Inspired by Teju Cole, who has begun writing microfictions that make famous literary characters the target of drone strikes, and Bones‘ recent episode in which a terrorist hacked a drone and aimed it at an Afghan girls’ school, I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the depictions of remote killing devices in our culture, popular and otherwise. And when I saw the trailer for Iron Man 3, I was struck by an idea: is Tony Stark so compelling to us because he and his Iron Man suits are a fantasy of the way that drone warfare is actually supposed to work?
It’s an idea that’s heightened by the idea, clearly suggested by the trailer, that Tony has gone from dissing Congressional committees to working directly for a President of the United States who’s been elected almost solely on a platform of aggressive action in defense of American security. The question of how superheroes would be regulated or controlled has been an open one around the edges of many of the movies in The Avengers franchise. Joss Whedon’s movie suggested that there was some sort of intergovernmental council in charge of making decisions about superhero deployment, but it was also clear that Nick Fury had the ability, if not the authority, to shrug off their decisions. Iron Man 3 looks like it will tackle Stark’s work for the president much more directly.
And what is it that Tony Stark does for the President? His primary job is to hunt down a terrorist called the Mandarin, and to prevent him from causing more damage to American interests. In pursuit of that goal, Tony swoops in to save people who have been blown out of jets by the Mandarin. As we’ve seen since the first movie, he also appears out of the sky, suddenly and without much warning, much like a drone, to kill people. Except, and this is where the fantasy comes in, he’s got targeting technology that means he can shoot just villains, rather than their victims, even if they’re being held hostage. With Iron Man technology, you don’t have to worry about obliterating a wedding party or killing American teenagers. The person piloting the technology, Tony Stark himself, is both directly in the war zones where he kills people on behalf of the government, so he can make decisions based on information he’s seeing in person, rather than from behind computer monitors, a remove that hasn’t prevented real-life drone pilots from getting burned out or diagnosed with PTSD. But unlike, say, the SEAL team that we sent in to kill Osama bin Laden, and no matter how many times we see Tony pull off his face mask and look dazed, as Iron Man he’s not really at physical risk: both the franchise and our dream of his capabilities demand it.
Tony Stark is appealing as a man because he’s a flawed genius who comes to serve the collective good. But Iron Man’s superpower is appealing because it theoretically solves all the problems with drone strikes, whether it’s collateral damage or putting American troops in danger—except their extrajudicial nature, the genuine principal that’s at stake here, and the easiest thing to marginalize in our debates about the use of drones. When Tony tells the Mandarin through the press “You’re not a man, you’re a maniac. There’s no politics here, just good, old-fashioned revenge,” he’s echoing the sentiments of drone strike supporters, and simultaneously acknowledging what those strikes reveal about our commitment to the judicial process, even for the worst offenders against us. Drones are a concession that from some people, we don’t want justice. We just want vengeance.
As I write this post, Sen. Rand Paul is in the fourth hour of a talking filibuster against John Brennan’s nomination to be Central Intelligence Agency chief, basing his objections substantially in the government’s use of drones. Five other Senators, including Democrat Ron Wyden, have joined him, though their interest in the question of drones versus more general interest in opposing Brennan or inconveniencing the Obama administration varies. But it’s a striking cultural moment none the less, and not simply because talking filibusters have become so rare. Paul’s promise that “I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court,” is coming precisely at a point when our mass culture is beginning to reckon with the horror of a machine coming from the skies to kill them, if not with the underlying legal issues and principals. But the trailer for Iron Man 3 raises an interesting question: would we be so afraid if there was a man inside the robot, and if he was dressed in red, white, and blue?