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Five essential tech lessons I learned from 'Iron Man 3'

Jason Snell | May 9, 2013
Marvel's latest superhero opus, Iron Man 3, opened in the U.S. this past weekend. I liked it, and thought its first 90 minutes were better than its climax, but because this is a tech site, I'll keep my movie criticism to a minimum. Instead, here's a list of some of the most interesting technology takeaways that I gleaned from my glimpse into Tony Stark's high-tech playground. (Warning: There are some spoilers ahead, but I've avoided the biggest ones.)

Marvel's latest superhero opus, Iron Man 3, opened in the U.S. this past weekend. I liked it, and thought its first 90 minutes were better than its climax, but because this is a tech site, I'll keep my movie criticism to a minimum. Instead, here's a list of some of the most interesting technology takeaways that I gleaned from my glimpse into Tony Stark's high-tech playground. (Warning: There are some spoilers ahead, but I've avoided the biggest ones.)

Biotech is scary, computer tech isn't

In a world that has largely embraced computer technology, where can we find high-tech bogeymen? In Iron Man 3, the answer lies in non-computer tech. Tony Stark's tech innovations, while amazing, are essentially mechanical. It's right there in the name: He's an Iron Man with amazing metal creations.

The villains of the film are powered by Extremis, which is biotechnology or nanotechnology or some villainous combination thereof. And so our face-off is between the powers of good, who use metal weapons and computer tech, versus scary bio-modified humans who can regenerate limbs and set things on fire.

The conflict says something telling about our society: While a human-machine hybrid (Tony injects receptor pellets into his arms so he can make his armor fly right onto his body) is actually kind of cool, bioengineered humans who can regrow arms and survive serious trauma are creepy. Tony Stark is hardly RoboCop, but we're comfortable with the Iron Man armor's head-up display in a way we simply aren't with actual biological modifications.

The medium is the message

Without giving one of the best bits of the movie away, it's safe to say that one clever message of Iron Man 3 is about terrorism being about marketing as much as violence, and (of course) that marketing anything is a largely cynical pursuit.

The Mandarin's attacks are always accompanied by a TV broadcast--though in true "Max Headroom" style, they're actually broadcast via hacking into TV satellites, rather than just posting a video file on the Internet like Al Qaeda does it. The Mandarin takes his media savvy one step further by always ending his messages with a cliffhanger, teasing his next attack.

Eventually we get to see behind the scenes of the Mandarin's TV studio, and we learn some of the details about how the videos are produced. Those scenes, which I won't spoil here, are a funny demystification of the media in general and terrorist videos in particular. In some ways, it reminded me of how Mel Brooks mocks Hitler at every opportunity. We must take the crimes of terrorists seriously, but there's something powerful about mocking them too.

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