Icons of an Era

"Everything is achievable through technology. Better living, robust health. And for the first time in human history, the possibility of World Peace. So from all of us here at Stark Industries, I'd like to introduce you to the City of The Future.

"Technology holds infinite possibilities for mankind and will one day rid society of all its ills ... "

-- Howard Stark (portrayed with trademark insouciance by Mad Men star John Slattery) introduction to the 1974 Stark Expo replayed by son Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to open the present-day Stark Expo in Iron Man 2.

It's highly debatable that every era gets the political leaders it deserves. More likely is that every era gets the cinematic icons it deserves. Or at least wants.

In this era, with movies more globalized and insistently present in the culture than ever, three iconic cinematic figures are very much front and center, their latest movie outings from last year and this in the all-time top 10 in worldwide box office.

Tony Stark/Iron Man, Bruce Wayne/Batman, James Bond, these are powerful but hardly invulnerable figures. While each is troubled, shadowed by darknesses both personal and societal, the most popular of them, the maverick ex-arms dealer/technologist Tony Stark/Iron Man, hails at least as much from the light as from the dark.

Entertaining though they are, these iconic figures, and the movies they're in, pose some fundamental questions about today's world.

What do we need to protect our society? What are the threats to our society? How much of the threat is within ourselves? How do we power our society in a sustainable way?

The icons and their films engage with clean energy, the promise and peril of technology, terrorism and the security state, and questions of systemic corruption and betrayal.

Be warned, of course, that many spoilers ensue.

  • Tony Stark as Iron Man makes his grand entrance at the Stark Expo, where he makes an opening statement, in Iron Man 2.

Stark the Angeleno, Wayne the New Yorker, Bond the Londoner, despite their different geographical groundings, they have much in common.

Stark, colorfully played by Oscar nominee Robert Downey, Jr., is the main character in the current Iron Man 3, now number five on the all-time list with over $1.2 billion in worldwide box office, and in 2012's The Avengers, number three all-time with more than $1.5 billion.

Wayne, authoritatively played by Oscar winner Christian Bale, is the hero of The Dark Knight Rises, the 2012 Batman adventure which took in nearly $1.1 billion, as well as 2008's billion dollar classic The Dark Knight and the 2005 film with which director Christopher Nolan began the trilogy, Batman Begins.

Bond, now with us in movie form for more than a half-century, has been played by fewer men than have walked on the Moon, but seldom if ever so effectively as by BAFTA nominee Daniel Craig, who headlined last fall's Skyfall. By any measure the biggest Bond film since the '60s, the elegant Skyfall stands at number eight on the all-time global list, with more than $1.1 billion in takings.

Two are superheroes who don't have superpowers and one is a super-agent who exists on the sufferance of Her Majesty's Secret Service. All three are investigators.

Each is very much an individual operator by nature, but in the end, they all prevail only as part of a team.

And each is heavily impacted by technology and surrounded by strong female characters. As is also the case in the films of James Cameron, who has the top two films on the all-time global box office list, Avatar and Titanic.

Intriguingly, the arcs of both Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne find them both developing and promoting clean and potentially unlimited energy. Each in the end must defend and save that most iconic and globally problematic of our great cities, New York, against villains who would use our potentially salvational technology against us. Both save New York City from nuclear destruction. One, Tony Stark, survives, barely, but only with help from a friend. The other, Bruce Wayne, apparently survives, though the film can be read another way.

In contrast, but no less telling for the contemporary scene, Bond's arc is more about his value as a throwback super-agent against the encroachment of a remote new era of high-tech surveillance and drone strikes. As he tellingly notes to the new computer geek variant of his longtime armorer, Q, often as not the job is knowing when not to pull the trigger.

Wayne also puts down a big marker in the remote control surveillance state debate with the 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight, in which he turns the personal tech of the people of Gotham City, the ever standby stand-in for New York City in the Batman universe, into part of a vast network of surveillance and control in his quest to track down that ultimate agent of anarchy, the Joker.

The Dark Knight Rises brought one of the great genre trilogies to a satisfying conclusion.

As dark as things can get for today's cinematic icons, and they can get very dark indeed, especially in the world that produces Batman as its arguably deranged champion against corruption within and long-range conspiracy without, the troubled icon in the most popular of these extravaganzas comes from a background of technological uplift.

