Iron Man: A Terrible Privilege

I’ll cut right to the chase. This is not a review of a single film. It’s not even a review of all three Iron Man films. This is a psychological case conceptualization of a singular character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Tony Stark. If you have seen Iron Man 3 you may have already started to think about Tony Stark’s mental functioning. If you have not yet seen the film, you should know that this article contains spoilers. Throughout this film, Tony experiences recurrent panic attacks: sudden, intense, debilitating episodes of anxiety that cause him significant distress. Tony has been suffering from these anxiety attacks since the alien invasion in New York City (depicted in The Avengers, when Iron Man essentially launches himself into space on a nuclear bomb Slim-Pickens style to destroy the alien ship and thereby save Earth). Iron Man 3 marks the first time in the entire “Marvel Cinematic Universe” when we see a hero suffer undeniable instances of a significant mental disturbance.

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Since the movie’s release, some have already started to ponder about the psychology of Tony Stark, asking whether or not he has Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a real mental disorder mentioned in the movie by his 10-year old companion, Harley. If you simply want to know whether Tony Stark has this mental illness, this article may leave you unsettled. I don’t work with absolutes. I won’t give you a black-and-white, yes-or-no answer. One reason is that, among the patients I’ve seen who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and psychological injuries (my nonfictional comparison to fictional superheroes), a rare few have clear-cut diagnoses. As it turns out, exposure to multiple life-threatening environments, especially war zones, leads to complex psychological presentations not well represented or captured by one disorder. As explained by The National Center for PTSD , the current PTSD diagnosis often does not fully capture the severe psychological harm that occurs with prolonged, repeated trauma.

Second, in my field, while it is important to assign and “rule out” diagnoses, it is also important to determine why the symptoms are present in the first place and establish the course of illness. In the practice of clinical science, we explore the possible risk factors as well as protective factors that might make some individuals more vulnerable– or more resilient– when it comes to psychological functioning after a crisis. Why didn’t Tony begin to break down psychologically after his torture and captivity in Afghanistan? Why did Tony continue to pursue threatening and dangerous environments (e.g., joining S.H.I.E.L.D.) after nearly losing his life in his first experiences as Iron Man? How is he able to take on new threats such as facing the Mandarin while suffering from seemingly debilitating anxiety episodes? If he were my patient, I would explore all these case specific events. If he were my patient, I’d want to know what makes each situation different. I’d want to know what provoked his first episode of anxiety and helplessness.

I’d want to know what the hell happened in that wormhole.

I don’t necessarily mean what we experienced in the wormhole or how we interpreted the event. What did it mean to Tony? What made it different from other traumas Tony has already experienced up to that point in his life?

To summarize “what happened in New York:” Black Widow is ready to shut the portal down using the Tesseract in order to keep the alien ships from entering Earth’s atmosphere through the space wormhole. Tony decides to carry a nuke through the portal in order to destroy the entirety of the alien battalion. As he is shooting up to the sky, Captain America informs him, “You know that’s a one way trip,” implying that the task will be fatal. Tony already seems to know this. Through JARVIS, he phones his beloved Pepper Potts using the suit’s technology, ostensibly to say goodbye. But when he leaves Earth’s dimension, we realize Tony never gets through to her. While in space, his suit loses power, and he descends back tThe-Avengers-Alien-Invasion-574x322oward the rift, watching the nuclear explosion obliterate the entire alien mothership. There is a notable moment where we’re held in suspension–like the rest of the Avengers, we see glimpses of the wormhole mouth, the sky, but no Iron Man. The Avengers decide to close the portal. In the last possible second, Iron Man is seen hurtling through the narrow hole, back down to earth, unconscious. The Hulk then catches him and breaks his fall onto the pavement. Tony remains unconscious until Hulk’s roar seemingly brings him back to life, awoken to superheroes surrounding him. “What just happened?” he asks. Good question.

