Iron Man 2: Technology, Humanity, and Legacy

7 05 2010

I got out at midnight Thursday to watch the premiere of “Iron Man 2.” Yeah, I know … crazy. But, even though I don’t wear the superhero t-shirts or still buy the comic books, I am at heart quite a fan of the superhero genre. Perhaps it’s the escapism or the imagination or the psychological need to vicariously live a life that is adventurous and meaningful in all the idyllic ways.  Or perhaps it’s just that I’m a guy and  these movies more often than not are just simply cool. One thing I know, superheroes make for great summer movies. Relentless action, cutting-edge effects, reality escape, and  – for me, at least – there are always some pretty important perspectives on life. Iron Man 2 is no different; and it carries a message with it that our world, our culture, and our churches need to ponder.

The movie sets up almost immediately the idea of “legacy” – of what someone leaves behind after they’re gone. But it sets it up in parallel and contrasting ways (both of which we discover later are not necessarily positive). The movie starts with Ivan Vanko – a physicist and son-of-a-physicist who worked with Tony Stark’s father on the same “ark-reactor” technology that now powers Tony’s (Iron Man’s) heart and armored suit. The elder Vanko had been deported back to his mother Russia through the influence of the elder Stark when it was decided his motivations and intentions for the technology were less than ideal. The movie opens with Ivan Vanko watching his father die after referencing the now famous and wealthy Tony Stark with a “that should be you” and the final words of “all I can pass on to you is my knowledge.” The knowledge he is referring to is a copy of the plans for the ark-reactor power, which he now leaves his son to use. His son – we will soon find out – does use that technology, not to benefit mankind, but to exact revenge on Tony Stark. One man’s legacy passed on revealed as solely “knowledge” in a moral vacuum of how such knowledge should be used.

Tony Stark appears next on the scene in the midst of the “Stark Expo” – an international show of technology for Stark industries, in and of itself a “legacy” left for Tony by his father. In his opening remarks, Tony says several times “it’s not about me” and refers to the ideas of “legacy” and “what we leave for the next generation.” Still, one cannot get around the obvious – that while, unlike Vanko, the technology is being used for good and not for evil, it is still in a bit of a moral vacuum of self-interest and narcisscism. This is especially reinforced by Tony’s interaction with a senate committee in the following scene. While we side with Tony by nature, something in us tells us that his pride will lead to some pretty serious issues during the ensuing couple of hours. Here is a second legacy of knowledge left without much moral guidance as to how that should be used. His “good” use of technical knowledge did not come from what was given him so much as his near-death experience in the first Iron Man movie.

That just lays the foundation for the story to unfold. Attempting to not betray too much of the movie, what we find along the way is that Vanko never really escapes the trap of his legacy of bitterness and revenge, while Tony discovers that his legacy may be a bit more than what he had perceived and finds a way to grow beyond himself into a new legacy that perhaps may actually be worth leaving for another generation. This legacy that he discovers – and Vanko does not – is larger than knowledge and extends to the areas of what truly makes us human – something played out dually in the story and in the symbolism of his superhero personality.

I found this thread in a couple of fairly non-descript statements in the film. First of all, anyone familiar with Tony Stark’s character should be able to see that the name “Iron Man” works on more than one level, accurately describing both Stark’s supersuit and his less-than-super ability to have authentic, truly intimate, and vulnerable relationships with those around him. He is famously the consummate playboy, the inimitable hedonist, the person who attempts to fill voids in his heart with the false intimacy of casual sexual relationships and the false acceptance of party friends and the false vulnerability of keeping people around you call friends while refusing to disclose to them your truest and deepest concerns, weaknesses, and fears. In this movie, however, we begin to understand that many of these issues may be a result of Tony’s relationship with his father – a father he describes as detached and  distant, not ever saying “I love you” or even “I like you.”

This helps bring some context and meaning to one statement in the film early on. We find out that the element (palladium?) that Tony is using to power his heart is toxic to his blood and – simply stated – is killing him at an increasing pace (especially of interest for us “symbol-seekers” is that it is mentioned that this is increased by his wearing of the Iron Man suit – his invulnerable armor and protection). Anyway, the scripted line says something to the effect of “the very thing that’s keeping you alive (a palladium-powered heart) is killing you.” This seems to be true of Tony’s heart in another way as well – his heart, literally keeping him alive, is also figuratively killing him, broken as it is from a non-relationship with his father and a life of non-intimacy with people.

This leads to a moment when Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) brings to him some materials from Tony’s father, who – unknown to Tony – is a founding contributor to S.H.I.E.L.D (just wtch the movie or read some comic books). Anyway, it is in these materials that Fury tells Stark that he will find the answer to his “heart problem.” Yes, he eventually discovers the literal fulfillment of this statement  in the discovery of a “new element” which is more powerful and non-toxic that his dad knew of but could not reproduce in his technological time. But it is in these materials that Tony also discovers things about what his dad felt for him (“my greatest creation”) that helped him solve his other “heart problem.” He immediately began to take steps to make himself vulnerable to others (especially Pepper Potts) with whom he had long avoided the true nature of his feelings. At the time, he felt he was still dying, but this caused him to realize that legacies are not about what you leave behind so much as who you leave behind.  As great as technological advances may be, as many advantages as they may create, humanity is affected more by relationship than by scientific knowledge. Real legacies are not left in what we build, but in who we build into.

The projected technological world devoid of true humanity is a common theme in science fiction, always driving us back (hopefully) to the realization that technology without humanity and without relationship is an existence that our souls simply cannot afford. Tony Stark may have finally realized that in this movie. For one generation that wants to leave a legacy that means something for the next, we cannot forget that. This is true for our world where gadgets get more unbelievable everyday. This is true for our American culture of prosperity where – even when “good” is done with technology – it is often driven by self-interest and personal agendas. This is true for our churches where knowledge may be emphasized over relationship or where modern advancement in technique and strategy is substituted for authenticity and vulnerability. I wonder – in all of these cases – if what’s keeping us alive is also killing us. If so, we need to drop the armor and develop a legacy that is invulnerable instead.

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