We first meet Tony Stark's father, Howard -- think of a cross between Howard Hughes and Walt Disney -- at his retro-futuristic 1943 World Expo in Captain America: The First Avenger. There, in an art deco version of heaven, he shows off a levitating car, which isn't quite perfected.

From that heritage, it's a logical set of steps to Tony Stark's Vegas-in-Manhattan Stark Towers in The Avengers, "a beacon of self-sustaining, clean energy" as he calls the massive demonstration project.

Stark's engaging egomania joins with the sunny promise of technology even as he rejects the dark side of weapons development and arms dealing which gave rise to his vast fortune.

Father and son's Stark Expos, entertainingly promising better living through technology, highlight the implicit social bargain we have today explaining why high tech execs are relatively revered while other business people and financiers are not.

Now we see the danger for them of having their privileged semi-folk hero position be undermined by the current surveillance state revelations.

Of course, since Iron Man, like Batman, is a superhero, albeit one without special powers beyond those afforded him by his intellect, physical capability, and, oh yes, immense resources, he is more into the magic of techno-fix. With one key change, enabled by an extraordinary individual, we have a plug and play solution. In reality, while the solar cell in my sports watch powers all sorts of neat functions it can't come close to powering an Iron Man suit. But that solar cell represents the new energy technology which exists now but requires not just individual engineering but social engineering to have widespread effect.

All of the films deal extensively with technology.

As do the two top films of all time in global box office, James Cameron's Avatar and Titanic. Avatar for obvious reasons, set in a far but familiar future in which Earth forces, having exhausted the home world, seek to turn a magical planet into a place of resource extraction. Titanic is less obviously, but no less real a technology-oriented movie.

For the Titanic was conceived and built to epitomize the technological ascendancy and essential elegance of the Edwardian Era. It turned out, of course, to be a telling symbol of the hubris of the world's elites on the precipice of a mega-crisis they could not yet perceive, the devastation of the First World War. Which in turn gave rise to the Second World War, which in turn set the stage for the Cold War and an era of brutal brushfire wars in Vietnam and elsewhere, which helped inspire, along with Robert Heinlein's seminal scifi novel Starship Troopers, Cameron's second breakthrough film, Aliens.

Of course, it was with the relatively low-budget film that preceded Aliens, a little movie starring a fellow named Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator, that Cameron established his powerful trademark cinematic trope of the cautionary tale of our fascination for and fixation on high technology.

The fictional Tech Noir club in downtown LA in which Schwarzenegger's relentless cyborg from the future shoots it out with his fellow time traveler Kyle Reese actually provides a good name for Cameron's oeuvre.

For all the sweep and immersiveness, environmentally-oriented political commentary, and sheer technical accomplishment of Avatar, and for all the telling retro romance of Titanic, not to mention the gritty bug hunt gone south scifi drama of Aliens, it's in his three collaborations to date with Schwarzenegger that Cameron provides his most powerful cinematic icon.

The Terminator films, which created the opportunity for Cameron to make Titanic and Avatar, present the excitement and danger of our fixation on technology, with our own tech evolving and turning against us. The evolved artificial intelligence of Skynet, meant to protect against the threat of a collapsing Soviet Union, determines instead to eradicate the true threat to the planet: Its own creators.

In Schwarzenegger's ruthlessly relentless terminator, the cold malevolence of Skynet finds its chilling personification, the simple phrase "I'll be back" -- which Schwarzenegger now self-deprecatingly says he wanted to change -- taking on multiple layers of menace and irony.

In the second Terminator, as perfect a scifi action film with brains as ever made, the ultimate agency of humanity even over its most out of control technological creations is affirmed when a reprogrammed Arnold is sent back by the human rebels of the future to protect the young leader of humanity's future fight, John Connor, and his ferocious warrior of a mom, Linda Hamilton's perfectly etched waitress-turned-guerilla fighter. The relentless hunter-killer of the first film becomes the determined protector of humanity's future, even down to the self-awareness that he must himself be destroyed in the end in order to protect the contemporary civilization from a technology too advanced than to do anything but feed its own adolescent appetite for destruction.

Along with the first two Terminator films, Cameron and Schwarzenegger did their own high-tech take on Bond, 1994's True Lies, which will be left to the next big take-out on Bond.

Skyfall's memorable 50th anniversary edition of Bond proved the most popular film in British history.

