Issues & Debates

The Vulnerable Iron Man

Max Palmer will be exploring the representation of mental health issues within superhereos. This article will look at the case of Iron Man AKA Tony Stark (Rober Downey Jr.), who, in Iron Man 3 (2013), suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Superheroes. The very word conjures up images in one’s mind of near-invincible demigods who have been idolised by audiences for decades. But what happens when these ‘demigods’ have to face something more dangerous than any terrorist, monster, or abomination; their own minds, and the ways in which they have been affected by their superhero lifestyle. One example in recent years is Iron Man 3 (2013, Directed by Shane Black), in which Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is shown to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following the events of Marvel’s The Avengers (2012, Directed by Joss Whedon).

Iron Man 3 is one of the first superhero films to deal with the issue of mental illness. In Iron Man 3, one aspect of the plot is Tony Stark dealing with PTSD after the events of Marvel’s The Avengers in which he had a near-death experience after sending a nuclear missile through a wormhole to stop it from destroying New York. It is clear that Stark developed PTSD from the Chitauri attacks on New York, which is reflected by the fact that a key cause for PTSD is military combat.

Furthermore, Stark is shown to be suffering from many classic symptoms, including insomnia, feelings of isolation, reliving the event through nightmares and flashbacks, irritability, and the desire to avoid talking about the event. It is discovered that Stark has been displaying the symptoms of PTSD in one of the first scenes of Iron Man 3, wherein he is shown to have been making many Iron Man suits as a way of dealing with his insomnia, stating that ‘everybody needs a hobby’. However, the mass creation of his suits goes deeper than just ‘a hobby’, as he later states at the end of the film, claiming ‘it was never a distraction, or a hobby, it was a cocoon’.

The Iron Man suits have been used as a way of ensuring that Tony Stark feels protected. This is because prior to the first Iron Man (2008) film, Stark believed himself to be invincible, something which comes into doubt upon his near-death experience in Afghanistan which leaves him with shrapnel in his heart, which is kept in check by an electromagnet. He then begins constructing his first Iron Man suit as a way of creating a form of protection for himself after his near-death experience. Due to the success of the suit, Stark resumes his confident lifestyle with the Iron Man persona being the only change. However, his first near-death experience prompts an important question: why was he not hit with PTSD sooner?

The answer to this is that he found a solution to his newfound problems of mortality and vulnerability, which was his suits. However, when it came to the events of New York, he found himself unable to reverse or fix the issue. He found himself without a known solution, and so began building Iron Man suits because that was the only way he knew how to deal with previous near-death experiences.

However, this time, it was not enough, and he found himself unable to cope with the situation. He attempted to find a way to fix the problem through his suits, which included putting implants under his skin as a way of calling upon his suits when necessary, so that he can feel better protected, as well as gaining a symbiotic relationship with his suits.
The desire for protection is another symptom of PTSD, as the sufferers often feel like they need it, due to the knowledge that they cannot protect themselves from their own minds. Similarly, PTSD victims also feel like they require protecting due to the fact that they find themselves dealing with feelings of isolation. The problem for Stark however, is that he always attempts to put across that he is independent, and only that he wants other people, which shows how his personality conflicts with his illness. Therefore, as a coping mechanism, he uses his alter ego to protect him, perceiving him as a separate person, so that he can feel like he is not alone. However, this is shown to be a dangerous way of coping with his PTSD, as shown when he calls his suit in his sleep while having nightmares, which in turn, endangers his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the process. This shows the dangerous effects that having PTSD can have on an individual’s loved ones.

Following on from this, Tony Stark also displays great feelings of irritability throughout the film, especially when anyone mentions New York. This is most accurately shown in the scene where Stark signs a picture of Iron Man defending New York that a little girl called Erin drew by writing the phrase ‘help me Erin’, which displays Stark’s request for help, but maintains his internalised personality by avoiding him asking for help in a more public fashion.

He becomes further distressed when Erin’s friend asks him how he got out of the wormhole, prompting an anxiety attack, in which he retreats to his Iron Man suit once again to help him not only diagnose the issue, which he believes is initially a heart attack, but also as a way of protecting himself. After looking at the way in which he displays many of the symptoms, it is clear to see that Tony Stark holds an accurate portrayal of having PTSD.

The representation of Iron Man having PTSD is important in terms of an audience perspective, in that it helps to deal with the current stigma within society, of having a mental illness. In general, having wider coverage on the issue of mental health is positive, as it helps the audience learn the topic in greater detail through the cinema screen. This allows the audience to have less reason to fear mental illness, as well as causing people to understand how to help those who are suffering. Not only that, but it also educates people to the fact that mental illnesses are not the fault of the sufferer, thus creating sympathy for those dealing with mental illness.

This is particularly important in Iron Man 3 as the film ends with Iron Man learning how to cope with the disease, meaning that it can give hope for those who live with PTSD and that they can one day continue their lives as normal. Furthermore, the fact that it is Iron Man who suffered from PTSD is especially poignant, due to the fact that in the comics, Iron Man was often referred to as the ‘Invincible Iron Man’, a moniker which suddenly becomes sadly ironic when the one thing that becomes a true perceived threat to him is his own mind.

However, it does send a strong destigmatizing message about mental illnesses to those suffering from them about strength, and how it can happen to anyone. If a man who is regularly called ‘invincible’ can suffer from them, then it can potentially help those suffering with PTSD to come to terms with their own condition, and realise that having them does not mean that they are weak, making them more likely to accept help with their illness.