Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Iron Man: Philosopher King

WARNING: This is a post about the movie "Iron Man." It contains massive spoilers.

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that we don’t know that there is any such thing as a “superhero comic movie.” Let’s look at “Iron Man” as just a movie that is dealing with the real world, as best it can.

The movie opens with the protagonist (Stark) in a military convoy that gets ambushed. Flashback to explain how he got to this point, who he is, etc. Salient points: he’s a super-rich playboy / mechanical genius, the majority owner and controller of a major weapons manufacturer. He has no concerns whatever about the morality of his field, because he believes in a Reaganesque “peace through strength,” and that it’s important that the good guys have the weapons. But he is not a moral idiot, or someone to whom ethics, right and wrong, are unimportant; he has clearly thought about the issue.

So, back to the present. Stark is captured by bad guy Arabs. Later in the movie, we learn that Stark has been betrayed by another member of his company, and that the Arabs are being paid to capture him and parade him around in front of the cameras. However, the Arabs didn’t know just how rich and important he was; they demand more money, and some negotiations take place ... which takes time. During this time (or so I’m understanding the movie), while they’re waiting around to get paid, they figure, hey, we’ve got a mechanical super-genius who designs weapons; we’re minor warlord type figures who want more power; so why not see if we can’t get him to design us some weapons before we kill him. They provide Stark with raw materials for his work: weapons produced by Stark’s own company. Stark is horrified to see his weapons owned and used by the warlords.

So far, this story isn’t the most likely in the world, but there’s nothing impossible about it. There really are hosts of people out there in the world, especially the less developed parts of the world, who are desperate for power. In such places, power (in an important sense) really does flow out of the barrel of a gun. Warlords really do seek the biggest, best, and most technologically up to date guns, to increase their power. And weapons manufacturers really do sell their guns to whoever can pay for them. And this practice really is horrifying, to anyone with any moral sense at all.

Capturing one guy, putting him in a cave, and saying “Build us a gun!”: OK, that’s not so realistic an expectation for them to have. Let’s mark this as “Nonrealism Point 1" and move on.

Instead of designing the weapon they want, Stark designs the famous Iron Man costume, which turns him into a world-class weapon. Because this is the Beta version, cooked up in a cave, it doesn’t work perfectly, but it’s still pretty awesome. Stark blows through the bad guys and escapes. The new weapon is powered by a brand new power source that Stark invents in the cave. Mark these as “Nonrealism Points 2-4": (2) new power source never before realized; (3) brilliant new technology built in a cave on a short time-frame; (4) powerful outfit turns individual human into killing machine. We’ll return to these issues soon.

Now we’re back to realism. Stark returns home, and immediately announces that his company will no longer be manufacturing weapons. He’s driven by a purely moral imperative here: he’s horrified that his weapons are being used for evil. (Frankly, Stark’s outrage is well-founded.) The market responds realistically, by sending the stock price into a tailspin. Company insiders respond predictably: they try to force him off the board and gain control of Stark Industries so that they can continue to make weapons, and money. It’s the profit motive versus basic human decency, and in the real world, as in the movie, you’d be smart to bet on the profit motive.

Stark starts work on improving the Iron Man suit, to perfect the weapon. But he does so in secret, in his own home, quite apart from the company. In fact, due to his total focus on this project, he does start to lose control of the company. Nonrealistic elements come in again: Stark succeeds in the new weapon design, entirely on his own (with only the help of a few highly amusing robots), with no real bugs in the design, over what seems to be a short time-frame. But these aren’t really new elements of unrealism, just repetitions of points 3 and 4.

Stark becomes Iron Man, a self-contained weapon in the fight against evil. He then takes as his mission the destruction of all the weapons that his company has manufactured that have made their way into the wrong hands. Along the way, he stops a warlord or two from inflicting some ethnic cleansing / murder / rape / etc. on some local populations.

Soon after, our Hero is finally provided with a Villain to fight against: a formerly trusted founding member of his own company, who hijacks Stark’s own suit and builds a larger and stronger version, using the same miracle energy source that he also steals from Stark. (I don’t think any significant Unrealism points should be added here: the construction of amazing new technology under short time frames has already been covered.) They have a big fight and of course the good guy wins. End movie.


In my view, “Iron Man” is a movie set in a totally realistic world. People’s motivations are recognizable. The world they live in is clearly our world. There are no invisible airplanes, no guys with unnatural powers that are rendered inoperable by Kryptonite, no radioactive spiders bestowing powers with a single bit. No made up countries or cities like Gotham. No supervillains with impossible abilities. In a word, nothing magical. Nothing impossible. Nothing that says “we’re clearly in a fantasy world.” Iron Man takes place entirely within the real world.

With the exception of the four highly unrealistic points.

What’s most interesting about “Iron Man,” to me, is that we learn the most by examining carefully the unrealistic moments. The moments of unrealism, the moments that turn the movie into a superhero-comic movie, show us more about the real world than do the realistic elements.

OK, what the hell do I mean by that?

Let’s imagine what it would take to make this movie fully realistic. We will keep all of the basic plot points, but get rid of all of the unrealistic elements.

