Tony Stark. “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist”. Or, “handsome billionaire industrialist”. Or a great many other things that he’s been called and that he called himself.
Tony Stark truly is a fascinating character. With more than 50 years of history in the comics, and a truly mainstream cultural icon for over a decade through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he’s certainly made his mark on pop culture.
But… is it only pop culture?
With the above clip, Iron Man has officially left the realm of fiction and entered our reality. Granted, he’s hovering over the horizon, out of our current reach, but we’re heading his way.
Ok, so I’m clearly biased. :-)
There’s a reason I’ve gravitated toward Iron Man.
And I do think that Iron Man is the superhero of our age. His core being is the core being of the generations of our time.
It's not a new notion that popular culture, and comics in particular, are highly sensitive, and react swiftly to the cultural shifts over the times. More swiftly than the structural frameworks that govern our culture and society themselves.
Tony Stark was born fighting against Communists in the Cold War. Then, as time changed he's been reinvented for his backstory to stay current. But, through the many, many, many reinventions and reboots of the character, through the many, many, many versions from Earth-616 to Earth-999999, Tony Stark hasn’t changed at his core.
Iron Man isn't about fighting wars between nations or religions or economic forces. Tony Stark, despite being an American, isn't a national character but a global one.
He’s the archetype of a human being able to transcend being human through technology.
That’s called Transhumanism.
I’m a big fan.
(Superior Iron Man #001 (2015). (C) Marvel.)
If you were to google Transhumanism, or if you have heard of it, it probably wasn’t in connection with Tony Stark though. (I know. I checked.) What you will find, apart from the sensationalist, skin-deep trend-surfers of the topic, is a line of deep, thoughtful, and high quality material discussing the state of our race as human beings, and the changes that are becoming more and more impactful.
Long story short: there's a lot of boring stuff. Boring in the sense of how academia is boring compared to the everyday thinking of people. Normally I wouldn't say there's a problem with that, except the point Transhumanism is trying to make - or one of the points - is that with the right tools the two shouldn't be mutually exclusive.
On the other hand pop culture, no matter how highly an accurate barometer of cultural shifts, is all too often disregarded as “entertainment”. "Pop culture philosophy" has a bad rep, and frankly it largely deserves it. I've read "Iron Man and Philosophy" and it's bad. (And I translated, way-back-when, another collection in the same series. That was nearly 15 years ago, and it was equally bad back then.)
Not that the notion of exploring philosophy through pop culture is bad. Quite the contrary: pop culture can be a powerful device through which ideas can be communicated. Especially with Transhumanism, an area of thought that relies on its ideas and values being widespread.
I think just because something is entertaining doesn’t mean it can’t be educational. And I do believe that turning things around, and demonstrate complex ideas through independent stories in pop culture creates a powerful tool.
Long story short: if nobody else is willing to discuss this in a way that’s pretty much a perfect fit for it, I will.
Hence, this series.
The aim of Starkplug is to discuss issues, both topical and perpetually present, through the lens of a Transhumanist, and with the aid of stories, scenes, and metaphors borrowed from Marvel’s Iron Man.
And that starts with a Stark. Or, rather, it starts with understanding what Tony Stark is.
Tony Stark is the quintessential Transhumanist.
He is also often depicted as what we’d call a posthuman: a human being so advanced he’s no longer can be considered “normal”. I know that “not normal” is a general prerequisite for being a comic book superhero. But Tony Stark isn’t a “superhero”: he has no superpowers.
He’s intelligent, sure. He has an idealized morality — then again, he is a fictional protagonist. At the same time, he has more flaws, and very relatable flaws at that, than most other superheroes combined.
Tony is often described as the character designed to be unlikeable. As Stan Lee put it:
“I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him…”
Others have called him the “anti Spider-Man”. Peter Parker became popular because beyond his superhero life he was a high-school student with typical high-school student problems. Readers could relate to him.
But how do you relate to a billionaire weapons-manufacturer, who is pretty much an asshole? Tony Stark may not seem relatable at first, and he particularly didn’t seem relatable in 1963.
But, the world has changed.
Fast forward to 2008.
