Chapter 2: In the beginning, when we were winning
It is said that every era gets the hero it deserves. In 2008, Iron Man, the armoured alter-ego of a complex and sometimes manic billionaire philanthropist was that hero.
In the summer of 2019, he is still probably the hero we deserve, debate is open as to whether he is the one we need.
But fear not, the MCU has given us some two dozen other superhero properties to flood to multiplexes to see should Tony Stark not be your cup of tea.
Whether engaged in harrowing space adventures, political thrillers/action movies, introspective journeys into the nature of reality and our minds, or a coming of age high school comedy/ superhero mentor story, Iron-Man is the perfect lynchpin for all these different genre movies.
His first film was released months before Barack Obama was elected US President and around a year before the ubiquitous rise of the smartphone. The film’s protagonist, Tony Stark – portrayed by Robert Downey Jr – was affirmation of the complex, but exciting new world that seemed possible within an emerging technological revolution.
The film reflected a well-intentioned hope that technology would break down the traditional barriers and siloes that stifled peoples‘ lives and limited economic prosperity to specific pockets of the world. The film reflected a well-intentioned hope that technology would break down the traditional barriers and siloes that stifled people’s lives and limited economic prosperity to specific pockets of the world. In the place of our old analogue societies, a shining new democratic approach to socioeconomics would be introduced with technology that would be impervious to stifling oversight.
So a longstanding, but somewhat B-list superhero in the Marvel cannon was suddenly reinvigorated and became something of an icon of our age, truly a case of the right time and right place.
A jaded figure, Tony Stark is a multi-billionaire raised with the complex, but highly cinematic character traits of snarky humour, a genius level intellect and a trust-fund disconnect from reality.
Yet out of this unlikely origin emerges a modern superhero that is forced to redirect his capability to build profitable weapons for the highest bidder to instead take up the good fight against his own corporation and other shadowy tyrants.
The initial film carried an interesting subtext about whether the character of Iron-Man was driven by a desire to do good, his unchecked ego, or a strange mix of both. It was an oddly humanising touch that perhaps explained the film’s initial appeal.
From its Kafkaesque opening, where the main character’s own weapons force him into a near fatal ordeal that sees him reviewing his life choices and seeking a better path for his family’s legacy, to his swaggering introduction to the world as its private sector protector, the film was massively well received.
Iron-Man was forged as a shining example of the era’s brief optimism. But he has evolved as a character over some ten movies to reflect our real-world hubris about the implications of new technologies on our lives. There are a range of real-world technical superpowers that have been afforded to the populace through permanently web-connected technologies that have posed a range of unintended challenges for society.
- Hawkeye: “The futurist, ladies and gentlemen. The futurist is here. He sees all. He knows what is best for you – whether you like it or not.
Captain America; Civil War (2016)
By 2016, a new president sat in the White House in the right wing form of millionaire TV personality and property developer Donald Trump.
Just a few weeks earlier, the Marvel Cinematic Universe ditched technological wizardry for magic of another kind – the tale of Doctor Strange. A gifted, but arrogant neurosurgeon. Dr Stephen Strange is forced to turn to mysticism after an accident shatters his body.
In time, his shift away from the material world and a life of personal aggrandizement leads him into a somewhat standard, bit visually arresting arc of heroic redemption. This all builds to a confrontation where he outsmarts a malevolent, existential manifestation of entropy from another dimension that threatens to reshape the world by using the very human concept of time.
By 2016, technology, whether in the form of Iron-Man, or permanent web connectivity, was no longer quite the obvious saviour to society’s ills that it seemed eight years earlier, particularly against threats beyond humanity’s everyday perception.
The MCU’s increasing embrace of the fantastical over a seemingly more tangible threat such as evil men in hiding in far away caves was arguably a good move for jaded audiences facing up to much more domestic fears about society and our futures.