 

One of the most essential features of PTSD is how a person reacts or interprets a traumatic event. That is, a clinician doesn’t singlehandedly determine what is “traumatic”—the patient does. And people respond differently to different things. What was it about the alien invasion in NYC that caused Tony to respond with intense fear, horror, and helplessness? What was the traumatic part of that experience? Observing a catastrophic threat from another universe at close range? Trans dimensional shock? A near-death experience in the form of prolonged loss of consciousness? Saying goodbye to a loved one? Losing control? Hulk’s armpit stink? (What? It could be pretty bad.)

Multiple Traumatic Events: The Re-Deployments of Tony Stark We know the alien invasion wasn’t the first time Tony was faced with a traumatic event. What constitutes a trauma in clinical terms? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) defines a “traumatic event” as one that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury (e.g., war, disaster, terrorism, vehicle accidents and violence) or threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others (e.g., Happy, Pepper, and Rhodey). I recommend you check out the full clinical criteria for trauma and PTSD here. As I’ve stressed before, the experience of a traumatic event itself is necessary but not sufficient for the proper diagnosis of PTSD. In fact, up to 60% or more of us will experience a traumatic stressor at some point in our lives, and according to U.S. epidemiological studies, only about 7% of us will ever develop the disorder of PTSD in our lifetime. That means the majority of people who are exposed to traumatic stressors do not develop PTSD.

When it comes to Tony Stark, the risk of PTSD is actually higher. Soldiers returning from recent military combat zones have nearly double risk. Why? Well, certain factors can increase the risk of developing this problem, including repeated exposure to threatening events. This may mean that the development of posttraumatic stress symptoms may occur only after a certain threshold of experiences are met. Tony certainly seems to have a high threshold.

He left a part of himself in that cave.” – Obadiah Stane, Iron Man

From his father’s unexpectIron Maned death to his three-month imprisonment in Afghanistan, Tony has experienced numerous traumatic events in his lifetime. In the first Iron Man film, for instance, before developing the Mk 1 armor, Tony is visiting Afghanistan to represent his weapons development company. Tony’s humvee caravan is attacked by terrorists and he witnesses U.S. soldiers murdered by I.E.D.s and gunfire—ironically, from the very weapons Stark Industries has manufactured. Later, after months of captivity in a cave, Tony sees Yinsen, his new friend and only companion during his captivity, die from gunshot wounds while trying to buy time for Tony’s escape. Finally, during the climax of the film, the massive arc reactor explodes, knocking Tony unconscious and killing the villainous Obadiah Stane. In a single movie, Tony is exposed to nearly 5 clinically defined traumatic events. Iron Man 2 includes several more traumas one could catalog, including a near fatal car accident on the Grand Prix racetrack. Not to mention Whiplash. Just…Whiplash.

“I shouldn’t be alive… it was for a reason. I’m not crazy. I just finally know what I have to do.” — Tony Stark, Iron Man

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Post-Traumatic Growth: Positive Responses to Trauma

Despite exposure to multiple traumas, we see few signs of post-traumatic stress responses throughout the previous Iron Man movies and The Avengers. Interestingly, after Tony returns from Afghanistan in Iron Man, Obadiah tries to remove him from the Board of Directors at Stark Industries by filing an injunction against him on the grounds of “mental illness” (citing PTSD); however, there is neither proof of this diagnosis nor review of any proper standardized evaluation or assessment for this diagnosis. Honestly, if Obadiah had asked me to provide such a clinical report at this very moment in Tony’s life, I would have sent him the hell out of my office. Obadiah was operating on the agenda to disarm Tony and strip him of any decision making power at Stark Industries, but citing mental incapacity couldn’t have had a more flimsy rationale for removing Tony from the Board. With determination to build a second, better suit and a new vision about how he wants to contribute to society, Tony is remarkably focused and psychologically sound at this point in his life. Similarly, in Iron Man 2, Tony realizes he is suffering from a chronic, life-threatening stressor in the form of a medical crisis. The arc reactor in Tony’s body—specifically its palladium core—is emitting a toxin so lethal, it is slowly killing him. By the end of IM2, Tony is described by S.H.I.E.L.D. documentation as being “narcissistic, self-destructive, and compulsive.” There are no signs or mentions of PTSD or anxiety attacks.

