Iron Man 3 | After Magic | Mechanics and Craftsmen

by , under Arts, Culture, Philosophy, Technology

Having been urged by lots of After Magic readers to go and see Iron Man 3, I saw it last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. The series has always had more biting wit that similar franchises, and has done well combining that with some thoughtful content too.

I don’t want to talk much about the links with After Magic – other than to say if you’ve read the book, watch the film – and vice versa – as there really are some excellent resonances, (the film opens with the words, “we create our own demons”) and their shared ideas speak for themselves. However, I was left mulling over the ideas the film presents about our relationship to tools and technology, which I thought linked well with my recent post ‘Giving Up the Internet: ‘It’s Never About The Tools‘ and particularly the links between technology and identity.

In one scene in the film (I’ll try not to give away too much) Tony Stark has dragged his Iron Man suit into a dilapidated garage. A young boy comes in, sees the suit and hollers in amazement ‘Wow, it’s Iron Man!‘ To which Stark replies, ‘No, I’m Iron Man. Well, we both are. It’s complicated.

This is really the central question in the whole film: who is Iron Man? Is it the suit? The person inside the suit? The man who designed the suit? Or, if the suit turns out to be empty, or, worse still, being controlled by an imposter, is it even possible to say who Iron Man is at all?

What Tony Stark comes to realise is that, even when the iron shard is surgically removed from his rusting heart, he is Iron Man. Even when he is stripped of the suit and stands naked, all his fabulous technologies and protective cocooning devices ripped from him to leave him exposed…. even then, he is Iron Man.

It would be tempting to drift towards a Luddite position here, or say something about our innate humanity being about a place where we are device-and-technology-free. But the situation is more complex than that. We, humans, are tool-makers. It is our evolving tool use that has always made us what we are: social technology use is what made our brains grow and made us homo sapiens.

The film actually deals with this in a really clever way. Tony Stark’s revelation over the arc of the film is that he is Iron Man not because he wears the suit, nor because he controls the suit, but because he was the mechanic who put his craft into it. This is made explicit in the closing scenes of the film: Iron Man is the man who works with iron. He is the monger, the mechanic, the blacksmith, the welder, the carpenter…

This is brilliant (and links so well to Richard Sennett’s excellent book of practical philosophy, The Craftsman.) Put shortly: our humanity is not in our creations, but in our craft. This is why the artist will never be finished painting. They can never produce enough pieces to say ‘I’m done, this is me in my entirety, on canvas’ because their identity is not tied up in their creations, but in the relationship they have to their craft of creating them. Process, not product.

This is an important lesson. We project so much of our identities onto our devices, on the things that clothe us: phones, brands, pictures… But doing so leaves us empty. We know in ourselves that we are not these things. Deskilled by consumer-capitalist approaches to labour we find we that substituting consumption for craft is unsatisfactory: buying the latest iPhone or another pair of jeans gives some kind of temporary bump to our need for validation… but ends up unfulfilling… just as the artist’s feeling of satisfaction on completing a work is only fleeting.

Yet, importantly, we also know that we are not Luddites. Whether using them or consuming them by proxy, tool-use is part of what it is to be human, and we should celebrate that rather than strive to rid ourselves of it.

What Iron Man 3 reveals is that our humanity is enhanced by our focusing on the process of our craft: it is neither in the purchasing of devices, nor even the display of own creations using them that our identity is enhanced; it is in the craft, the process, the imagination combined with problem solving and skilful manipulation that we find something deeper about who we are.


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  1. Jimcracky

    A very thought-provoking essay nicely stated – and while I can’t remember the exact line (again without giving too much away) I thought the crux of the film came when the young boy said to Stark “Aren’t you an inventor? Build something.”