Afghanistan. A hidden bunker. Four men with rifles guard a thick, rusted steel door. Bam! A huge fist pounds against it—from inside. Bam! More blows dent the steel. The hinges strain. The guards cower, inching backward. Whatever's trying to break out is big. And angry.
The door flies open, and a metallic giant bursts through. It looks like a robot but, hidden inside, famed weapons designer Tony Stark maneuvers the mechanical beast. Bullets bounce off the suit, barely denting his armor. He levels the guards with one swat. Outside, he stares down the enemy camp around him, switches on the flamethrowers in his arms, and roasts the joint.
Utah. A secret mountain lab. Software engineer Rex Jameson backs into a headless metal suit that's hanging from a steel I-beam by a thick rubber cord. He clicks into the aluminum boots, tightens belts across his legs and waist, and slides his arms through backpack-like straps, gripping handles where hands would be. It looks as easy as slipping into an overcoat.
Then he moves, and the machine comes to life, shadowing his every motion. He raises his fists and starts firing sharp jabs while bouncing from one foot to the other. He's not quite Muhammad Ali, but he's wearing 150 pounds and he looks light.He could easily knock a nearby coder to the floor, or fling one over a desk—but even more impressive, he could do it all day. To show off his superhuman endurance, he walks over to a weight rack and yanks down a bar loaded with 200 pounds. Then he does it again. And again. He stops somewhere around 50, but he's been known to rip through 500 reps in a row. Even then, he quits out of boredom, not fatigue.
It's fantasy versus reality, and the spread is shrinking. The latter, the XOS, is the latest and arguably most advanced exoskeleton in existence, developed by one-man idea factory Steve Jacobsen and the engineers at Sarcos, a robotics company he started in 1983 that was recently purchased by the defense giant Raytheon. The flame-throwing monster? That's the star of the superhero blockbuster Iron Man, due out May 2. The film follows a prolific inventor named Tony Stark who builds a robotic suit of armor that grants him fantastical abilities. Iron Man has been thriving in comics for more than four decades, but this is Hollywood's first go at the story. And the timing couldn't be better. Not only is Iron Man—a hero born of pure engineering—the perfect idol for our gadget-obsessed era, but for the first time since the character appeared, the suit is more than just an illustrated dream.
In the past seven years, a handful of engineers have taken the military's 40-year-old fantasy of mechanically enhanced soldiers that can carry heavy loads and begun to make it real. Funded with millions from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), Jacobsen and others have finally begun marrying artificial muscles and control systems into suits that could soon be available to soldiers, firemen and the wheelchair-bound. There are still serious challenges—powering these wearable robots, for one—but Sarcos's XOS, the most capable full-body suit, one that moves seamlessly with its wearer, has even the comic's creators feeling like the real world is catching up to their vision. After Adi Granov, one of the main illustrators of the comic and a consultant to the film, watched a clip of the suit in action, he was startled. "I knew that's where we were heading, but I didn't realize we were this close," Granov says. Aside from the lack of flight and weapons, he adds, "that's Iron Man."