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“The Iron Man suit is used for extraordinary rescue and response missions. Iron Man saves lives.” – Tony Stark, Iron Man: Extremis

Psychologically speaking, one of the most poignant moments in The Avengers is when Bruce Banner and Tony Stark connect over many of their similar attributes while meeting in the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. Tony and Bruce see themselves in one another: misunderstood, highly intellectual, and both conflicted by their superhero potential. But Banner’s struggle is markedly dark. His superhero self comes with dangers he cannot reconcile with its heroism. Banner confesses that when he transforms into the Hulk, he is more vulnerable despite his size and strength: “I’m exposed, like a nerve…it’s a nightmare…”

Tony explains that even though he wears a suit of armor, “it’s not just a suit…I’m not just armor.” He explains that his superhero self is dangerous because it is built around the shrapnel lodged in his chest, an injury from the explosion that nearly killed him in Afghanistan. The suit symbolizes a constant threat.

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It’s a terrible privilege.” – Tony Stark, The Avengers

Unlike Banner—who has yet to accept both the responsibilities and the risks associated with being Hulk—Stark has come to a point where he has accepted the fact that the countless dangers, threats, and sacrifices he will have to make as long as he is dedicated to his superhero self will ultimately define him. The heroic lifestyle comes with a price. The very suit that protects him is a reminder that he is broken. Fear of Fear: Unexplained Panic Attacks Exposure to a traumatic event can often explain the presence of nonspecific sudden symptoms, such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, tremors, nausea, insomnia, or unexplained physical pain. In Iron Man 3, Tony exhibits many of these symptoms. His panic attacks are characterized by hyperventilation, heart palpitations, and something called derealization—the feeling like you are outside of your body or that your surroundings are unreal. Actually, even with the absence of any trauma, many of us will experience at least one panic attack like this in our lifetime. Because of our protective biological makeup, once we experience a panic attack, we’re inclined to avoid experiencing them again. That is, we’d likely avoid the thoughts, sights, or memories that might trigger the attacks because the feeling of an attack is so unpleasant. However, avoidance of anxiety actually builds more anxiety. Avoidance—escaping the situation or “running from” the trauma reminder—helps to diminish the anxiety temporarily; the resulting relief reinforces the avoidance behavior, and thus confirms the belief that the anxious feelings are dangerous or a real threat.

We create our own demons” – Tony Stark, Iron Man 3

When we first see one of Tony’s anxiety attacks, he is triggered when two children in a restaurant ask for an autograph on a drawing they had made of Iron Man. They happen to mention New York and “the wormhole.” Tony freezes. In a matter of seconds, he doesn’t know where he is or what is happening. He cannot form words or see properly. He experiences sudden dizziness, shortness of breath, and a feeling of being trapped. Imminent danger. He looks down to realize he had written “Help Me” on the drawing of Iron Man. Panicked, he runs desperately out of the restaurant and into his iron suit in order to escape the situation—perhaps to try to regain control. JARVIS performs a diagnostic and informs Tony that he had experienced an “anxiety attack” and displays a pictorial of his body with a mapping of anatomical and biological symptomatology.

Later in the film, another panic attack occurs while Tony is scouting a crime scene with Harley. Tony warns the youth that he “doesn’t want to talk about New York,” yet is reminded of the event when Harley makes an association between a large hole in the ground “and the wormhole.” Tony begins to notice his own shortness of breath, which immediately spirals him into a full panic attack: hyperventilation, hot flushes, confusion, and fear of what is to come. He recovers by running away from the problem—essentially, escaping the situation and avoiding further conversation about his anxiety.