The first Iron Man film is a tale of revelation and redemption. When we meet Tony Stark, he is a billionaire playboy a la Howard Hughes in his sunny days at the center of the American military industrial complex. Son of another Hughes-ian archetype, Howard Stark, who "helped give us the bomb," he is getting an award in Vegas he could care less about.

While he's off shooting craps and chatting up showgirls, the announcer to his promo film intones the Tony Stark story following the death of the legendary Howard Stark:

"With the keys to the kingdom, Tony ushers in a new era for his father's legacy, creating smarter weapons, advanced robotics, satellite targeting.

"Today, Tony Stark has changed the face of the weapons industry by ensuring freedom and protecting America and her interests around the globe."

Of course, Tony jets off the next day to Afghanistan to protect America around the globe by showing off his new Jericho missile. "They say the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That's how Dad did it, that's how America does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far. Find an excuse to let one of these off the chain," he challenges the assembled brass, "and I personally guarantee you the bad guys won't even wanna come out of their caves."

The system is a big hit, but not nearly as big as the hit on Tony himself. Waking up tethered to a car battery, he finds his circumstances have changed for the worse. He learns about humility and friendship as he creates, not the weapon a ring of powermongers want to pursue their dream of ruling the same swath of the Earth that Genghis Khan did in the age of the bow and arrow, but the powered suit that enables him to escape, tellingly miniaturizing an "arc reactor" in the process. This power source, as the series progresses through, proves to a big part of the central technological MacGuffin of the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe which the first Iron Man film launched leading up to the big team-up of the Avengers.

Iron Man 2 finds the character in transition, full of hubris having " successfully privatized world peace" through his suited exploits and near death from the power device he invented to keep himself alive even as he searches for a way to make the world better and shine a light on a hopeful future.

In The Avengers, Stark at last becomes a true hero, making the "sacrifice play" that Steve Rogers had taunted him about refusing in the past. Expecting to die, he barely survives, and only because of the Hulk's last second intervention as Stark, his super-suit out of power, falls helplessly to earth.

The first Iron Man was a surprise smash hit in 2008 and successfully set the stage for the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In Iron Man 3, Stark finds resolution, at least of a sort, though we are certainly seeing him again in the central role of very big movies.

Iron Man is, along with being the tale of an engaging rogue finding his humanity, mostly about the promise of technology. While the weapons that give rise to the Stark fortune are very much in the picture, at least in the beginning, the message, also from the beginning, is one of a powerful and optimistic future.

Iron Man 2 introduced an intriguing revenge tale, which unfortunately ended up with short-shrift as the movie went through the exercise of building the overall future Avengers franchise. "You come from a family of thieves and butchers," intoned Mickey Rourke's vengeful physicist-turned-mob associate Ivan Vanko. "And now, like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your own history and to forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed."

It's too bad that story didn't play out more fully, for the contradictions between the father and son's sunny technological optimism and the big stick weaponry they developed to keep "the right people" in charge around the world to play out. But it's far more than hinted at. When his captors in Afghanistan greet him after he regains consciousness, it is with these words: "Welcome Tony Stark, the most famous mass murderer in the history of America! We're honored."

Now even the "Merchant of Death," a term he embraces when his blonde Vanity Fair inquisitor throws it at him, version of Stark we meet at the beginning is hardly wrong about everything. Humanity is not a peaceful species. Weapons are needed to deter conflict and, on occasion, to fight.

But the equation is clear. Conflict is optimal for business. "Yeah, peace, I love peace," he tells the peace signing soldier he poses with a few moments before the soldier's death. "I'd be out of a job with peace." The more fear, in particular, the more hysteria in the world, the more money for the arms dealer. And vice versa.

And in the end, Tony must become Iron Man without all the stuff he surrounds himself with, even the tech. He is, he discovers, Iron Man within, for the external suit comes from him.

The somewhat mysterious "arc reactor" that his father developed as "a science project to shut the hippies up," as his cynical business partner Obadiah Stane puts it, comes at least in part from alien tech that Stark senior acquires in World War II. But it is Tony who, desperately seeking to save his own life in Afghanistan, takes the massive tech and gives it personal scale and broader applicability.

He only learns much later, in The Avengers, that it is the Tesseract, the possible "key to unlimited sustainable energy" and of course an endlessly intriguing potential for super-weapons, which his father got his hands on at the tail end of World War II, which gave rise to the development of the original arc reactor.

