Warning: This post contains SPOILERS for Tony Stark: Iron Man #3
Tony Stark's facing a new controversy in Marvel's Universe: accusations of cultural appropriation... straight from the world of artificial intelligence. In Dan Slott's Tony Stark: Iron Man #3, Stark is attempting to create some new (and impressive) technology to allow people an escape from the real world. But some members of a militant robot activist movement are less than impressed with his plan.
Marvel has never shied away from controversy with its Avengers heroes, from feminism (Mockingbird's t-shirt reading 'ask me about my feminist agenda') to Loki's gender fluidity, and even the occasional nod towards Marvel ssuperheroes with open marriages.
Now, Marvel Comics takes on another topic that is sure to cause controversy among readers: cultural appropriation.
The latest issue of Tony Stark: Iron Man begins with the reveal of Tony's latest product: eScape. It's a virtual reality world, still in the testing phase and accessed by putting on a mask just like Iron Man's. Once in the world players are essentially in a fully immersive VR reality, where you can do anything and be anyone... yes, even Iron Man.
When Tony asks for some help from his A.I. assistant Jocasta, she sparks an interesting conversation about her similarity to a NPC (non-player character). As an AI, she realizes, she is essentially a real-world NPC herself. While she has no issue with what Tony is doing, her boyfriend, Aaron Stack a.k.a. "Machine Man" certainly does. His accusations of Tony's cultural appropriation fly, calling his eScape an "abomination."
From there, the issue goes on to reveal that there are a subset of A.I.s in the Marvel Universe who are furious at what they see as appropriation - and who are distancing themselves as far as they can from the human world. Machine Man is refusing to use synthetic flesh to make himself look more human, and spending his time almost exclusively with other A.I.s and machines. So when given a chance to access eScape with a "master key," he takes full advantage.
In his fury over Stark's use of A.I.s as part of a game to amuse organics, Machine Man would rather slaughter the digital inhabitants of the online world than see them used as "slaves." Thankfully, between Tony Stark and Jocasta, they are able to stop him from doing any real damage - and even find his interference helpful for improving eScape (despite his war cries that "Cyberspace is for Cyber-People!").
It's a relatively self-contained issue (although of course, there are references to past events as well), and while the term 'cultural appropriation' may be the one that grabs the attention, there are deeper questions being asked here than at what point A.I.s become their own culture. Or whether it's appropriate to continue to use them in games beyond that point. By the end, Tony and Jocasta are discussing the concept of a soul, and of the potential loss of Tony's thanks to the fact that he is actually quasi-artificial himself.
Concepts of humanity, and separation vs integration are central in a storyline that could easily have been a simple and silly supervillain-attacks-new-product approach... and while it's sure to get people talking, it's not a bad thing to see Marvel choosing to put this issue under the microscope.
Tony Stark: Iron Man #3 is available now from Marvel Comics.