The reason why the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s kickoff was so successful is a complicated topic. But I do think there’s a huge part due to Iron Man being the perfect lynchpin around whom Marvel could build their empire.
(Via Iron Man Wiki.)
Iron Man is almost always referred to as a “second tier” hero in Marvel’s lineup, and traditionally speaking there may be a point to that — but that point is missing the fact that Iron Man is the perfect embodiment of the world as we live it now.
We live our lives surrounded by technology. It may not seem as slick as an Iron Man armor, but the fact remains that technology became so omnipresent that it is practically an extension of our selves.
Stern: Do you or do you not possess a specialised weapon?
Tony: I do not.
Stern: You do not?
Tony: I do not. Well, it depends on how you define the word weapon.
Stern: The Iron Man weapon.
Tony: My device does not fit that description.
Stern: Well… How would you describe it?
Tony: I would describe it by defining it as what it is, Senator.
Tony: It’s a high-tech prosthesis. That is… That is… That’s actually the most apt description I can make of it.
I’d argue that we’re all Transhumanists, and have been since the first time we used a rock or a branch, instead of our fists, to hunt down and animal.
Moreover, depending on how we define “human”, we’re all posthumans. We’re so vastly different from the people of a hundred or a thousand years ago, one can make the argument that the often cited “posthuman-godlike” equivalency doesn’t seem so far-fetched any more.
There’s nothing different, on a conceptual level, between a rock to kill an animal or a smartphone to hold phone numbers - or a repulsor tech (in the movies arc reactor) chest device that saves our lives.
There’s only a goal we need to achieve and a tool that lets us achieve it faster, easier, or more efficiently than relying on our default biology.
Just like Tony Stark couldn’t have survived without the repulsor tech in his chest, and he couldn’t have survived against his foes without his armors, humanity simply couldn’t have survived without tools, without technology.
We’re not especially strong and we’re not particularly adaptable — but we’re very good at using our intellect to invent stuff that are, or make us into all those things. Just like Tony Stark is so good at inventing armors that make him into capable of holding his own against demigods, aliens, or whole armies of men.
This is why I don’t understand much of the criticism leveled against Transhumanism. And this is why I don’t understand how come nobody have used Tony Stark as a poster child for Transhumanism. The metaphor is just way too good.
And that’s only the very beginning. From that point forward, as if a dam has been broken, Tony Stark keeps evolving, letting technology loose and following — not controlling — it.
That’s the difference: control.
Tony Stark’s idealized morality prevents him from seeking control over this incomparable power; in fact, his conflicts more often than not stem from his responsibility to stop those who do seek to control his technology. Be those terrorists, supervillains, or the US government itself.
One of my favorite Iron Man stories, if not the favorite, is Superior Iron Man. I love it because it’s the first time Tony Stark explicitly acknowledges that he’s no longer human, but something more.
(Superior Iron Man #003 (2015). (C) Marvel.)
(Granted, the story revolves around how the Axis event has reverted him back into his pre-Iron Man days, and that combined with the experience of what he’s capable of have burnt his morality right out of him.)
But narrative positioning non-withstanding, Superior Iron Man brings so many good Transhumanist observations. The moral of the story, for me, isn’t that technology is bad. It's that regulating technology, based on the rules of what it aims to replace, is bad.
Where others may seem a cautionary tale of the dangers of technology, I see a cautionary tale of technology misused for local gain instead of a global benefit.
To put it in context: the Iron Man technology isn’t a weapon when it’s Pepper Potts in it as Rescue. It is a weapon, often enough, when it's Tony Stark. But the argument becomes hypocritical when the same technology is considered bad or evil when it’s controlled by Ivan Vanko or Hammer Industries.
Tony Stark arrived with a very simple premise: he’s a human who needs to invent technology to survive. And the writers followed that very simple premise wherever it led them. That, by and in itself, is the metaphor.
I think it's important that we start with a premise just as simple.
That’s why it starts with a Stark.
Who Tony Stark, at his core, is, is essential human nature.
And that’s why I’m drawn to Iron Man (on an intellectual level; I can’t say the slick visuals have nothing to with it :-) ), and why Tony Stark can be the perfect illustration through which we can understand more about the world we live in.
But perhaps even more importantly: the world we’re about to live in.