The Avengers is a lot more than Tony Stark and friends, but he's the lead player.

As The Avengers begins, we see Stark's SHIELD allies engaged in studying the Tesseract as part of the Joint Dark Energy Mission, a fictionalized version of NASA and the Department of Energy's real world inquiry into "dark energy." Which, as Wikipedia tells us, "is a hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space and tends to accelerate the expansion of the universe. Dark energy is the most accepted hypothesis to explain observations since the 1990s that indicate that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate."

Sorry for the Wikipedia, but I am not a scientist and my last general physics course at Berkeley was a long time ago. The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab claims credit for discovering dark energy in 1998.

Bruce Wayne is far less the technologist than Tony Stark, a more traditional figure who uses technology and very intense training to fight crime in frequently low-tech ways. In the end, he only prevails, barely, as part of a team despite his loner ethos.

The increasingly debated surveillance state is at center of The Dark Knight, in which Wayne develops a way to spy on everyone everywhere in his Gothamized New York in order to find the Joker, who was the bin Laden of the piece. "No one should have this much power," his loyal CEO Lucius Fox tells him, vowing to quit once the Joker is found.

Fortunately, Wayne agrees, giving Fox the power to control the incredibly powerful and pervasive surveillance tech and, in the end, destroy it, though Fox only learns s the latter fact when he follows Wayne's instructions to turn off the system.

Bond is the lowest tech of the three and unlike the others, not rich, though he is more than conversant and comfortable with all the trappings and sophistication that wealth can bring, but not infrequently does not.

He succeeds with help from tech, but only by going essential in the end, defeating an extraordinarily techno-savvy villain by drawing him into his preferred milieu, Bond's own past in Skyfall

Each of our contemporary icons also have interesting, dimensional female characters in what in the past was a boys club world.

We first meet Pepper Potts, played by Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow, as Tony's "girl Friday," as the saying used to go. But she's so essential that by the end Pepper is not only CEO of Stark Enterprises, she has suited up herself to save the day, and Iron Man himself.

Then there's Maya Hansen, the brilliant bioscientist (and one-time Stark one-night stand) who creates the promising Extremis tech that spends much of Iron Man 3 malfunctioning nearly as often as it provides incredible powers to those who wield it.

Natasha Romanov begins as "Natalie Rushman," the alluring young executive played by Scarlett Johannson whom the thoroughly played Tony just has to make his assistant. Of course she's a ringer, a top SHIELD agent keeping tabs on Stark and his independent world peace program as Iron Man. The uber-spy and assassin turns out to be one of the Avengers herself, with her own large role to play in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Iron Man 3 finds Stark suffering post-traumatic stress after the events of The Avengers, facing a bin Laden-esque threat in the form of the Mandarin.

Bruce Wayne loses his female ally in The Dark Knight but in the trilogy's finale gains an unlikely but ultimately essential ally in the form of Anne Hathaway's brilliant Selina Kyle.

Bond of course has his steely maternal boss in Judi Dench's great M, as well as a very much updated Moneypenny.

Each of these icons deals, in recent adventures, with a super-villain whose plan is to get caught as part of a deeper plan to wreak total havoc on the protagonist and his associates. (It's become such a trend since The Dark Knight that the latest adventure of the rebooted Enterprise crew, Star Trek Into Darkness, does the same thing with its decidedly ill-named but otherwise excellent villain.)

Where Wayne contends with villains out to destroy New York City as the most corrupt of global urban icons -- and don't imagine that director Christopher Nolan is not making a point with this, and with Wayne's cutting observations about his elite friends -- Bond deals with a villain who could be him, a super-agent betrayed by the MI6 agency both swore to serve.

But it is this year's Iron Man 3 that provides popcorn with a wicked twist. A big political twist. Its threatening uber-terrorist Other, the very theatrical Mandarin, is a fake. A front, for a military-industrial complex player with an agenda to cover up trouble with his glitchy tech, create a lot more chaos in the world, and take advantage of that chaos for profit.

In case the point is missed, the Mandarin gets name-checked in the movie along with Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gaddafi as big-time boogie men.

The Mandarin was created initially by military technologist Aldrich Killian to make his company's accidents -- bio-enhanced wounded warriors detonating by accident -- look like planned terrorist attacks.

Are Downey and Marvel and director-writer Shane Black saying that the war on terror is a complete con?

I'm sure not.

