From Iron Man to Batman, Wonder Woman to David Dunn, Superheroes have become one of the biggest aspects of modern pop culture. They dominate the headlines — as we saw with Marvel’s 2018 smash hit release Infinity War — entertain younger generations, create some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, sell loads of merchandise, and even inspire pieces of art. All things considered, there’s little doubt that superheroes have been a regular component of the modern collective consciousness for quite some time now.
However, the definition of a superhero has tended to evolve over the years as we’ve entered the technological age, with the more modern heroic trends tending to involve heroes who are equipped with artificial intelligence. Let’s follow that modern trend and break down of a few of the top AI-driven superheroes.
The AI Effect
As we already touched on, before the modern era, superheroes donned quite different outfits from the spandex and capes that we’ve become so familiar with. In the past, humanity found their heroic inspiration in the form of classic novels like The Great Gatsby, Tom Sawyer, or Gone With the Wind. But as technology became more prevalent, heroes like Huckleberry Finn and Sherlock Holmes began to fall to the wayside with larger-than-life fictional characters often taking their place.
Some of these were overpowered beasts like the Hulk or Superman, but others became renowned for their ability to create and wield technology, which often involved impressive futuristic AI elements. In a world that has become increasingly tech-aware, the shift was both natural and unsurprising, with the trend only set to continue with upcoming films like Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame. Out of that crowd of superheroes who have used AI over the years, a few of them, in particular, have stood out from the pack over time.
While the top spot on a list like this could go to so many different candidates, probably the most iconic and popular AI-powered hero of the modern era is none other than billionaire playboy Tony Stark. This modern “man in the iron mask” has been played by Robert Downey Jr. in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and has continued to captivate audiences over the past decade (and for years before that in comic book form) with his quick wit, off the charts intelligence, and his incredible Iron Man suit.
That suit, which has received an impressive number of improvements over time — especially when compared to its original, rather clunky Mark I model — has provided a sterling representation of superhero AI at work. While the suit itself is fun to watch in action, the real firework display is encased within the iron plating. It began with J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark’s first AI, which was eventually incorporated into the body of Vision during Avengers: Age of Ultron. Stark’s next AI pal was F.R.I.D.A.Y., which continued to aid the hero through several more films. Regardless of the specific program installed, though, the brilliant billionaire’s impressive AI personalities have remained a formidable element in Iron Man’s arsenal from day one.
While Marvel may have Iron Man, J.A.R.V.I.S., and F.R.I.D.A.Y., the world of DC comics and the cinematic DCEU, also have AI woven right into their fabric. The perfect example of this quite literally comes in the form of Cyborg. Since his creation in comic book form in the 1980s, Cyborg, aka Victor Stone, has carried the idea of a living, breathing human/AI hybrid right into DC’s canon of heroes. Stemming from a tragic accident in his youth, Stone was rebuilt by his father into a cyborg, with a large number of robot attributes, under which still beat a human heart.
While Cyborg’s AI has been a central part of his character, one of his greatest challenges has been overcoming the fear of becoming an automated machine or, even worse, a cold-hearted metallic monster. Over time, Stone has proven he can rise to the challenge. As Cyborg, he conquered his fears and learned to wield the AI elements of his nature as he rose to become one of the founding members of the modern Justice League. He embodies the struggle of the dual blessing/threat combination that is often felt at the mere mention of AI in our modern reality.
Of course, the ultimate example of AI can be found in the form of the afore-mentioned Vision. Literally created as a synthetic android with a vibranium shell along with the powerful Mind Stone, the creation was initially intended to be used for villainous purposes by Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron. However, this desire was thwarted when the Avengers snatched the body and Stark and Bruce Banner uploaded the AI J.A.R.V.I.S. into the frame.
While his origin is fascinating on its own, the way that Vision has gone on to play a crucial part in defending earth, all while operating as an android that is completely dependant on AI, has been fascinating to watch. Once again, it’s given viewers a bit of fictional insight into what it could be like if and when AI reaches a state where its behavior and considerations are virtually indistinguishable from a human’s.
The superheroes of the future
As tech continues to play such a dominant role in our own lives, we can be sure that the role that AI plays in the modern superhero world will continue to increase. As we discover more and more ways to apply technology to our own reality, chances are we’ll see the AI on the silver screen adapt and improve accordingly. It’s sure to be a heck of a ride, with a boatload of flicks already headed down the pike just within 2019, and the question now not being if the AI will continue, but rather how it will take shape.
If you’re interested in how AI is affecting more than just our beloved superheroes, check out this article on how AI is impacting the future of gaming, design, and branding.