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“Nothing’s been the same since New York.” – Tony Stark, Iron Man 3

PTSD: Does Tony Stark Meet the Criteria? As I mentioned, a more complex formulation should supplement a diagnosis, but it’s worth exploring whether the clinical features shown in Iron Man 3 are similar to the criteria of PTSD. A person with PTSD shows symptoms that fall in the following 3 categories: recollections (such as nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts), avoidance (making efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma), and hyper-arousal (difficulty sleeping or being agitated). In the beginning of the film, Tony mentions that he has been awake for 72 hours while working on his Iron Man suits (hyper-arousal). As previously described, he escapes situations where he might be reminded of the trauma (avoidance). Undoubtedly, Tony is haunted in his dreams (recollection), which could arguably be one of the reasons he stays awake for days at a time (more avoidance). In a particularly unsettling scene, Tony is dreaming about the alien attack. While still asleep, he conjures his Mk 42 Iron Man suit to protect himself, but the suit assaults Pepper, who screams in horror. This isn’t an unlikely scenario. One of my patients used to sleep with a bayonet next to his bed, a protective habit he picked up while in the military. He confessed to me that he had woken up several times hunched over his wife with the bayonet pressed against her face. Incidentally, he didn’t meet full criteria for PTSD.

“I’m a mess.” – Tony Stark, Iron Man 3

One of the most impoLeft-to-right-Tony-Stark-Robert-Downey-Jr.-and-Col.-James-Rhodey-Rhodes-Don-Cheadle-in-Iron-Man-2.-Photo-credit-Merrick-Morton.-2010-MVLFFLLC.-TM-2010-Marvel.-All-Rights-Reserved-59-960x638rtant characteristics of PTSD is significant “functional impairment.” That is, does the disturbance cause marked distress or impairment in either social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning? Clearly, the insomnia, panic attacks, and intrusive thoughts of the trauma are affecting Tony’s social relationships, namely: Pepper and Rhodey. But does the anxiety impact his ability to function as Iron Man?

Psychological Resilience: The Steeling Effect Resilience is a person’s ability to cope with negative events and manage the impact that those events have. Resilience is not about living an existence that lacks threats, attacks, or stress. Psychologists use the term “Steeling Effect,” which is characterized by having features of hardiness and resourcefulness in the face of adversity. It’s our ability to bounce back. At the end of Iron Man 3, the metal shrapnel in Tony’s chest is surgically removed. He exclaims that the next night is “the best sleep I’ve had in years,” hinting that he has overcome the symbol of imminent threat, and therefore releases himself from his own psychological captivity.

Surely, some might say we’ll never know if Tony Stark has PTSD or any mental illness for that matter because he is a fictional superhero and everything that happens to him is fantastical. On the contrary, the original Iron Man movie was created based on the writing of comic legend Warren Ellis, who wrote about very realistic themes spanning terrorism, combat, medical trauma and interpersonal conflict. Stark encounters some of the most realistic threats and dangers in comics to date.

Developing an accurate diagnosis with a real patient is essential for a number of reasons—it helps us to plan appropriate treatments, monitor progress, and look for risk factors. With fictional patients, labels can normalize the experience of disorders and destigmatize mental illness. But the brilliance of the third Iron Man installment rests in the complexity of Tony’s psychology. Iron Man doesn’t work in absolutes either. The movie seems to intentionally depict mental illness with a sophisticated level of ambiguity and dimension, emphasizing the realistic point that the course of mental illness has no clear-cut causes, cures, beginnings, or ends.

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Tony’s struggle with anxiety is poignant because it allows us to realize that he is, in fact, still human. To this end, it doesn’t matter to me if his panic attacks are indicative of clinical PTSD, complex PTSD, subclinical anxiety disorder or another psychiatric category we can use as a label. The point is this: A brilliant, powerful, and tough guy can be vulnerable, scared, and confused. Tony Stark is a superhero with the psychological makeup of a human. He is “just a man in a can,” after all.

24 Responses to “Iron Man: A Terrible Privilege”

  1. Well said!

    Out of all the PTSD symptoms, functional impairment is definitely the one that’s the most open to debate. Some would focus on areas where it’s interfering with interpersonal functioning and say that yes, he’s definitely impaired. As I noted elsewhere, not everybody will agree that it’s enough to meet the impairment criterion.

