Why Iron Man is a metaphor for security in the modern age
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Why Iron Man is a metaphor for security in the modern age

When Katie Cox was three years old, she remembers curling up on the couch under a blanket and watching Star Wars with her mum.

By then, she’d had a library card since she was three days old and grew up on a steady diet of sci-fi and fantasy, thanks to her similarly addicted mother.

PhD student Katie Cox, who is writing her PhD on what Iron Man can teach us about national security.

PhD student Katie Cox, who is writing her PhD on what Iron Man can teach us about national security.

Photo: Jamila Toderas

When she was eight, and the Twin Towers fell in New York City, she remembers everyone on the school bus talking about it.

“I remember the other little girls around me saying we're going to be next, they're going to bomb the embassy,” she said.

And now, at the age of 26, she is deep into a PhD thesis on the influence of national security in Marvel’s Iron Man and its sequels, using 9/11 as its historical flashpoint.

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“I'm looking at the contrasting views of security, so I'm looking at what it promises, the good things that it promises to us, and that in itself is really interesting, especially in America,” she said.

“It's about the way that popular media functions as a kind of national or inter-global fantasy - how we imagine scenarios for ourselves, how we imagine themes and ideas playing out, and for speculative fiction in particular, we get to kind of tweak the parameters.”

She said she was using Iron Man as her focus because the main character, Tony Stark - a billionaire who has inherited a defence contractor - functions as a useful metaphor for national security in the modern age.

“He wants security for really sympathetic, relateable reasons,” she says.

“But so often, when he tries to make something more secure, he makes things worse. Or he creates the next threat.

"You're anticipating threat, and that's what the Marvel Comic Universe does - it represents this feeling of onslaught and crisis and it never ends, you just keep going, and you've got Tony Stark sort of bumbling through the middle of it, consistently making the same mistakes, or similar mistakes, over and over again as he tried to ensure security, he tries to keep the people he loves safe, he tries to keep America safe.”

She said the central premise for many superhero narratives was that the phrase “exceptional times call for exceptional measures” was taken quite literally, giving the viewer the opportunity to imagine in which threats were real, and those protecting us were trustworthy.

“For us, when a politician sells us something as a national security issue, we have very reasonable questions, like is it actually a national security issue? Are the measures proposing actually going to work? Are there going to be unintended consequences? Are you trustworthy? All of these things,” she said.

“Whereas in superhero fiction, we get to explore those scenarios where all of the boxes are ticked. So, we know that it's an existential threat, we know that it's urgent, we know that the person whose taking these measures is trustworthy, or at least sympathetic.”

She said Iron Man was a narrative that highlighted the interplay between the two extremes.

“I suppose what I'm trying to achieve is to reconcile these two perspectives of security, as this kind of demon on one hand, and this amorphous saviour on the other,” she said.

“And I want to demonstrate that Iron Man, in particular, shows, a sort of navigation between these two extremes, because in reality, we do have to try and reconcile these things. As much as we're suspicious of security, there are sometimes real threats, so we have to figure how we negotiate that, how do we figure out what's acceptable to do in those situations?”

She said she had chosen to focus on one character, because there would otherwise be too many contemporary issues to consider.

“I think if I had any aim, it would be to encourage people to think more deeply about security, and think more deeply about the conversations that we're having about security, whether it's My Health, whether it's Home Affairs, whether it's refugees, Trump and Iraq,” she said.