Are they saying that the fear of terrorism can be wildly manipulated for nefarious purposes?

That seems obvious.

In Robert Downey, Jr., one of the great Hollywood redemption stories, Marvel caught lightning in a bottle. His Oscar-winning co-star in the first Iron Man picture, Jeff Bridges, says Downey made up much of the film on the fly, working with director and co-star Jon Favreau, who championed Downey's casting.

Downey as Tony Stark/Iron Man seems not so much like Sean Connery as James Bond, who was, after all, promptly replaced in the part though he's still widely regarded as the best of the Bonds, as he does Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry and Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.

It wasn't necessarily what one -- okay, me -- would have predicted after The Last Party, a quirky documentary he did on the 1992 presidential campaign. Clearly an extremely talented actor -- the Saturday Night Live veteran turned in his great Oscar-nominated turn as Chaplin that year, Downey was 26 or 27 at the time. Very bright and engaging, his film insightful but not, well, tightly coherent, filled with discovery of inequity and quite a bit of mockery, much of it focused on President-to-be Bill Clinton, though of course he and his dad end up happy about his election. With regard to the Republicans, with whom he spent a lot of time, RDJ is mostly alarmed.

Incidentally, he has Jerry Brown in there, with a snippet from a fairly worshipful interview he did in Central Park with Brown talking about false connections in politics. I'm about eight feet out of frame.

But however unlikely it would have seemed 20 years ago -- and it seemed more unlikely still as Downey struggled with his own demons in intervening years -- Downey's role as this extremely popular and dimensional icon certainly fits like a glove now.

The reality is that there would be no Marvel Cinematic Universe, the extremely ambitious series of films now well underway, without Downey's Iron Man becoming a huge and somewhat surprising hit in 2008.

Stark Expo 74 bridged the gap between Howard Stark's first such effort in 1943 and Tony Stark's 2010 version. Each presents technology as the key to a bright, even utopian future.

But the throughline of what has become the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) actually emanates from the fifth film released in MCU Phase One, Captain America: The First Avenger. Though its release follows after Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, the first Captain America film, set during World War II, is the beginning of the story in chronological terms. (Where the first Cap picture was the World War II flick as superhero film, the sequel being made now is the '70s conspiracy thriller as superhero film featuring none other than Robert Redford, a hero in those films, in what looks to be a very shadowy role in next year's outing.)

There the world comes into contact with the Tesseract, an alien energy device that can help create futuristic weapons and provide an ultimate source of sustainable power. If only it can be understood.

Enter Howard Stark and his son Tony as the uber-technologists of the series.

Marvel author Stan Lee specifically said in the Iron Man documentary that he created Tony Stark/Iron Man as a comic book character in 1963 as a less crazy Howard Hughes.

If that's so, then his dad Howard, note the first name, is also a Hughes-ian figure. Like Hughes, Howard Stark, also an aviator and playboy like Hughes, plays a deep role in the growing confluence between the military and science as a founder of the fictional Strategic Scientific Reserve, a group with real world resonance.

It's ironic that the story of Howard Hughes, a figure who has long fascinated such disparate filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Warren Beatty has somehow never made it to screen in the most signification manifestation of his role in our largely hidden history. But he certainly does in fictionalized form with the Starks in Iron Man.

When we first meet Howard Stark in Captain America it is at his 1943 World Exposition of Tomorrow. There, in showman fashion which finds its fullest expression with RDJ's Tony, Dominic Cooper's young Howard Stark presents a car equipped with "Stark gravitic reversion technology" which in a few years will work wonders. It's almost the proverbial flying car, but for the fact that it doesn't quite work. Undeterred as it falls back to earth, Stark quips: "I did say a few years, didn't I?" Still, he talks up "the modern marvels of tomorrow, a greater world, a better world."

But of course, that's still in question, one of the great questions of the age, in fact.

It's all of a piece with the questions Cameron poses in his iconic films: Has our technology come to define us? If so, for better or ill?

Is it out of control? Or does it allow us to become out of control?

Or, as Tony Stark asks in Iron Man 3: "Does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man?"

His answer, as he embraces his self-image, which turns out to be that of "the mechanic," whom we always see tinkering in whatever shop he can manage, rather than that of the playboy billionaire, is decidedly the former.

It's an ultimately very hopeful answer. If we have human agency, the ability to use technology appropriately, then the future might yet be as bright as promised.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.