    Controversies over the DSM-5 have drawn professionals’ attention to the empirical weaknesses in previous editions of the DSM as well. People tend to forget that mental disturbance is not an all-or-nothing issue and that mental disorder labels listed in the DSM are terms people made up to summarize sets of symptoms. I like the fact that this movie clearly got into these issues and I like the fact that it did not nicely and neatly give us a textbook, by-the-numbers example. People are complex, and nobody follows a cookbook when developing a mental problem.

  2. Charles Knight says:

    “Iron Man 3 marks the first time in the entire “Marvel Cinematic Universe when we see a hero suffer undeniable instances of a significant mental disturbance.”

    I’m curious, from what I remember (and I could be wrong about this), Tony kills quite a few people in the first film – and doesn’t give it a second thought. Now he does do it in self-defense but even in those circumstances, don’t people generally reflect on their actions?

    Isn’t the lack of that reaction evidence of ‘a signification mental disturbance’?*

    * or just bad or generic action move writing :-)

    • Andrea says:

      I’ve seen it take months, sometimes years, for a person to process some of the atrocities they’ve participated in during war. For some, the reaction to avoid processing the nature of those actions helps them to get through their “job” as a soldier.

  3. AverageDrafter says:

    Stark isn’t a typical soldier or PTSD sufferer. He’s immensely intelligent, inventive, wealthy, and above all powerful.

    This is why I don’t think that he suffered PTSD in the initial films – he’s the badass and everyone else is in his world.

    For the first time (even as a POW), Tony has to come to terms with a world far far vaster than he knew to exist – and his place in it is far smaller than he thought.

    For a narcissist like Tony, it was devastating to know that not only is he not the most powerful person in the world, but forces MUCH MUCH more powerful than him have taken interest in him and his loved one(s).

    For Tony, its not a matter of fighting and coming home again and not being able to adjust. Its being the supreme human, and then being dethroned by the overwhelming and incomprehensible reality of an open and dangerous universe.

    I think the more appropriate term is Cosmic Horror.

    • Andrea says:

      Respectfully clarifying here that ANYONE– regardless of wealth, power, intelligence– can develop PTSD.

    • Kristen says:

      There is an argument to be made that power and privilege give someone access to resources and care that they might otherwise have difficulty obtaining, i.e., Tony’s care isn’t going to depend on whether or not Congress cuts VA funding. However, the idea that someone can be immune to trauma because they have power and privilege is nonsensical. Going back to the Civil War and particularly the First World War, the Officer Class of soldiers in Europe during WWI were no more immune to trauma, “Shell-shock,” than anyone else. I’m a trauma survivor. Whatever symptoms a person has post-trauma, it is an individual (within a class of definitions) response. The impact those symptoms have is individual. The treatment (again, within a class of strategies) is individual. Judging whether someone is or isn’t experiencing, “Real,” trauma because of external factors is as silly as saying someone with red hair can’t experience suicidal depression. My experience of trauma is not right or wrong because I had previously been in therapy or studied psychology, it’s just my experience. It was terrible, and at times can still be terrible. After 8 years, I can still be triggered. Sometimes there are new and/or cumulative triggers, like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I count myself really fortunate that I am surrounded by people who treat me like a human being even if I’ve fallen apart in front of them, regardless of whether they perceive me to have power or privilege in any sphere. We should all be so lucky to have support systems that don’t assume we can’t be human because of what we have or don’t have. Empathy is an amazing thing, you should try it.

      • AverageDrafter says:

        The power I was referring to was not social power of the rich, but the actual super-powered nature of Iron Man.

        Think of the psychology of a man who claims to have “privatized world peace”. Who has been dealing with weapons and death his whole life. Who has apparently been running around the world shutting down terror camps over the first two films. He is in control – even in the face of Congress, the US Military, other weapons manufactures. Tony clearly sees himself as a supreme being, even outside of the suit – and on Earth alone, he may very well be right.

