Invincible Iron Man, Extremis, and Transhumanism- Becoming more than human, but less than heroic?

Welcome back, heroes!

The trailer for Iron Man 3 came out about a month ago, and we are still giddy with anticipation.

OK, so they took the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises and added helicopters shooting missiles.  We don’t care.  Robert Downey Jr. is the best thing to happen to Iron Man since titanium underwear, and after stealing every scene in The Avengers, we’re ready for more Iron Man.  Especially since, according to the ever reliable Wikipedia, this Iron Man movie will be based on the “Extremis” storyline, which will pit Tony Stark against both his own limitations and the temptation of gaining more power at the cost of his humanity.  He will face the philosophical dilemma of when, exactly, one becomes so advanced technologically that one is no longer human, a problem known, in philosophical circles, as transhumanism.

Interested?  First, a little background.

Extremis focuses on a battle between Tony Stark and a reactionary named Mallen, who has taken a dose of a genetic enhancer called Extremis.  In their first encounter, Mallen handily defeats Stark leaving him beaten and close to death.  Tony realizes he has no chance of defeating Mallen as long as he lacks Mallen’s speed and genetic enhancements.

Tony genetically enhances himself using the Extremis, effectively making the Iron Man suit a part of himself, then defeats Mallen outside of DC.

So Iron Man defeats the bad guy.  But did Tony go too far?  After all, we’re ok with heroes gaining superpowers by accident.  But when they purposefully modify themselves to make themselves more powerful, well, that’s what villains do.  Isn’t it?

As a society, we seem to be ok with citizens using their God-given abilities, as well as citizens using technology to perform feats they never could without it.  We don’t mind athletes playing baseball better than we ever could.  We’re also fine with taking a plane to fly faster than anyone ever could on their own.  We also don’t seem to mind someone using a technological innovation to overcome a natural handicap, like wearing contacts to overcome a bad eyesight.  We’re even ok with a person gaining an unexpected ability due to a technological innovation, like gaining the powers of flight thanks to an experimental medical treatment.

But using technologies to purposefully genetically enhance the human person, aka transhumanism?  That’s…not ok.

There are many arguments against transhumanism.  Francis Fukuyama called it “the world’s most dangerous idea”, noting that socio-economic differences will become more pronounced if we are free to enhance our own bodies.  There is also untold potential for genocide, slavery, and a host of other evils.  Many also view any attempts at improving the human person itself as a kind of evil, as either evolution or God made humanity the way it is for a reason.  At the same time, some transhumanists argue that modification of human bodies could eliminate disease and make life better.  The dilemma seems to arise from concerns about power.  Modifying oneself to gain power over another is generally viewed as evil, while modifying oneself to overcome a challenge is ethically acceptable.

The writers of Extremis seemed aware of this moral distinction, and made sure to note that without Extremis, Tony would die.

But Tony also modifies the program to do more than simply save his life.  He makes sure that, if he does survive, the Iron Man suit will become a part of him, body and mind.  Did Tony just sell his soul in order to be the best Iron Man ever?  Or did he simply take a pragmatic step in a procedure he needed anyway?  Stark seems to conflate the two ideas, and his drive to always be better and his drive to save his own life are difficult to untangle.

Interestingly, this parallels Tony’s original ethical dilemma wearing the Iron Man suit.  He needed the suit, otherwise he’d be killed by the shrapnel in his chest.  And while he had the suit, he decided he might as well do everything he could to make the world a better place.  But part of what makes Tony a great character is his internal struggle as he increases his own power.  Is he doing it to more effectively fight evil?  Or does he benefit somehow?  Its a narrow line, and watching Tony walk it is challenging storytelling.  Because as often as we try to convince ourselves we are seeking that raise or that position of authority in order to make the world a better place, how often are we doing it only to increase our own prestige? We conflate our own ethical decisions on a daily basis, and this is dangerous, because evil rarely appears alone – it usually comes mixed with two parts good.  But how do we know when we’ve crossed that oh-so narrow line?

We can’t wait to see Iron Man 3 to learn more.  Does Tony finally cross the line?  Or does he maintain his heroic status and his humanity?  See you next May, super heroes!