Comics

My Own Private Singularity: "Iron Man: Rapture" and the Horror, the Horror

Kevin M. Brettauer
Standalone, and Complex: In a radical redefining of the Turing Test, the line between 'artificial' and 'intelligence' is blurred by humans observing the outcome in Iron Man: The Rapture

Tony, Ex Machina!: In Iron Man: Rapture, a very real, very human brush with death sends Tony Stark over the edge. When faced with his own mortality, what does the smartest man in the world do? It’s simple: build a better body. But at what cost?

Losing faith in your own singularity is the start of wisdom, I suppose; also the first announcement of death.

-- Peter Conrad

The problem is not simply that the Singularity represents the passing of humankind from center stage, but that it contradicts our most deeply held notions of being.

-- Vernor Vinge

Jim Jarmusch’s cult classic film Dead Man opens with the titular character, a young up-and-comer named William Blake (Johnny Depp), frequently confused for the poet of the same name, arriving in a town curiously named Machine to begin a new job during the Industrial Revolution. Going the way of rugged individualists of the era, Blake is excited for his future prospects, only to quickly find out upon his arrival that his job has been given away. That’s just the beginning of Blake’s misery.

Like The Sandman before it, Dead Man gives us enough information about the hero’s past and the life he had led up to the story’s starting point, but is really more a story about how and why he dies. The stories are about how they got to that point, what they could have done differently (but probably wouldn’t have), and, of course, how their deaths may have been avoided even as they asked for them. Like Dream, Blake is hard-headed and doesn’t understand, or possibly doesn’t want to understand, some of life’s more esoteric lessons. As the actual poet William Blake once put it, “The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.”

As Stephen King would argue, everything, like death itself, is eventual. After in-continuity Iron Man stories like Joe Quesada’s “The Mask in the Iron Man”, Warren Ellis’s “Extremis” and Daniel & Charles Knauf’s historic run -- after the Iron Man armor gained sentience, after Tony Stark became bonded to the suit, after Tony became, essentially, a latter-day information god -- it only makes sense that at some point in the near future, Tony would have to immanentize the eschaton…at least his own eschaton. After all, Tony Stark was just a playboy, a businessman, a rich guy in a suit. Iron Man…Iron Man was a hero. Iron Man was power. Iron Man was hope and fear and courage and shock and awe and, perhaps most importantly, Iron Man, like the company town of Machine, was the future.

Well, it’s the year 2010 now. The President of the United States is, for the first time in the nation’s history, a black man. Hidden security cameras in London photograph the average resident upwards of 300 times a day. The PADDs of the latter-day Star Trek programs have become reality in the form of Apple’s iPad. The controversial daughter of an even more controversial former Vice Presidential candidate can be seen dancing on “reality television” every week.

The human race is still no closer to curing cancer, eliminating hatred or ending war.

Time for a new Tony Stark. Time for a new Iron Man.

Alexander Irvine and Lan Medina’s fascinating and brilliant new alternate reality mini-series, Iron Man: Rapture takes all of these concepts and wraps them together in this take on the story of one of the smartest heroes in the Marvel Universe. Following a heart attack and subsequent massive nervous breakdown, Tony decides to build himself a new heart. But why stop there? The human body is frail, soft and so easily breakable. Tony Stark may not be God, but God damn if he’s not every bit the innovative inventor the world thought of him as. A new arm here, a new leg there…it would stop him from dying, right? And it could save the people he loves from dying, right? Hell, what about the world? Could this…could man becoming machine save the world?

But then the ethical questions come in. When does man stop being man and blend into the machine, or become it, or perhaps something else entirely? What, if not the AIs of Terminator, Matrix and Battlestar Galactica lore, is being created here? It’s said in the Bible that the meek, not the brash and cocky, will inherit the Earth. If, indeed, the self-righteous and the selfish seekers of the Technological Fountain of Youth are the future leaders of the planet, well, Brian May put it best: “Who wants to live forever?”

