Saturday, May 15, 2010

Better living through science

Iron Man was the first engineering superhero.  Sure Spiderman created his webbing from his chem knowledge, but only after that radioactive spider had given him most of his powers.  And Batman's toys always took second place to his physical conditioning.  Iron Man created his own powers one step at a time, one model suit at a time.

That is why I was so excited when the first Iron Man movie came out to see what they would do with it.  And I was not disappointed.  This was a movie that reveled in the engineering, delighted itself in the process of creation.  Too often science is viewed as a static memorization of facts and laws rather than the creative process that it really is.  To do science is to create something new, to connect to the world in a way that no one else has done before.

I saw Iron Man 2 last weekend, and this is one sequel that accomplishes the rare feat of improving upon the original.  Early in the film we see a clip of Tony Stark's father (played by the always delightful John Slattery) introducing the Stark Expo in the 70's.  The standard touchstones are there:  grainy film quality, toy model city of the future, optimism that science will lead to a better world.

What struck me was that this was presented in an entirely irony free way.  There's no Men in Black style behind the curtain pullback, no tongue in cheek "boy weren't they idiots in earlier times" subtext.  This is played straight:  the simple idea that good science can prevail over evil in the world.

This is the story of our time.  There seems to be a sense that we are entering a new age of technology.  One where technological progress is not only important, but necessary to our survival.  The last century was the age of Petroleum and the Green Revolution, where cheap energy and massive increases in food production led to unintended consequences.  To master the problems these "advances" created, society is looking toward science and engineering.  It is not an option to return to a preindustrial time, there are too many people to feed, too much at stake.  So now society is going double or nothing:  pouring money into green technology in hopes of keeping the plates spinning.

That is the same story unfolding in Iron Man 2.  The power technology that Stark thought he had perfected has unintended consequences of its own.  Every military in the world seeks it, while it slowly poisons Stark's body from within.  The only way through?  Advance the science his father started, create a truly clean energy source.

Easy to do for a superhero in a summer blockbuster.  Will the world succeed on this course?  The next few decades should be interesting.

Iron Man:  4 out of 5 stars
Iron Man 2:  4 1/2 out of 5 stars