To recap. Nonrealism point 1: the warlord thinks Stark can build him an awesome new weapon while Stark is in a cave. Nonrealism points 2 through 4: Stark creates the awesome new weapon, in the cave, in a very short period of time, using a new power source that he creates on the spot.

How to make all of that realistic?

Well, let’s take Stark out of the cave, give him a team of designers, an unlimited budget, and as much time as he needs. As for the new power source: hey, why not? There are advances in technology all the time. Someone has to be the first to come up with important technological advances. Nuclear power was brand new, once.

So, I propose some substitutions:

For Stark, substitute a huge team of scientists.
For the Iron Man suit, substitute a new and extremely powerful weapon, plus the military capability to use it.
For the short period of time, substitute a period of many years.
For the cave (and Stark’s individual laboratory), substitute a massive laboratory complex.

So the fully realistic version of the movie would go something like this. A team of scientists, working in a massive laboratory complex, designs a new weapon, over a period of many years.

(Pretty boring movie so far.)

They then put this weapon to its intended use. And that use is ... destroying other weapons that have fallen into the wrong hands. Those other weapons, of course, were presumably created by, um, teams of scientists, working over periods of many years, in massive laboratory complexes.

Now the movie has turned from boring to incoherent. How can the creation of weapons ... stop weapons from falling into the wrong hands? What’s to prevent the cycle from just spinning up one level, with the new weapons themselves falling into the wrong hands, requiring newer and better weapons to destroy them?

Answer #1, of course, is that this precise question is in fact a major theme in the movie. And it’s a point very well taken. One begins to think that the entire obsession with building better weapons so that peace may come may be a bad idea to start with. This is not exactly revolutionary, but it counts as a decently interesting point for a movie to be making, if you ask me.

But answer #2 is even more interesting.

Ask yourself this question: why did the movie make Stark an individual rather than a team of scientists? After all, it’s this move that makes the movie unrealistic, right? What is gained through this sacrifice of realism?

OK, yes, obviously, it makes it a more fun movie. More to the point, it turns it into a superhero movie, and superhero movies make a ton of money at the box office. But let’s not slide so quickly into the cynical explanations.

Let’s return to that scene where Iron Man jets into the warlords’ area, frees the civilians from the warlord, kills the warlord’s henchmen, and turns the warlord himself over to the civilians for justice. This is a scene that, to judge by the audience’s reaction, we all long to see. We would all love to save the innocent, and find a way to bring justice to the guilty. And there really are individual warlords out there, people with just enough power to bring rape, murder, and terror to the lives of others around them. There really are weapons manufacturers out there, selling their products to the highest bidder and making it easier for these things to happen.

We know that these evils exist. How can they be stopped in the real world? Well, it’s pretty easy to rewrite that one scene to make it realistic. Have a team of military guys come in and do all the things that Iron Man does with his suit. That wouldn’t be a superhero movie, but it would be pretty cool.

But in the real world, as “Iron Man” correctly notes, the military and corporations employing scientists are part of the problem, not the solution. Try to imagine a group of scientists plus a group of soldiers, working together in some institution that was truly committed to justice, unswayed by petty jealousies, vile political alliances, profit motives, etc. etc. ad nauseum. What you would have in that case would be a team of well-funded scientists that can develop the weapon, as well as a team of military people that will use the weapon... and that this whole, coordinated team has an unshakeable sense of justice and morality. Now try to imagine writing a movie about that outfit. A movie about a massive “scientific-military complex” that absolutely positively refuses to permit weapons to fall into the wrong hands, and that will take any action, at any cost, with no moral compromises, to prevent that from happening.

Talk about unrealistic!


The world of “Iron Man” is entirely realistic in its portrayal of evil, its causes and supporting factors. And if you’re going to think realistically, seriously, about what it would take to actually improve the world, to stop the reality of ethnic cleansing and related atrocities ... you’re going to conclude: it’s going to take an Iron Man. It’s going to take something with both tremendous power and an incorruptible sense of justice, of right and wrong.

The deepest unrealism in the movie is not the fun new weapons or the gadgets. Those exist, as we all know all too well. Give the Pentagon enough time and money, and they’ll build you an Iron Man suit, or something very close to it. The unrealism is also not the individual person with a deep sense of morality who is willing to act on it. We know those exist, although they’re relatively rare. The unrealism comes with the pairing of the weaponry and the power with the morality, the clear and uncompromising sense of justice.

The person of Iron Man, in brief, is a gorgeous expression of Socrates’ Philosopher-King. And the movie “Iron Man” echoes Socrates’ insistence that the world requires such a creature. At the same time, the movie’s very unreality makes clear Socrates’ other conclusion, that the Philosopher-King is an impossible combination. The people who know the meaning of justice and are dedicated to it will never rule. The people with the power will never understand the nature of justice, let alone be unconditionally dedicated to it.

“Iron Man” is “unrealistic” because the problem is impossible. The movie posits a single, moral person with unbelievable powers: it takes the Philosopher as a given, and makes him a King. But to do the opposite would be even less believable: take the really existing Kings, and make them Philosophers.

But Socrates was right. Nothing less than this combination of Philosopher-King (a.k.a. Iron-Man) is adequate to respond to the (real) world’s (actual) evils.