Rapture has been released at a particularly auspicious time. Technology, vanity and war, three of the key concepts infused into the character of Tony Stark when Stan Lee attempted to create, on a dare, a popular superhero based on Howard Hughes, are three of the main themes here in the early 21st century. As demonstrated in David Fincher’s flawed The Social Network, technology has made the world that much smaller, bringing us all closer together, but also has created generations of children who have been raised by boxes of one kind or another infused with pretty pictures and distracting sounds.

Elective surgery, artificial insemination and celebrity for the sake of celebrity seem to have pushed the quest to abolish AIDS and gain international equality for all people to the back of the proverbial bus. The United States and its “Coalition of the Willing” has been at war against the abstract notion of “terrorism” for nearly a decade, a fact that cannot be avoided when one watches Jon Favreau’s two Iron Man films, even as the so-called “War on Drugs” is essentially lost, an irony that is not lost on fans of the alcoholic superhero.

In its own fashion, and perhaps most importantly, Iron Man: Rapture takes aim at America’s system of mental health care with a high-powered repulsor and fires. Tony’s mental breakdown, which forces him into a suit of metal at all times, is not just a perfect parallel for Howard Hughes’ infamous struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but also a poignant metaphor for the worlds we must build for ourselves in moments of great despair. This is codified, of course, by the cliffhanger of the second issue and the creation of “Starkworld”.

Taking place in another reality as it does, a different take on a superpowered therapist like Leonard Samson, Emma Frost or Karla Sofen could have broken down the door to Tony’s lab and found some way to help mend his broken mind, perhaps with the benefit of a telepath like Charles Xavier, a magician like Stephen Strange or even Matt Murdock, who also once suffered a mental breakdown after the murder of Karen Page. But the fact that none of these people show up -- the fact that Tony’s surgeons gave up on him when he didn’t take their advice, and that the only people who really want to help him are life-long friends Pepper Potts and Jim Rhodes -- says wonders about how we treat the unwell among us. Their “otherness” -- for we never want to see that sort of problem in ourselves or our loved ones, Heaven forbid! – is what sets them apart from the rest of society…so we tell ourselves.

But in truth -- and Rapture points this out to great effect -- we push the ill away from us, further into despair, when we should instead be pushing ourselves more to help them before they get lost in the machine of their own creation. Whether that machine is a high-tech suit of armor run on an ARC reactor, a “clean room” collecting old films and milk bottles filled with the urine of an eccentric aviator or something as relatively simple as a substance abuse problem, it sometimes takes the construction of the worst sort of one’s own prison to realize we should have done more for the ones we love. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but a pill that needs to be taken for the good of humanity or we will all perish.

It needs to swallow that pill, because if Iron Man is the future of humanity --our future -- then we need to treat Rapture as the whole world’s Nazi Germany, the entire Earth’s Kitty Genovese, a global 9/11. Rapture tells us that no more can we lose great men, or any of our loved ones, to madness. It’s happened here, and it can happen here, but we can never let it happen again. We can see what’s happening in the world because art like Rapture is a window to the collective unconscious.

Like the novel and film Never Let Me Go, it tells us we need to acknowledge not just the past and present but also the future, synthesizing the three into a new world that is best for all of us. We can’t let humanity fall apart physically, mentally, spiritually or emotionally. We need to know and believe, like we did as children, that we’re all here for one another, that our hands are extended to even the most ill among us, and that when we pull them up from the gutters that Alex Garland talks about in Never Let Me Go’s screenplay and Alan Moore deliberately avoids mentioning in Neonomicon, we will put our arms around them and tell them with complete honest that everything will be alright.

Compassion is the key to our evolution on every single level. If we don’t care, we will die. We will become machines, or we will move to Machine. The United States, long the home of Tony Stark and his friends, has always had the eagle as its national symbol, and at one point used certain restrictions called “Jim Crow laws” to legalize and justify discrimination. The Jim Crow days are long behind us, at least on a legal level, but the stigma of discrimination between races, against certain sexual preferences, against various religions and people whose minds may not be as pristine as others’, still exists.

Among its many great points, chief among those found in Iron Man: Rapture is this: if the human race is to make it after all, it would befit the Eagle to spend time and learn of the Crow.

Mental health problems do not affect three or four out of every five persons but one out of one.

--Dr. William Menninger

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