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 Ken Gagne; our privacy/surveillance nerd is security channel editor Angela Gunn, commenting in italics.

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 materiel ways 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.

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