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Well, you can forget it. I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one. To turn over the Iron Man suit would be to turn over myself, which is tantamount to indentured servitude or prostitution, depending on what state you’re in. You can’t have it.

– Tony Stark

You know what the #1 movie was for the weekend of May 3, 2013? No, it wasn’t the live telecast of “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me.” It was Iron Man 3, the first post-Avengers film released by Marvel. And man, was it a ride. Iron Man is one of the most popular superheroes right now, attracting a large fanbase with $175 million coming in box office-wise opening weekend.

There have been many analyses of Iron Man 3, from it being an understanding of the war from an economic standpoint, to a psychological exploration of Stark and his “demons,” to just a good time. But the screenwriters did an interesting thing with Iron Man 3; they created a conflict between the Robotic Iron Man and a biologically driven villain.

Spoilers ahead…

The film introduces us to the threat of a new villain called the Mandarin, who seems to be the next Osama bin Laden. However, the true threat to the world is not this terrorist, but a genetically modified virus called “Extremis” which allows humans to quickly regenerate body parts and heal injuries, and also gives them the “side effect” of having control over intense internal temperatures for melting and attacking others (though this often leads to very large explosions).

When this new technology is presented to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), she immediately recognizes how this technology could be “weaponized” and how it can easily be used to hurt and kill (as is seen throughout the movie).

This has been a classic theme in the Iron Man series: how technology that has practical purposes for everyday man can also be weaponized. It’s what made Stark stop Obadiah Stane in the first film, and it’s why he couldn’t hand over the Iron Man suit to the government in Iron Man 2. Mass-producing the Iron Man suit would change the nature of combat in general, similar to how drones changed the way we fight in Iraq. In the same way, the reproduction of the Extremis virus — or of the Super Soldier Serum used to create Captain America — can be just as detrimental.

However, one can simply “remove” the Iron Man suit from the equation. As that wonderful scene in The Avengers stated, if you remove the suit, what do you get? You still get a brilliant man, but he’s far more vulnerable and easier to punish and keep morally accountable. Those who are genetically enhanced are slightly harder to control (as shown by every superhero movie ever).

So, then, which method of human enhancement is better? If one can disarm another of his powers if he misuses them, then that is better than detaining them and letting them keep their powers.

Consider this: if Iron Man or Captain America were to become evil, how could one take them out? With Iron Man, all one needs to do is remove the suit from the equation. Meanwhile, Captain America isn’t so easy. Since his powers are within his essence and are biological, the only way to stop him is to kill him. That’s why Extremis is so dangerous: death was the only way to stop the villains.


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  1. I would say neither is inherently “more ethical” than the other.

    I mean, yes, without his suit, Tony is physically a normal human. But I think the movie showed us that with a bit of time and supplies from a standard hardware store, Tony’s *mind* is just as dangerous.

    More than that, Steve’s enhancements are not so enormous that he couldn’t be punched out or restrained. He’s peak-to-slightly-super-human, but not, say, Hulk levels.

    And while a technology that turns people into bombs would indeed be dangerous, a less heat-intensive Extremis would unarguably be a boon to humanity. Regeneration of lost limbs or other body parts? Resistance to diseases that’s unparalleled? I think if such technology was developed (even something only vaguely similar), the primary ethical discussions would revolve around “should it be monetized, or should it be freely distributed to all mankind?”.

    As for “what if Steve Rogers went evil”, that’s a non-discussion. Steve Rogers doesn’t go evil. If he “goes evil” it’s *always* someone like Loki or another big, powerful bad guy who’s using mind control or body doubles. Steve Rogers (at least his primary/movie/distilled interpretation, instead of the myriad side-stories that present alternate takes) is basically Ethics&Heroics in human form. He’s like Superman (if both are done right); they ALWAYS are good guys. ;-)

    1. See, but there’s the problem; no man is impervious. The very Premise of the DC game “Injustice: Gods Among us” has shown us that Superman may be ethics+heroics in one shot, but in fact, even he is corruptible. he loses Lois, and goes Psycho, killing at will and eventually becoming the very villain that we (the player) must beat.

