Security goes to the movies: Iron Man

Film geek and security nerd square off in a cinematic smackdown

Time once again for "Security Goes to the Movies," a leisurely look at the inevitable bleeding from the eyes that security folk experience when Hollywood takes liberties with technology, the laws of physics and other aspects of reality. Our shiny and metallic subject today is Iron Man. Our movie reviewer is associate editor Ken Gagne, writing in black; our privacy/surveillance nerd is security channel editor Angela Gunn, commenting in red.

Angela here. If you don't like spoilers, this would be a good time to click over to Shark Tank or something. (Come on, no whining; you've had two whole weekends to get to the theater. And it's not like you were so busy going to Speed Racer, either.) Thanks for dropping by. Everyone else? Onward.

Some heroes are born great (Superman). Others have radioactive greatness thrust upon them (Spider-Man, Hulk). Still others are forged, with strength coming not from their genes but from their drive and ambition to do what's right, and so they rise to the occasion. That's Batman's MO, but it also describes the genesis of Iron Man.

The film starts with a brief, gory flash-forward before backtracking 36 hours to explain how Tony Stark, a boy genius turned arms manufacturer/international playboy, got himself injured and captured by an al-Qaeda-type terrorist group in an Afghanistan-like locale. Charged with building a new weapon for his captors, Stark instead forges a rocket-powered suit out of older munitions and stuff one finds laying around the average Afghan cave -- MacGyver, phone your agent, and the rest of us can contemplate metallurgy and machining tolerances -- with which to conduct his own escape.

I was suspending my disbelief with some pretty sturdy cables at this point, and not over the in-cave fabrication facilities. I know it's a fantasy flick, but who the heck tells the boss how to fabricate stuff like this and then lets him go to the battlefront for a song-and-dance routine? I'm pretty sure the Make magazine geeks in the row ahead of me actually peed themselves during this sequence, but I'm equally sure that risk management nerds would have been having a coronary. Trade secrets and C-level execs are both sensitive company assets, and you don't let them just bounce around in a war zone for teh lulz. Also, and this is tiny in comparison -- a geek who actually gambles in Vegas? Our boy Stark went to MIT; don't tell me he doesn't understand math (even if, as a colleague points out, he's playing the game most suited to superior intelligence). Any Vegas cabbie will tell you that most nerds don't spend in the casinos. This is why they hate us in Vegas.

Once back stateside, Stark, his hostage tenure having opened his eyes to the harm Stark Industries causes overseas, rejects his matériel ways (one more pun that nasty, and we're sending you away to itemize Stark's cell-phone bill) and focuses on developing his new suit. But his family business comes back to haunt him, and he must compromise himself to make the world into the place he thought it always was.

And here's the beautiful beating heart of the movie for security geeks, and not only security geeks: Is tech value-neutral ... always, sometimes, never? We face this all the time -- every researcher who reveals a zero-day vulnerability to the public, every company that issues software that tracks or filters or censors, every Dateline NBC special that equates MySpace with the Happy Pedophile Hunting Ground, every time Yahoo's Jerry Yang gets hauled before Congress and called a moral midget -- it's a central issue. For Tony Stark, it manifests as a question about whether it's ethical to create the instruments of war (or, Newspeak-style, instruments of peace) when we can't control who has access or how the tech is used. Heady stuff, and the payoff is a bombshell. Stand by for that Kodak moment.

It's a fine line to take a comic book neither too seriously nor too lightly. Iron Man's inspired casting walks that line. Robert Downey Jr. plays the role of Stark with relish, tracing a clear evolution from playboy to superhero. It was gonna take a Downey-caliber actor to sell me on the chest-electromagnet-or-death conceit -- just too obvious a metaphor for Stark's frailties, even in the comic -- but I'd pay to hear that man recite the installation instructions. In fact, I did! One of our best. His personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), best friend Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) and business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) similarly know how to sell the audience without insulting our intelligence.

Bridges in particular is barely recognizable from his Tron days; I never imagined he'd make such a good villain. I'm faceblind, so I wouldn't know about unrecognizable in that sense, but I'm good with voices and had a tremendous problem abiding with The Dude in this role ... until that aforementioned payoff came around. I love Bridges, though, and am always happy to see/hear him working.

With Iron Man being the first live-action adaptation of this character, there is, as with the first X-Men film, plenty of origin and exposition. Stark is a man with a mission and doesn't waste time with petty criminals. As a result, there aren't too many outright action sequences — three, by my count. What we get instead are beta tests and trials as Stark designs and builds his exoskeleton. Ever been an alpha tester? I'm betting you giggled like a fourth-grader through this part.

Though potentially hokey, these scenes also invite viewers to marvel (no pun intended) at the potential of a common man when given the right equipment. Without his suit, Iron Man is just a man, and that's what makes him easier to relate to than anyone who can climb walls or leap skyscrapers: We know that Stark's kryptonite and our own are one and the same. So true; I have nothing but trouble with the arc reactor in my ch... oh, wait.

Though the suit itself is the most evident example, Stark's lab (which doubles as a garage — hey, it worked for Woz and Hewlett and Packard and plenty of others) is itself a work of art. The computers feature multiple displays, with items draggable from one to another — realistic. The input device is some sort of light pen or Wiimote to drag and drop — also feasible. But those items can behave differently based on which monitor they're on. Digital objects on the horizontal monitor become 3-D holographic projections that can be directly interacted with. Parts in a diagram can be rotated, separated and dragged to the trash, or worn like a glove. Très cool. It would be wrong to beat up on a movie like this for unreasonable tech expectations, but never mind the holographic CAD, the Turing-worthy robot AI, the arc reactors -- I kept wondering where he got the never-fail voice-recognition interface. My horizons, they are low.

