As Iron Man 3 rakes in millions at the box office, fans wonder if they have seen the last stand-alone picture in the franchise—or the last one featuring Robert Downey Jr. Regardless, the Iron Man film trilogy leaves a significant cultural legacy. At their best, the films condense ethical questions about science and technology, the military-industrial complex, and intellectual copyright into episodes that can appeal to a mass audience. At their worst, they revel in gratuitous bombast and explosions. Yet, Downey Jr.’s ingenuity as an actor—his skill in conveying the littlest machinations of an inventor’s mind—still allows us to suspend disbelief amidst folly. The films both celebrate and satirize excess.
Non-fiction scholarly books are the authorities for anyone seeking truth, nuance, and research acumen on the issues at stake in the Iron Man comics. For example, The Arms of Krupp (1968), by William Manchester, tracks the rise of Germany’s most notorious weapons-makers and their influence on kings and dictators. Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (1984) studies the inherent dangers of highly complex technologies like nuclear and chemical plants, and develops a helpful lexicon to analyze the risks. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, Steve Jobs, published in October 2011, documents the fight for the control of ideas in Silicon Valley and the eccentric personalities behind the best inventions.
Great historical fiction conveys the psychology of American hyperindustrialism, as well as the technical information. In the final volume of his U.S.A. trilogy, The Big Money (1936), author John Dos Passos exploits the life of pilot Charley Anderson as satire for the booze-driven excess of the 1920s. Anderson, once an ace, lets liquor wash him out of the aviation industry and then plays chicken with a train and loses.
The Iron Man film trilogy enlivens this age-old society-technology conflict with welcome charm and humor. The first movie, titled Iron Man, is perhaps the most overt satire of the military-industrial complex and its potential for blowback. Tony Stark, once the faithful bomb maker, goes rogue when he sees his weapons used against him and the American soldiers he sought to protect. “I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability” says Stark.
His friends, James Rhodes and Pepper Potts, initially turn against Stark when he changes heart. His partner at Stark Industries, Obadiah Stane, steals his Iron Man technology, literally ripping it out of his chest. Stane relishes the lawlessness of the global arms race, declaring “You really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you? Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you?”
But he is no Babbitt; Stark continues to rebel despite the fallout from shutting down his company’s weapons division except for Iron Man. Iron Man 2 showcases another arms race and another contest of personalities, between Stark, Ivan Vanko, and Justin Hammer. Again, Stark’s love of the binging lifestyle threatens his friendships and his place as the world’s pacifier. Stark and James Rhodey both realize the weighty responsibility inherent for an Iron Man. One of the script’s metaphors is delivered so quickly that some viewers may miss it; “You think you got what it takes to wear this suit? You wanna be the War Machine, take your shot!,” Stark yells to Rhodey.
Justin Hammer hassles Stark about the contradictions in his lifestyle. “Mr. Stark has built a sword, yet he insists on using it as a shield!,” Hammer cries to anyone who will listen. Yet, for all his character flaws, Stark ultimately proves himself the only responsible security official in a world of copycats and quick-buck artists. Ethically, he functions at a higher level—a plane of skepticism and questioning.
Stark is a keen observer of the physical world, evidenced by his fanciful discovery of the anatomy of a new chemical element in something as mundane as a tabletop museum scale-model. But his lessons from studying the human heart are the most profound. “A wise man once said: we make our own demons,” Stark says in Iron Man 3, before blowing up all of his Iron Man suits. He apparently clears his armory for the sake of his love for Pepper. At long last, Stark accepts limits as a necessity to quality of life.
Despite the history of womanizing and drinking, and the high-flying stunts inherent to his character, Robert Downey Jr. conveys an activity of conscience as Tony Stark that renders the hero an ideal spark for dialogue about science, technology, and society. In Iron Man 3, Stark chastises scientist Maya Hansen, creator of the violence-inducing Extremis serum, for twisting the good name of science.
At moments, the Iron Man film trilogy functions more like heightened realism than science fiction; the real world around us today bustles with drone technology, arms races, and corporate excess. Unmanned aerial flight is on the rise, in various iterations.
The Iron Man trilogy’s comingling of genius, weapons, and wit in one prodigious personality recalls physicist and famed lecturer Richard Feynman’s memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character (1985). Marvel creator Stan Lee modeled some of Tony Stark’s character after aviator-business magnate Howard Hughes, but in Robert Downey Jr.’s hands, Stark more nearly resembles Feynman. Stark is just as believable a thinker and investigator as he is a daredevil.
Both Feynman and Stark graduated MIT. Both had notable stints on the lecture circuit, though one needed liquor to finish them. Stark embodies what Feynman called the “pleasure of finding things out.” Like “Surely You’re Joking…” the Iron Man trilogy transforms tragedy, comedy, and brilliants feats of industrialism into an addictive serial. An issue of Popular Mechanics seems perfunctory by comparison. When the Iron Man movies deliver vegetables to audiences, they make them taste like dessert.
As high-tech proliferates beyond the common understanding, even a summer blockbuster can offer just the right combination of entertainment and information to stir a healthy debate on ethics.