    2. Injustice is an atrocity of a storyline and should not be used as any sort of example when discussing comic book storylines.
      I’m only sort of joking there.
      I mean, you know what Superman did when Joker beat Lois to death in Kingdom Come. He arrested him to be tried, and when another “hero” blew a hole in Joker’s chest, he had the guy arrested.

      In other words, Injustice is terrible story writing and not a good example at all.

      Besides, if Superman goes bad Batman has a Kryptonite ring.

    3. Them’s Fighting words! (I actually liked Injustice, but I’m not that big of a Comic Book Nerd, so maybe that’s why I never detected it.)

      Yeah, I understand all that about Injustice’s weaknesses.

      But it’s just the most current example of Superman going bad. Dozens of storylines, as well as Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (The film) have all eluded to this potential. So, to say that Superman is emotionally invincible (in that he can never be corrupted) when clearly he isn’t seems to ignore what is there.

    4. Crisis on 2 Earths didn’t have Superman going bad. It contained a universe with Opposite Morality. That’s like saying Spock went bad in Mirror, Mirror from the original Star Trek.

      That’s not to say he can *never* be corrupted, but the character is, by design, *effectively* incorruptible. He is, alongside Batman, considered to be one of the two “moral pillars” of the DC-verse, which is why stories where one or both of them *isn’t* good are such big deals.

      Which is kind of the point of comic books!

      Of course, I don’t foresee real-world technology granting anyone Superman-like powers any time soon. At which point a more “realistic” concern is “what if someone could be like Captain America in the movies”, to which my reply is “how expensive is it”, because if it’s doable with 1 person it’s quite possibly doable with many people. What if we all had his level of physical health and ability (a nerd can dream!)? We’d just make stronger tasers, I’d imagine.

  2. I really hope Marvel starts lifting elements from Civil War and putting them into the movies. A huge morality play between a more liberal Tony Stark and a more traditional conservative (maybe even proto-conservative) Steve Rogers would be a great drama in theatres. Joss Whedon can deliver the dialogue for such an exchange, but I’m not certain he could adequately present each position fairly.

    1. Ack, no no no no. Civil War’s theoretical idea might have been interesting, but what happened in the comics was terrible and should not be reproduced, ever.

      Tony Stark’s actions and decisions in Civil War directly led to *Norman Osborn* running SHIELD. That should give a pretty good indication that the comics were a.)not “presenting both sides fairly” and b.)full of fail.

      Incidentally, I would say that, within American politics, Comic!Tony’s position in CW was actually pretty conservative (what with it being big on government cracking down on crime and defending the nation and controlling superpowered folks and whatnot), while Comic!Steve was comparatively liberal, since he thought it was restrictive of freedoms. I mean, the SRA was very PATRIOT-Act-ish, after all.

  3. As the 1st Captain America stated, the serum enhances what is already there. If the character is a good person, you get more of that. The opposite did happen, and his name was Red Skull.

    1. I think that’s a somewhat unfair stance, especially since “modifying people” is such a fuzzy area.

      Taken far enough, it could mean we shouldn’t give out vaccinations, replacement limbs, or glasses, because you have no control over who that person will be in the future.

      Do I support “Superpowers for All”? Not really.
      Do I support “Better Medical Technologies for All”? You betcha.

    2. Hey Esther! I’m glad you liked the article.

      I do want to say that I’m With Jon on this one. I’m not against the modification of people, but the militarization of such technology. That’s where things get fuzzy.

    3. Yeah, I really did just mean in the effect of militarization, not to the extent of things like vaccines (which we do as a family) or artificial limbs. I personally think the new exoskeletons being developed for use by those who have lost the use of limbs to be very cool!

  4. You aren’t wrong here, from a pragmatic perspective. The problem is a faulty assumption: who are you (or the government, or whoever) to decide exactly where human capabilities should end and be limited to? Isn’t that fairly dictatorial, and in result, immoral in and of itself? As someone mentioned in the comments, Tony was able to take down a bunch of guards, effectively using his highly gifted brain and above average body. Knowing you, I’m certain you wouldn’t suggest modifying people to match the lowest common denominator in order to remove advantages one individual might have over another, so why is preventing someone from gaining other advantages any different?

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