Stark also sports a digital butler: Jarvis, an unseen servant that's a nice change from the old Alfred Pennyworth type. We even hear Jarvis being uploaded to the Iron Man interface, which is a detail that could've easily been overlooked and then nitpicked in a review such as this. Wait ... Jarvis manages the arc reactor guarding Stark's heart ... heart. Jarvis -- Jarvik-7 ... ooh, I was slow there. Penalty, insufficient nerdiness, 5 yards. First down. (The initial model of Stark's suit is also shown as its operating system is uploaded, with snippets of code scrolling on a screen. I'd love a freeze frame to dissect that code; I betcha it has nothing to do with superheroics. I expect great things from the DVD for this scene, don't you?)

As for the suit itself, it's certainly a feat of engineering. More than just a mechanical contraption -- (as I suspect its real-world counterparts are) I suspect any current "real-world counterparts" are more along the Arrested Development functionality line -- this machine has a heads-up display, multiple concealed firearms, supersonic flight capabilities, better mobile-phone coverage than I get walking down the street in Seattle and sufficient plating to sustain heavy assault — all this, powered by 0.16 grams of palladium. I'm still getting my mind around the logistics of walking upright while that weighted down, but somehow Stark can still react quickly enough to twist his torso and avoid a fired missile by mere inches ... not just once, but twice. I couldn't do that even when encumbered by only my own 160-pound frame! Our wise colleague Eugene Demaitre points out, by the way, that a powered exoskeleton would make that movement a lot easier. On the other hand, a powered exoskeleton would likely generate sufficient heat to not ice up like that. On the other other hand, those hand blasters also cheerfully ignore the laws of physics. This is about the time my eyes start bleeding.

The closest we get to honest-to-goodness real-world IT is when Ms. Potts does some "hacking," but her methodology, though enviable, is unbelievable. To bring a computer out of screensaver mode, she plugs in a USB drive that automatically grants access. Eh, I gave that a pass -- advanced USB dongle, why not? She then opens a folder called "Ultra Secret" (Where does a supervillain keep his master plans? In a neatly named desktop folder, of course! I prefer the more subtle "Misc," myself ... um, wait, ignore this comment.) and finds a foreign-language video, which she watches after typing the word "translate." Argh! Yeah, because no one in the media would have been on that broadcast like ugly on an ape -- Western playboy military-tech bazillionaire hostage footage wouldn't have aired on al-Jazeera, and if it did, no one would have made the effort to figure out what the heck they were saying, especially not Stark's high-military-command best-friend-since-college. Right. Even in Tony Stark's world, where the journalists are as shrill, stupid and slutty as Christine Everhart -- and, apparently, where Vanity Fair writers have all the professional bearing and access of underage MySpace bloggers -- this plot point was deeply dumb. I'm pretty sure that was a private video from the captors to Stane. Fair enough, though in that case, why the Daniel Pearl-type staging?

It raises another point, though, on the list of tech-wonderboy points made by the movie, and I loved this: how celebrinerds works the press. I have personally been on the wrong end of Steve Jobs' flamboyance re: the press pack -- the guy nearly caused me heat stroke at a store opening years back, and I haven't forgiven him yet. (Take it to comments, haters.) And I will treasure forever the summer 2003 memory of Bill Gates telling me he'd never heard "google" used as a verb and that Microsoft had never engaged in astroturfing -- nice reality-distortion field there, sir. But watching Stark work the pack, especially in that last sequence, was glorious -- and a fantastic metaphor for the integration of the character's presuit personality and who he becomes in the course of the movie. If to be a geek is to be playful, and to be a geek mogul is to often be the smartest guy in the room, that last scene lets us know that not only is our boy gonna be a no-fooling superhero, he's still going to be himself. And for two more sequels, I expect to enjoy the spectacle. Except ... did I mention a weird payoff?

Of the trifecta of superhero movies due this summer, I hope Iron Man would prove victorious, since both The Incredible Hulk and Dark Knight fail to impress me in previews. I stand a good chance of being proven right: The new kid on the block has action, humor and heart, with plenty of financial and critical mojo for a sequel. Flame on! Not so fast there ...

Fine: setups for sequel, check; Samuel L. Jackson cameo, check; reliable villainy from Iron Monger, check. What got me hollering, though -- what paid off the entire movie in a strange, shout-inducing way -- was a scene devoid of the gadgetry and yet utterly tied to it. Stane and Stark have come to blows. More importantly, Stane has come into possession of enough of the first Iron Man suit to reverse-engineer himself the "Iron Monger" version. Stark is aghast, but Stane grabs him more or less by the lapels and snarls:

You really think that because you have an idea, it belongs to you?

Excuse me?! Did the bad guy just bust out with an intellectual property defense? And in The Dude's voice? Yeah, the Lawrence Lessig book really ties the room together. ...

(At which point, I jumped up like someone had electrified the seat -- physically yanked out of the moment.)

Because as a matter of fact, Stane is correct. It's the manifestation of the idea, not the idea itself, that is protected under IP law. I can imagine a swell five-second time machine (go back to just before you put your foot in your mouth!), but unless I record and submit the plans and paperwork in a fashion pleasing to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, I have a pretty flimsy claim to the IP rights when Dean Kamen eventually builds one. Of course, there are laws against reverse-engineering, and Stark could probably make a compelling case for his prior art even if he hadn't wended his way through the patent hearing yet (but if the patent holder is Stark Industries, and Stane's an officer of the company ... great, now I have to be a lawyer to get to the part where they fly around in the superhero suits? The security beat is ruining my life).

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