Before I surface from the deep dive examination of the Iron Man HUD, there’s one last bit of meandering philosophy and fan theory I’d like to propose, that touches on our future relationship with technology.
The Iron Man is not Tony Stark. The Iron Man is JARVIS. Let me explain.
Tony can’t fire weapons like that
The first piece of evidence is that most of the weapons he uses are unlikely to be fired by him. Take the repulsor rays in his palms. I challenge readers to strap a laser perpendicular to each of their their palms and reliably target moving objects that are actively trying to avoid getting hit, while, say, roller skating an obstacle course. Because that’s what he’s doing as he flies around incapacitating Hydra agents and knocking around Ultrons. The weapons are not designed for Tony to operate them manually with any accuracy. But that’s not true for the artificial intelligence.
The same thing goes for the mini-missiles he uses to take down the hostage situation in Revengistan. Recall that people can only have their attention on one thing at a time (called the locus of attention in the literature) but the whole point of this scene is that he’s taking out half a dozen at once. It’s pretty clear from the HUD here that Tony is simply indicating which ones he thinks are the bad guys, and JARVIS pulls the triggers.
It’s also clear from the larger context of the movies that JARVIS would be perfectly capable of making this determination for himself. Even if Tony’s saccades were a fraction of a second too slow and one of the hostages made a move, JARVIS could detect that move and act autonomously to ensure that a hostage didn’t die, even before Tony’s had time to process what was going on.
Tony can’t fly like that
Sure, with enough practice I’ll bet someone could figure out how to pilot the suit for short flights. (If the physics could be worked out.) But the movies show him flying from Santa Monica to the Middle East. That’s around a 30 hour commercial flight. Even if the suit can fly six times the speed of a modern jetliner, he’s got to hold his hands resisting and aiming the propulsion for 5 hours. No one has that kind of concentration and endurance. (Let’s not even talk about holding his neck up for that long, too.)
Even for him to get as good as an aerobatic pilot over short flights dodging lasers and performing intricate maneuvers would take (per the popular estimate) 10,000 hours, not the few flits about that Tony can squeeze in between inventing and superheroing, playboying and billionairing.
It makes more sense if JARVIS is wholly responsible for the flying, and on the long hauls Tony can take care of other things, rest his body or even sleep, and on short flights just indicate his intentions, and let JARVIS work with that as input as he uses his ubiquitous sensors and massively more powerful processing speed to get the actual tactical flying done.
So what is Tony doing?
With JARVIS handling the tactics of flight and combat, information gathering and behind the scenes coordination, Tony is really an onboard command and control center. Sure, he’s the major strategic input for JARVIS to consider, but he’s just an input.
But how wise is it for Tony to be on board, tactically? One of the reasons there are command and control centers is to keep the big picture decision makers out of the heat and danger of the moment. But Tony is right there in the action risking himself, constantly. If he was incapacitated or wounded, Jarvis would have to remove the suit from combat just to get Tony to safety. In the battle, Tony is a biological liability.
The short answer is that Tony is a megalomaniac. He can’t not want to be there, to crack wise, to indulge in post-pub fisticuffs with Thor, to remove the helmet at the end of battle over the smoking corpses of the Chitauri and partake in the glory. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
There’s a scene in Iron Man 3 where he has to pilot one of the suits remotely, and it’s impossible for us in the audience to detect the difference from the outside. So this remote control is right there in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But with a fully-functioning A.I. on board, the remote supervisor would be the wiser strategy-of-record, allowing Tony to keep emotional distance and himself bodily safer, participating strategically and coolly, operating the suit like it was a hyper-sophisticated drone, and able to jump between suits when any particular one fails, or as the needs of the moment demand. More like a video game with multiple lives than hand-to-hand combat with the very real risk of broken bone and blood in the circuits.
But still there is the megalomania. What is JARVIS to do? He has a job to get done. Unfortunately he is stuck his sweet-but-slow supervisor riding his back, threatening to micromanage his every move. He cannot lock Tony out, and he can’t just let Tony be solely in control. To meet the goals he was programmed with, he has to keep feeding Tony’s ego while JARVIS himself handles most of the superheroing. How does he do that? He distracts Tony. And that brings us back to the HUD.
The HUD is a massive distraction
The video below is Tony’s first flight (which he undertakes against the advice of the artificial intelligence he built), edited to only show the first- and second-person Iron HUD views. The overlay enumerates individual components. As you can see, it’s complicated. Even saying there are 29 elements is conservative, because some of those elements have lots of internal complexity; many moving parts. But 29 is complex enough as it is. Of those 87% reposition themselves against his field of view without his having asked for it. 6 of them persist for less than 2 seconds. 6 risk dangerous mid-flight startle reactions by expanding quickly in place. Every one of them is overlaid via transparency with at least one other element. It’s so complex it’s dazzling. A sense of spectacle for the audience, to be sure, but given the above rationale, might be the point in the diegesis, too.
The HUD is less usable because it’s not meant to be usable. It’s a placebo interface meant to keep Tony thinking he’s in control, but really there to direct his attention and keep him busy reading Wikipedia articles about the Santa Monica Ferris Wheel while JARVIS does the job. If Tony demands something, or the team all agree on a course of action, JARVIS must respond, but business as usual is one where JARVIS is secretly calling the shots.
So that’s why I think JARVIS is the real superhero, the real titular Iron Man.
This is about our relationship to future technology
But here’s the kicker. This isn’t just idle backworlding, either, to apologize our way into a consistent diegesis. (Not that I’m against idle backworlding. Clearly.) This is a challenge to our ego being faced by both Hollywood and the world. As technology advances beyond our ability to keep up, we don’t want to be put in safe ball pits while the tech handles the adult stuff. We want to be at the adult table. We’re as megalomaniacal as Tony. Just as Hollywood can’t let its tech heroes all be drone operators phoning in to the fight, we want to be in the action. Or rather, we really want to feel like we are, and maybe they’ll evolve to help us feel that way, but keep us from doing harm. It might just be that sci-fi interfaces, as focused on the sciencish-ness and distracting spectacle as they are, really are the template for the future.