        Until New York. The Lovecraftian concept of Cosmic Horror or Indifference is the shock a human suffers once they can truly comprehend exactly how vast and dangerous the cosmos is, and how indifferent it is not only to individuals, but whole planets. In fiction, this usually only happens when one is faced with direct contact with this horror/indifference.

        Tony had a hell of a distance to fall from top of the heap to complete vulnerability. Sitting in the middle of space, passing out as you watch the face of your loved one fade out, witnessing the forces that poised to destroy your planet, and realizing that all of the power he thought he had was an illusion assisted by high-tech suits. And these were his dieing thoughts (he assumed). In the calm of space, with the flood of his arrogant and narcissistic life coming back to him, and the realization that the one thing he actually cares about, he will never see again and had wasted a lifetime not being with her.

        That is how I interpreted the after effects of New York. PTSD? Maybe, but for Tony Start, what constitutes “traumatic stress” is another ball game entirely.

        • Kit Walker says:

          I agree with every point, but I’d take it a bit further. In the first two films, we see Tony overcome anything. Stuck in a cave with terrorists who would happily murder him? Pfft, a box of scraps and he’s good. A senate hearing, against people who–by ALL RIGHTS–can legally put Tony in jail for breach of military contract (the arc reactor technology, and the Iron Man suits themselves, were built with military funding–ergo, the military legally owns it all)? Flippancy for the win, and he walks out unscathed.

          And then comes something he can’t overcome.

          I think you nailed it–he fell from a place of supreme (and more or less deserved) arrogance–to realizing that there are forces out there that he could never overcome, at least not by himself. However great he was, whatever made him great in the first place–he was, ultimately, nothing to the universe.

          For some, that would be merely a realization of philosophy and maybe a bit of a paradigm shift–but Tony had that thrown into his face through the Chi-tauri.

          I think that with everything else, that proof that he was nowhere near the invincible bad-ass he thought himself to be was a major component.

  4. I love this so much. This is my first visit to your site and I’m so happy to see something like this that blends your discipline (psych) with something you love (comics!). I’m a Criminology major so this is something I’m trying to strive for myself. Your article is very insightful and I’m glad you’ve cleared up what PTSD is (and the diagnosis for it). I really enjoyed your use of quotes and examples as well.

    Great job! I might stalk some of your other articles as well :)

  5. Aoife says:

    While I can understand the viewpoint of AverageDrafter,(above) I think the big deal for me with the third film was that I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as one more thing he didn’t understand, or one more thing he couldn’t fight, and sometimes all it takes to break down that wall of defense is one more straw on the camel’s back. The portrayal of the anxiety attacks was wonderful, and it really gave me something to identify with. Maybe he got anxiety attacks due to something that happened while he was saving the world, and maybe I only get them from too many people in close proximity, but it was still something that we shared.

    What Iron Man Three said to me was “Sometimes people suffer from anxiety attacks. Sometimes you do, sometimes she does, sometimes even people as intelligent, inventive, wealthy, and powerful as Tony Stark do.” And you know what? It’s okay. He can find ways to cope with it. Not because he’s so powerful, or because he has a suit that makes him superhuman, but by focusing on his strengths and on what makes him feel comfortable, and by working through what’s causing the attacks, and by holding on just that bit longer. And that’s all something that any of us can do. And it won’t magically fix it, but it will help. And you’ll keep holding on and things will keep getting better…

