Thursday, April 28, 2011

Machine Man

Thanks to the Blockbuster queue (my seven-year-old son calls it the Blockbuster “cube”), I saw a fantasy film last night that brings together many of the issues I’ve been blogging about of late: technology, spirituality, fatherhood. It was, of all things, Iron Man 2, and like its predecessor, it wasn’t half bad (even if, in the end, it was a bit muddled). Still, I’ll take it over The Dark Knight any day.

Iron Man 2 opens with gazillionaire Tony Stark hosting a revived “Stark Expo,” which his deceased father originated a quarter-century earlier. A showcase for his dad’s (and his own) technological utopianism, their belief that technology can make the world not only a better place but a perfect place, the Expo seems to be vindicated by the exploits of Stark’s alter-ego, Iron Man, who in a very short span of time has used his high-tech iron suit to bring about an unprecedented era of world peace. But the film undercuts Stark’s confidence by showing what’s going on behind the scenes: Iran and North Korea are trying (though at the moment failing) to build their own Iron Man weapons, Stark’s competitor for military contracts is creating Iron Man drones, and a rogue Russian physicist, memorably played by Mickey Rourke, has succeeded in reproducing the reactor technology his father co-designed with Stark’s father, enabling him to wear and wield a high-voltage reactor weapon. Meanwhile, the reactor technology built into Stark’s own Iron Man suit, a technology that not only gives him super powers but keeps him alive, is also slowly killing him as its radioactive elements leech into his bloodstream. All is not well, it appears, in the world that technology has built.

But then, with the introduction of a home-movie lecture from Stark’s father, the film shifts, suggesting that technology is indeed not only a panacea but may well be divine. Looking directly at the camera (and at his son, who’s watching the home movie), the absent father, who in life was too busy with his experiments to pay attention to his young son, reveals to his grown heir the sub-atomic secrets he himself was unable to unlock due to technological limitations. Armed with his father’s knowledge and the technological advances of our own day, Tony manages with ridiculous ease to produce a particle accelerator that creates a new element, one capable of keeping his heart beating without destructive side effects. In other words, the Starks, father and son, become gods, creating new matter and new life. Faith in technology--and in fatherhood--seems safe once more.

And yet, in another turn, the Stark demons come home to roost when Iron Man must face an army of the drones his own technology has enabled his competitors and enemies to create. He triumphs, of course, with the help of his trusty African-American sidekick (a racial stereotype the film could well have done without), but only after the drones, as well as the good guys’ efforts to defeat them, have caused untold chaos. So we’re left with a very ambiguous message, wherein advanced technology both saves and destroys, brings both peace and war, serves both God and Satan (not to mention Mammon).

What I like about the Iron Man movies is this ambiguity, or ambivalence, or even (to be less charitable) this confused, have-one’s-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality. Unlike the Batman movies, which trot out simplistic propositions about life and refuse to challenge or undermine them, the Iron Man films question their own conventional wisdom, their own sacred truths, even their own vested interests. (Let’s not forget, after all, that the cinema itself is a highly advanced technology, and any film that traffics in technological utopianism and/or dystopianism implicitly fingers its own medium. The Iron Man movies make this connection explicit, as everything in Tony Stark’s world--his phone, his coffee table, the interior of his suit, even the air around him--is transformed into the equivalent of a handheld, wireless touch-screen.) So where the Batman films are screaming at the top of their lungs “Life is complicated!”, but doing nothing to visualize or, for that matter, complicate such complexity, the Iron Man films are showing us something of that complexity in the texture of the films themselves. In that respect, these films are heirs to a long and honorable fantasy-film tradition, going back to Metropolis and The Wizard of Oz and forward to Alien, Blade Runner, RoboCop, and others, in which technology becomes both medium and means for reflecting on matters of church and state, machine and man, faith and fantasy--including our culture’s faith in the fantasy of film itself.

This doesn’t make these films masterpieces. But it does make them worth watching--just as the issues they address are worth watching out for.

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