Nice Job Kid: Fathers and Sons, Technology and Tomorrow in ‘Iron Man 2’

It really is just a flicker. A blip on the radar, a throwaway moment. It happens for a second, and then it ends. Almost literally, blink, and in that instant you will miss it. It is the closing stages of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2. One of the evocatively named “Hammeroids” has locked target on a nine-year-old kid. Our view, as the audience in the darkened theater, is the view through the heads-up display of the military drone, replete with its ceaseless digital analysis of the world the drone is immersed in. The kid in the mask stands still, subjected to the machine’s HUD. It takes us less than a second, but then it hits. This machine will decimate the kid. In just one second, the kid will be blasted. We’ve all seen what these Hammeroids do. We’ve been watching them obliterate the crowd gathered at the Stark Expo for the last 12 minutes.

And yet, this kid stands still. Dressed in children’s play clothes, he wears an Iron Man mask, and has a wrist-mounted mock-repulsor, pointed more involuntarily than defiantly at the machine whose eyes we see through. This is going to be a meaningless death, a tragedy. Director Jon Favreau’s genius in this moment is the equal of Frederico Fellini’s, or Akira Kurosawa’s. In a single shot, he captures not the heroism of the child, but leads viewers on a trajectory that allows them to weep for what might have been.

It is not the heroism of the child, but the flowering of a human mind. What might that kid have been, because of those toys?

For Favreau, the secret drama of Iron Man 2 is the articulation of a better tomorrow as the result of an immersion in cutting-edge technology. The secret story of Iron Man, and Favreau’s vision must be credited as one of the truly great characterizations (along with Michelinie and Layton’s, Fraction’s and Lee’s), is one of toymaking. It is a drama of how the almost ridiculously simple tools we use to evolve ourselves are really all we are for advancing cultural and social complexity. It is a liberating story, the story of an indomitable human ascendancy. And it is the darkest kind of horror story. In just one second, that kid with his toy repulsor is going to get snuffed out by a very real, science-fictional technology.

In his 2002 book Our Posthuman Future, readers are treated to a rarely-seen passionate side of neo-con thinker, Francis Fukuyama. More than a decade prior, in 1989, Fukuyama had set the cultural agenda for historical studies with his book The End of History. It was this book that posited a teleological orientation to history, culminating in liberal democracy and the nation-state. A heady time, Fukyama would singularize himself as the chief cultural chronicler of the fall of Communism. But early in the new millennium, Fukuyama would set the terms of the cultural debate again, this time, turning his eye to the emerging field of biotechnology. His single volume Our Posthuman Future, would begin with a horror story very similar to the one constructed by Favreau in the closing moments of Iron Man 2.

For Fukuyama’s generation, the great cultural debate would be defined by two horror stories; George Orwell’s 1984, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. While human society was just on the cusp of experiencing the potential horrors biotechnology as described by Huxley, Orwell’s vision of the future was very different in that it had already been dealt with. In the authoritarian, fascist future predicted by Orwell, the predominant technology, the telescreen, had become a tool for oppression. Fukuyama correctly identified the telescreen (a machine that could transmit and receive data) as the internet itself.

It is Fukuyama’s thesis that the generation that first experienced the horror of Orwell’s 1984, was so frightened by that image that they invented the internet to escape it. And with the internet came the freedom of the flow of information. The internet and free-flow of information seem to meld together so naturally that today, just more than a decade later, economic models based on charging for content remain inconceivable. In response to and imagined threat, a generation responded with a kind of defiance. The internet would never be a tool for oppression.

Nice Job, Kid

This is the vision of toymaking as discussed by Seth Lloyd in his Programming the Universe. That toys are made to allow us to understand from first principles the simple evolution of the rules that govern our world. Toymaking is itself a kind of liberation. The prescience of cultural complexity that allows for ‘thought-experiments’ well in advance of potential disaster or prosperity. For Lloyd and Fukuyama both, we advance ourselves through play, the simple mechanisms that allow the evolution of complexity. These mechanisms we find strewn across our childhood. We are the products of the choices we make as a result of the environments we are immersed in as young and inquiring minds.

But even without Lloyd, even without Fukuyama, the world of evolving complexity can be grasped at with a single image from Favreau’s Iron Man 2. A single kid points his toy repulsor at a science-fictional device meant to kill him. The act is one of surprise rather than defiance. But the defiance can be found at a completely other level. The defiance is that of gaining a secure purchase in a future that can continue to provide for human fortitude. What might have become of this kid in the toy Iron Man get-up? What might a generation of minds raised on Iron Tech look like? What would be the end result of a world where children are immersed in non-fatal repulsor technology rather than firearms and endless ammunition? In the remaining fractions of the second, we as the audience begin to mourn this unnamed child.

Viewers confront the silent heroism of a fallen son. The end of promise weighs heavily. Iron Man 2 has been building to this single moment for its entire two-hour-plus run thus far. All this time, audiences have been entreated to the stumble and the invariable fall of Tony Stark. It is an essay in a very necessary self-destruction. Perhaps the kabbalistic doctrine of Gevurah provides for the most apposite rendering of Favreau’s characterization of Tony Stark. How does one share an evolution with a world not yet ready for it? Rather than a triumph, Tony’s life has been haunted by his failure to deliver the vision established by his long-dead father. Rather than stare down the prospect of being consumed by the world, Tony prepares to entertain it. A Steve Jobs by way of Muhammad Ali. Technological evolution by way of consummate showmanship.

Tony Stark appears near-anonymously in the center background, about to be consumed by the world

Favreau’s genius lies in his capacity to shift the narrative dynamic from self-destructive narcissism to a higher order effectiveness. Tony’s story is not so much his own, not really a story measured by his own success or failure. It is the story of a nine year-old kid randomly thrust into a lie-or-death scenario. It is the story of the kind of world that might yet come from such childhoods as that. Tony’s story is the story of the enduringly indomitable. Tony’s story is less Howard Hughes than it is George Washington.

With less than one second to go, the Drone’s HUD shifts. Something indiscernible has caught the attention of its sensors, just outside of frame. Fully suited up in his armor, Tony Stark has rocketed in. Standing beside the kid, Tony levels his very real, very powerful repulsor against the Drone. Without thinking any further, he fires, forcing the Drone back into a Stark Expo out-building. The Drone has been disabled, permanently. Tony looks down at the nine year-old. ‘Nice job, kid’, he pronounces.

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