  6. Kristen says:

    In regard to the article as a whole: YES, PLEASE, THANK YOU. I’ve been sort of mulling over a lot of the film and the MCU in particular, as it stresses that The Avengers are a bunch of damaged people (who clearly transcend that damage as a whole,) and what that means applied to the real world. The number of traumatic incidents we experience, even if it’s second-hand (things like Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina) impress themselves on our psyches and we are horribly ill-equipped to contextualize them. It is possible to be in a state where we are suffering symptoms of trauma, depression, etc., to a degree that turns our self-concept into confetti. I personally feel lucky that at the time I experienced trauma, my self-concept was not one I was particularly happy with. Turning it into confetti, however horrible the circumstance (and it was horrible,) was not a terrible outcome. I was prepared to take any catalyst and use it. I think that’s something I relate to, in Tony. He pivots whether consciously or not, into a mode that allows him to continue functioning to a degree that encourages survival rather than spiralling out of any control. I see that as the common thread between him and Bruce. While Steve and Thor wear the hero/leader mantles easily as their primary purpose; Tony, Bruce, and Natasha represent the transformative as survival mechanism. Clearly, I could talk about this all day. I always appreciate the application of the clinical to icons we are so familiar with because it enhances our sense of empathy and understanding. Thanks for doing this!

    • Andrea says:

      I’m glad there are others who think about comic/fictional characters as often and as deeply as I do!

  7. Alicia says:

    The Iron Man quotes sound like twitter messages I read everyday. Batman owns this bitch!

  8. Ali Mattu says:

    Andrea – nice job overviewing the presentation and diagnosis of Tony Stark’s anxiety! I particularly like how you integrated all of the films and the Extremis graphic novel.

    My concern with Iron Man 3 is how quickly Tony Stark overcame his anxiety. We don’t see him face his fears and end his pattern of avoidance – the movie just proclaims that he’s cured at the end.

    That being said, it’s fantastic to see a superhero movie deal with the consequences of being a wounded warrior. I just wish it showed the courage it takes to face one’s trauma.

  9. […] and mental health. After an impassioned rendition of ‘My Favorite Things,’ I read this ‘Iron Man 3′ post. Follow this blog. It’s […]

  10. Antonio says:

    Very will written. You hit on all the points I was thinking when I was watching Iron Man 3. Why only now is he experiencing trauma given what he went through in Iron Man and Iron Man 2? This question bothered me as I was watching the film, and I think you explained it well in that it was possible those events were a slow build-up to his breakdown.

    That being said, I felt it too easy for Tony to overcome his anxiety in Iron Man 3. He could simply run away or breathe deeply to settle himself. In my life, I’ve really only known 3 people who suffer from severe anxiety problems: one a rape victim, one an Iraqi war vet, and one who has lived with anxiety their whole life, possibly due to genetic reasons. They can all function as contributing members of society when not faced with their anxiety. And while all 3 have different reasons for their anxiety, the one thing I notice that is common amongst them is that when their anxiety hits them, they shut down; they withdraw and can go hours and days without returning to “normal.” Yes, I know it’s a movie and if we truly explored Tony’s anxiety we’d have a movie that would rival the length of the international version of Dances with Wolves. But for him to bounce back as fast as he could just made the anxiety he experience unbelievable, to the point I wished they didn’t explore it.

    Of course, I don’t have the medical knowledge or background to truly give a full analysis. I can only comment based on the things I experienced through other people. Perhaps it is possible to just run away and breathe through a problem and bounce right back. For someone like Tony to continually have to save the world, I could see him overcoming his anxiety to have to get the job done. He’s trying to keep others out of danger by taking the responsibility and burden on himself.

    I applaud Marvel and the creative forces of Iron Man 3 for exploring this element of Tony’s life. I think, though, this is all we’re going to get out of it. I can easily see Avengers 2 and 3, and possibly Iron Man 4 if it goes that far, ignoring or glossing over this facet of Tony’s life, or the rest of the Avenger’s for that matter. It will seem as if anxiety or PTSD or whatever else it might be can be easily overcome. For those who will live with it for their lives, it seems like a bit of a slap in the face to them.

    • Patrick says:

      The it’s a movie thing needs at least some space, because if Tony really does shut down for days at a time, the physical threat of the EXTREMIS bombings can’t be nearly as imminent. On the other hand, I don’t think that at any time during the main action of the film do we ever see Tony back up to his “full” functionality. When he doesn’t have an available Iron Man Suit, he needs someone else to suggest that he “build something.” It’s just that while Tony Stark may share our normal human vulnerability to mental distress, reduced functionality for him can still be greater than normal functionality for us, because he’s a super-genius super-hero.

