I’ve been looking forward to Marvel’s Generations series since it was first teased with the Alex Ross promotional art back in the Spring. Billed as a series of stories that would bring together new generations of heroes with their progenitors, Generations promised a welcome relief from the darkness that has permeated the Marvel Universe for the last year and a half.
So far I’ve only read three of the six Generations issues: The Unworthy Thor & The Mighty Thor; Banner Hulk & The Totally Awesome Hulk; and Iron Man and Ironheart. I was a little disappointed in the Hulk issue, but I enjoyed the Thor issue, which was fun and ended with a pretty big revelation about Odin’s history.
But for my money, Brian Michael Bendis’ entry is the best of the three that I’ve read: it’s a pleasure to read and look at; it provides some fascinating tidbits about the future of the Marvel Universe as well as what’s in store for Tony and Riri; and it provides enough fodder for philosophy nerds like myself to chew on without overwhelming fans who just want a good superhero story.
***Full spoilers for Generations: Ironman & Ironheart follow.***
The story follows Ironheart’s visit to the future (which she makes because of events that happen at the end of Secret Empire), where she meets the Mighty Avengers (the children of present-day Avengers). More astonishingly, she meets an aged Tony (he’s 126), who is now the Sorcerer Supreme. Together, they confront Morgan Le Fay, but instead of stopping her with violence, Tony simply shows her that he possesses a shard of the Odinsdottir. Knowing that she’s defeated, Le Fay departs, and Tony takes Riri to Franklin Richards, hoping that the son of Reed and Sue Richards can help Riri return to her own time. Before they come up with a solution, though, this future reality blurs around Riri, and she returns to the present day.
Riri’s visit to what Tony calls the “far flung future” shows her a utopian society: the air is devoid of pollution (Riri notes that it tastes good); crime and disease have been virtually eradicated; Tony has “replaced” the internet (with what, we don’t know); there is no more paper money. It’s about as close to a perfect world as we can imagine––at least, it’s what people of modern American sensibilities would describe as perfect.
Tony claims to have achieved this near-perfection primarily through technology:
But it’s too simplistic to view this future as a progressivist utopia. The archetypical futurist, Tony believes that technology can perfect the world, but a study of history tends to discourage an uncritical faith in the ability of science and technology to perfect either humanity or the world. We have a pretty poor track record for using technology to do good. Nuclear technology might have been the answer to our energy problems, but instead we turned it into the deadliest weapon we can imagine. The internet promised to make knowledge free and available to everyone. It promised to promote wisdom by removing restrictions to information and giving us greater access to people from different cultures and experiences, but the reality is that very few of us use the internet to increase our knowledge, wisdom, or understanding. Instead, we use it to play games, look at mindless entertainment, consume porn, and to build echo chambers that reinforce our prejudices. And while mobile technology like smartphones have promised to make us more connected to others than we’ve ever been, they seem to be doing just the opposite.
The belief that we will be able to build a perfect world through science and technology is relatively new in history. It’s part of the myth of progress that began during the nineteenth century. The ancients understood that technology would never be able to deliver on its promises to build heaven on earth. Human nature––the fact that we each have the potential for good and for evil––and our basic physical and mental limitations will prevent us from perfecting either ourselves or the world we live in.
And paradoxically, it’s often our use of technology that causes the problems that we hope to solve with technology. If the mainstream view of climate change is correct, it’s the technology that fueled “progress” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that has caused our current climate problems. And many of the technologies that we hope will solve the current problems are themselves problematic. For example, solar panels create clean energy, but the creation and disposal of the panels seems to harm the environment as much as fossil fuels. The same seems to be true for electric and hybrid cars.
And while the future that we see in Generations: Iron Man & Ironheart might seem like progressivist heaven, it isn’t quite the technological paradise that it seems to be.
First, in this version of the future, it isn’t technology that solves the climate problem; it’s an alien plant that cleans the air, not human technology:
Moreover, it’s awfully interesting to me that in this perfect, technological future, Tony Stark is now the Sorcerer Supreme, relying not just on technology but also on magic. Now Bendis tries to gloss over the significance of this fact by having Tony allude to the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws about science––and take it a step further:
Where Clarke said that advanced science would look like magic, Tony says that magic and science are the same. But the idea that magic is just science (a view that seems to be near and dear to the MCU Powers That Be) doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, and it’s a view that I find especially off-putting when it gets applied to the magic that someone like Doctor Strange practices. Technology (which is science’s way of controlling and manipulating the things that it studies) affects nature in physically explicable ways. Magic, on the other hand, manipulates nature in ways that are purely spiritual. No matter how far advanced science gets, it will never be able to explain spiritual or magical things—and that’s not a slight to science. It isn’t an insult to a literary critic to say that his research methods can’t explain general relativity, and it isn’t an insult to a scientist to say that she can’t use physics to explain one of Doctor Doom’s spells.
So while some of us work feverishly to perfect the future with technology and the rest of us wait around for it to happen, we might do well to take a close look at the future as it’s presented in Generations: Iron Man & Ironheart. Technology has done a lot for us, and I have no doubt that it will continue to improve our lives, but we misplace our hopes if we place them all in the ability of science to perfect us or the world.