Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Implications of Iron Man for IR night, the Spew family saw Iron Man.  We were celebrating a good week and then relief that came with Teen Spew taking the SAT yesterday morning.  It was also marking the beginning of summer--which official begins with movies aspiring to be the block-busters.  Iron Man 2 was meh, but we enjoyed the first one and Avengers very much.  So, we were looking forward to this one, and were not disappointed.  Well, that's not true.  I don't have any principal-agency theory to apply to the movie, as there was no team involved (definitely some shirking along the way) nor really any caveats.  Still, there is plenty of stuff in the movie to over-think beyond the break:

The most relevant things for those who study international conflict are the movie's depictions of drones and of terrorism.  First, the drone stuff.  In the movie, Tony Stark cannot sleep so he ends up making about forty versions of the Iron Man armor.  Throughout the movie, various forms of the armor operate with and without Tony.  Sometimes the Tony-less armor is directly under his control and sometimes they are controlled by JARVIS--the artificial intelligence that Tony created and is voiced by Paul Bettany.  This movie actually helps us, if we pay attention, to the distinction between drones as they exist now and the fears of autonomous killing machines. The drones of today are not autonomous--every missile launched by the various unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] are the result of a button or switch (or whatever) activated by someone operating the UAV from a base tens/hundreds/thousands of miles away.  When Tony is directly controlling the armor via various remote control technologies, the Iron Man suits are drones.  But when Tony is too busy and allows Jarvis to make the decisions about what to shoot and when, even if given parameters by Tony, then they are the autonomous combat machines.

This distinction is important because as my twitter feed constantly reminds me, a drone really is not that different from any other aerial platform.  A helicopter, such as the one that flew over the boat where the younger Tsarnaev was hiding, was doing pretty much the same thing as a UAV could have done.  Fears of armed drones flying over the US ignore the decades that the US has flown armed planes and helicopters over the US.  The big difference between armed UAVs and armed helos/planes are that the pilots are not in harm's way in the former.  That does matter politically in a big way, but in very specific ways. 

Now, having forty or so Iron Man suits flying about controlled by some intelligent software is exactly what folks fear about the future.  Not having a human on the kill switch means many things including the fears of an eventual uprising of the machines and violations of Asimov's Three Laws.  Of course, humans are not always so swell, but the rubicon to be crossed is not the UAV of today but the Iron Man + Jarvis of tomorrow.

The second bit of IR here is that the villain SPOILER behind it all is not the Mandarin but the head of think tank.  Yes, heads of think tanks are evil.  Think tanks are evil!!!  Ok, perhaps not, but once I heard that the character Guy Pearce played had set up A.I.M (Advanced Idea Mechanics), I knew he was a bad guy ...  if not the bad guy.  A.I.M. in the comic books is more than a think tank but a combination of rival arms manufacturer and private military contractor supporting bad guys and acting out its own evil plots. 

The key thing here is that the Mandarin here is a puppet/actor and not the bad guy that has haunted Iron Man for the run of the Iron Man comic books.  Check out the EW story about the development of the twist and Marvel's role.  Terrorism was merely a cover for the accidental explosions caused by the Extremis bio-enhancements.*

*  The funny thing is that in the movie, taking that drug caused people to get warm and blush (turn orange).  My neighbors are so very social that they helped give me that feeling via lemoncello, caramel schnapps and other liquors they were sharing in front of their houses after we got home from the movie.  Yet another reason to love Ottawa and feel great about the move.
So, what is the movie saying about terrorism?  I don't think it is making a claim that the defense contractors are funding AQ and its ilk, although one could read it that way.  Is it all RAND's fault?  Probably not.  But it is a useful reminder that terrorism is a strategy and not an ideology.  What motivates individuals and groups to use this strategy is an important question, with many folks dedicating much effort to "commit sociology" and economics and political science and psychology and so on to figure it out.  The movie takes a clear stand that it is less about profit and more about individual psychopathology.  Given the stories about the Tsarnaev brothers, the folks behind Iron Man may be onto something.

The movie itself is a fun ride with a heap of good action and excellent dialogue.  Rather than focusing on Tony's alcoholism (in the comic books), he has anxiety attacks and perhaps Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the events in the Avengers movie.

I have only one complaint because Mrs. Spew has not detailed all of the other plot holes yet for me: if A.I.M. was involved in Iron Patriot's upgrades, then why do they need to torture Rhodey with their plasma heat?  Can't they just order the suit to open up?  Stark does hack into Iron Patriot to get intel out of A.I.M via its networked connection to the suit, but, um, why not A.I.M. use it for the obvious purpose of controlling the suit?

The big news is summer is here and we have plenty of movies ahead to enjoy and over-think!

1 comment:

Doug Hadden said...

The movie would have been a lot shorter if AIM & Stark weren't throwing "beta" technology versions at each other.

It's also not clear why a company like Oracle wanted to be associated with the technology madness (as described at: It's as if sponsors are eager to exploit the military-industrial complex!