Iron Man 3 and the Obsession with Scientific Progress

Review of Iron Man 3, Directed by Shane Black

The United States is a technologically-obsessed society in a technologically-obsessed era. The line between magic and science in Hollywood films has begun to fade. The Avengers franchise is a perfect example. The Avengers movie involves gods and supernatural forces, but these are part of the same world as the magical Tesseract cube, which is integrated into human science. Or think of X-Men where scientific reasons (i.e., genetic mutations) create mutants with quasi-magical powers. We see much of the same in Iron Man 3 where science and technology are used to perfect the human genome.

This review assumes that readers have seen the movie. I will therefore systematically treat the themes without extensively summarizing plot lines.

Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is using a scientific process named “extremis” to perfect the human body and allow it to evolve into a higher life form that can heal quickly, has superhuman strength, and even breathe fire and melt things with their hands. This biological science-cum-magic is heavy-handedly paralleled with Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) Iron Man suits. Stark spends his days tinkering away to create the next new and improved Iron Man model. Both Killian and Stark are scientific geniuses, but the former decides to use science for evil while the latter uses it for good.

In case you think I’m reading too much into this, science’s moral ambivalence is placed in the mouths of the characters in Iron Man 3. Maya Hansen, the biologist working for Killian, tells the story of a Nazi missile developer whose dream was originally to use rockets for space travel, but ended up using his skills in missile science to deploy weapons in the European theater. In Iron Man 3, Stark assumes the title “mechanic” for the first time, first as a pseudonym, but eventually as part of his identity.

Iron Man 3 doesn’t take the next step of saying that scientific progress is the vehicle for, or at least comes hand-in-hand with, social, economic, and political progress. But as viewers get caught up in the thrill of the visuals, the implicit argument may be that science done right is the solution for a majority of our societal ills. Cool weapons and explosions are just a small part of this, while Stark’s ego-fueled inventions (a justified ego, given his abilities—and a big part of the Iron Man series draw) not only work but actually save the world.

Now, to be sure, Iron Man 3 is an action film and I don’t want to read too far into things, but I think it’s obvious that Iron Man 3 is representative of the science and technology-saturated society that we now live in. While generally we’re not so naive as to posit a science-will-lead-to-utopia argument, we nevertheless have a good feeling about science. Gone are the Luddite days or Romantic longings for simplicity. The Ron Swansons are admired, but seldom followed. Tony Stark is the hero, while Aldrich Killian is the villain. But with technology in the hands of the depraved, we may be surprised when we find more Killians than the Starks.

We don’t need to look to WWII to see this. We have Iran. We have North Korea. We have Internet censoring, cyber warfare, and IEDs. Our hope is that Tony Stark is representative of our technological future, but it would be naive to uncritically assume this hope is true and will deliver.

By all means enjoy the visual effects of Iron Man 3, the hilarious one-liners that are quintessential Tony Stark, and the innumerable big explosion and action-packed thrills. But notice the zeitgeist it is channeling. The film is not so much arguing for the destined progress of science (since the Killians of the world can and will use it for evil) as it is assuming that in the end the Starks of the world will prevail.

To read another Schaeffer’s Ghost review of Iron Man 3, look at Coyle Neal’s take.