  11. JD says:

    Informative read. Thanks for the insightful and interesting write up. Look forward to delving to some other characters’ case files…

  12. Ian Osmond says:

    I was wondering if the trauma came not from what happened to him, but to what happened to the city around him. This is the first time that he’s seen a whole lot of innocent people killed. Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye are all soldiers who’ve been through nasty situations with lots of innocent casualties — WWII killed millions of civilians; we don’t know what Black Widow and Hawkeye have seen, but the New York battle may not have been the worst. Thor was raised as a warrior, grew up seeing lots of people die, and it’s not even his planet in the first place. Banner is insulated from some of the psychological shock because he saw it mediated through the more simplistic, instinctive mentality of the Hulk, whose pure anger insulates him from most other mental trauma.

    Tony Stark, on the other hand, HAS been in battles before, has even killed before, but has never seen such large-scale destruction and death. While they WON the battle in New York, we presume that hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people were killed in the crossfire: the battle might have rivaled 9/11 in impact. Of all the Avengers, Tony would have the least experience in dealing with civilian destruction on that scale.

    From what I’ve heard, seeing the death of innocent people can be just as traumatic as seeing the death of friends. For some people, it can be worse.

    I also think that the “schwarma” scene was about the best thing they could have done to REDUCE the severity of the resulting PTSD — from what I’ve heard, doing something else, unrelated, as soon as possible after the traumatic event can help reduce how deeply the trauma is etched into someone’s mind.

  13. […] When Iron breaks. Amazing piece on whether Tony Stark suffers from PTSD. […]

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  15. Lily says:

    I have been a fan of anything Marvel for a long time, and admittedly, in love with Tony Stark.

    I also have an anxiety disorder, with severe panic attacks. For this reason, I usually avoid going to movies because they trigger them often.

    I was really anxious because, as much as I wanted to watch the movie, I was terrified that I might start panicking.

    My friends convinced me to come with them, they know about my panic attacks. They’ve witnessed them, in some cases triggered them. But they don’t really understand what I’ve been going through.

    As I waited in the lobby (in a Ironman mask!) with my friends before the movie, I felt the on set of panic building.

    I felt my heart racing, dizziness, the terrible sense of feeling like I was drifting or not part of my own body. I remember sinking to the floor, struggling to draw breath.

    My friends all started asking me a buzz of questions. “Are you okay?” “Is it happening again?” “Are you panicking?” “Can’t you breath?” Hey, you all right?” “What triggered it?”

    I forced a smile, biting back the rising panic. “I’m fine.” And jokingly, I pulled the mask over my face and replied. “I’m Iron man.”

    We settled into our seats, I slunk into mine, trying to control my shallow breathing. I remember gripping my popcorn tightly as the opening adverts seemed to play for hours. As much as I wanted to be here, I also wanted it to end, so I could leave.

    But it was too much. Full fledged panic set in, triggered by the ambiance of the movie. And as I was pulling up the courage (or rather the cowardice) to run from the movies…I saw myself reflected on screen. Tony experiencing exactly what I was dealing with.

    My own panic seemed to pause, my breath hitched in my throat, as I watched in surprise my own suffering from an outsiders point of view.

    I am amazed at how much of a remarkable actor Robert Downy Jr is. It was almost deja vu watching his performance. As he sunk to the ground in panic, I was reminded of myself in the lobby just earlier.

    As the movie progressed, I felt a connection to him, much more than I had ever felt. Not a sympathy, now a painful empathy. When I came out of the movie, I felt almost like a weight had been moved off my chest. Out of my chest.

    And I left with hope. Hope that I could deal with my burden. Because hell, Iron man suffered with panic attacks and still saved the world.

    • Andrea says:

      Thank you for sharing your story– I’m so glad that you were able to connect to the film that way. That’s one of the reasons I believe this is one of the best Marvel movies, at least coming from a mental health clinician :)

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