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.