report versus, say, the Oracle of Delphi is distinctly different as the former is of scientific or natural origin whereas the latter derives power from wholly mystical origins. The Oracle functioned more as tool to the gods, whereas in science fiction, precogs are not tools to anything supernatural but only to those wielding the natural power.

    These actually function as hybrid. They are mechanical implements to harness power of specific use to the mystic order of the Star Wars universe. But while mechanical, there isn’t really any natural science behind their place in the universe; they operate more as a fantasy element, being essentially similar to the use of wands in the Potter universe. They are, we might say, a science fiction creation within the scope of a fantasy universe.

    As for whether Star Wars is sci-fi or not, I think we might best label the series as being a fantasy with sci-fi elements. Like Final Fantasy. It’s for the same reason that we don’t refer to the series as historical fiction, though it took place ages ago in the past. If we have to stick it in the sci-fi category, it definitely sits in the realm closer to Anne McCaffrey than it does to Philip K. Dick.

    Iron Man:
    I’m going to side with Ben here on this one. Afghanistan is an easy choice for the initial threat because we’ve got Middle East fever right now, but the bad guys could really be any group of terrorist-y types. Also, the reason Die Hard 4 didn’t do that well was more because it was a rehash sequel-y sort of thing rather than because audiences couldn’t get excited about generic villains. Such antagonists didn’t do anything to diminish the box-office success of the first one. Die Hard was fresh (despite the generic villains) and people loved it. Die Hard 4 wasn’t (and almost couldn’t be) and people ignored it. The concept was old by the time Die Hard 3 came out (a film I barely convinced myself to see) and Die Hard 4 just sounded to most of us like a tired attempt to capitalize on long passé fashions.

    As far as familiarity, I’ve followed lightly Iron Man’s travails for a number of years—though giving up pretty much entirely in the late ’90s. And not nearly to the degree of enjoyment as Logan mentions. My favourite storyline was the original Armor Wars (despite the fact that it was an era of one of Iron Man’s more stupider-looking suits), when Stark realized that his designs had been stolen and that any number of people were utilizing his work for their own purposes. Stark goes kinda crazy and hunts down those in illicitly gained designs and destroys their armor. He hunts down criminals, terrorists, U.S. authorities and representatives of Russia, creating international incidents (this was still within the scope of the Cold War). Some of these armor-wearers were even his friends. The series raised interesting questions about Stark’s sense of responsibility for his work, his approach and embrace of vigilantism (later reversed in Marvel’s Civil War), and perhaps presciently an early look at the questions of intellectual property that would come to dominate pop-culture two decades later. Pretty good stuff.

    My Top 5 Sci-Fi Elements:
    These five are more elements that I think contribute to worthwhile stories rather than toys I think would be cool to have (a la Ben’s list).

    • Dystopian Futures – It’s easy to see why dystopian futures and societies are a mainstay in speculative fiction. Essentially, they give the author an open platform to discuss the failure of contemporary society at leisure, unraveling the source of the problem as quickly or leisurely as they like. Some authors really dive into the possibilities while others just think a broken world is cool to look at. Some cool stories exploring the dystopian society to one degree or another are Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Metropolis (both Lang’s 1927 version and the Tezuka-based one from 2001), Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, A Scanner Darkly (and much of the Philip K. Dick oeuvre, including Minority report) and the super-awesome Delicatessen. Actually, besides the use of Space, the dystopian society may be one the most frequently used trope of spec. fiction.

    • Synthetic Humans – Androids, when possessing an A.I. having grown to self-awareness, can make for fascinating studies into the nature of existence, personality, ethics, and purpose. Some of my favourite treatments of the idea come from animation (a la Tezuka’s Metropolis and the “Second Renaissance” episodes of The Animatrix by Mahiro Maeda). Other worthwhile uses include the synthetic humans in Blade Runner, Alien/Aliens, Data in Star Trek: TNG, Asimov’s android works, the Phantasy Star series, and in one of the best early works of spec. fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

    • Eugenics – The active perfection of the human state through genetic manipulation is one of the aspects of speculative fiction that is most tangible to a contemporary audience—since we see the seeds of a eugenics future being sown around us all the time. The idea that we can make our lives better from the start by predisposing ourselves to greatness is a powerful one and it’s scientific possibility makes it ripe for ethical discussion. Gattaca wonderfully explores what genetic perfection would mean to a society and to those not perfected. Apparently Alien 4 deals with the matter, but after 3, my interest in the property waned significantly. Huxley’s Brave new World is probably the most famous instance of eugenics in spec. fiction and shows as well the dark side of the matter by postulating not only perfection in breeding but as well the breeding of imperfection to fill the ranks of a slave class. Vonnegut includes the concept in Galapagos.

    • Upgradeable Humanity – Riding the eugenics train is the concept of wetware and other means to enhancing the human state. Logan mentions it’s use in Johnny Mnemonic and it also finds front-and-center prominence in another of work of William Gibson’s, the dystopic story that introduced the term cyberspace, Neuromancer. The idea of upgrading the human mind with hard drives and extra RAM has been with us since people started understanding computers and taking note that surgeons were getting better at creating artificial parts that the body might not reject. Videogames make great use of the concept and last year’s Bioshock combined ideas of eugenics and transhuman upgrade to posit the use of plasmids and genetic tonics that would be spliced into the DNA chain, enhancing the citizens of its Randian paradise to metahuman states (before eventually driving them mad). The dystopian government in Moore’s V for Vendetta is also involved in human enhancement—eventually to its ruin.

    • The Hollow Earth Theory and Other Sci-Fi/Mysticism Hybrids – I’ve always enjoyed sci-fi stories that attempt to draw links between the real world, the speculative world, and the mystic world. Stories in this vein usually abandon the pedagogical, exploratory use of spec. fiction and aim simply toward telling good yarns, but I really appreciate the effort used to bring formerly mystic and folklore elements into a world governed by scientific principle and objective reality. These stories are usually pretty soft on the science aspect, but I don’t think they have to be. In this realm, I’m a big fan of Hellboy and BPRD (Hellboy had a lot of use of Nazi paganism and sci-mystic exploration while BPRD has lately been exploring the mystical realm from more of a Victorian scientific standpoint—much like those scientists who also dabbled in alchemy, like Isaac Newton).