One look at Iron Man in both the comics and the movies and it’s not hard to see why, on the surface, he’s such a popular character: He’s rich, famous, good-looking, surrounded by cutting-edge technology, creatively and intellectually brilliant and armed with the funniest mouth in the Marvel universe next to Spider-Man.
In short, he’s everything that women want and everything that men want to be.
In this post I’m going to talk about why the true value of Iron Man as a modern, mythical archetype has nothing to do with any of the things above – well, except maybe his sense of humor which I can definitely appreciate.
The comic, during its ongoing run, has explored many themes and evolved and shifted its focus. Once again, therefore, I will use the films – beginning here with the first one – as the basis for my talk since they so beautifully encapsulate the most important and valuable themes and lessons of Iron Man.
The Inmost Cave
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” –Joseph Campbell
In his seminal Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell wrote about a stage in the archetypal hero’s journey that he called the Belly of the Whale. It has also been called the Inmost Cave by other commentators.
Although this stage usually comes later in most stories, in the film adaptation it comes very early on in Tony Stark’s journey. Instead of the gentle, quiet call to adventure beyond the ordinary world that most heroes start with, he is abruptly and violently yanked from his comfortable existence and thrown into hell.
Campbell’s inmost cave is quite literal in Tony’s case. Kidnapped by a terrorist organization known as the Ten Rings, he is imprisoned in a cave hidden in the remote mountains of Afghanistan.
The terrorists give Tony an ultimatum: make a weapon of mass destruction for them or die.
Knowing that there’s little chance of being found and rescued, and that even if he makes the missile for the terrorists that they probably won’t let him live, Stark briefly flirts with despair (just like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises‘ prison sequence which is the spiritual cousin of the cave sequence in Iron Man).
It’s his co-captive, a local engineer by the name of Yinsen, who snaps him out of it.
Yinsen: What you just saw. That is your legacy, Stark. Your life’s work – in the hands of those murderers. Is that how you want to go out? Is this the last great act of defiance of the great Tony Stark? Or are you going to do something about it?
Tony: Why should I do anything? They’re gonna kill me, you… Either way, if they don’t, I’ll be dead in a week.
Yinsen refuses to indulge this line of thinking. He simply says, matter-of-factly, “Well, then. This is a very important week for you, isn’t it?”
The first act of the movie, centering around the cave sequence, is all about Tony learning personal responsibility and accountability. He sees first-hand the far-reaching effects of his actions and callous lifestyle. He excelled at making powerful weapons and since doing so made him rich he simply did it without looking into or even thinking about its repercussions.
During the ambush by the terrorists, as Tony tries to scramble for cover, a shrapnel bomb lands in front of his face. “Stark Industries,” reads the logo on the bomb.
Call it karma or what you will but the bomb in this scene represents the proverbial chickens that have come home to roost.
You Do It to Yourself, You Do
Our world is a vast, intricate web in which every strand is linked, directly or indirectly, to every other. All of your actions, therefore, have repercussions to some degree, even actions that you think are negligible. To logically argue how and why this is so would require its own post (hell, its own book) so just entertain the idea for the moment.
Think of a bad situation that you have ever been in or might be in now. In the majority of cases, shocking, unpleasant and controversial as this may sound, you chose it. It doesn’t mean it’s your fault but, in a way, you did choose it. I’m going to make an arbitrary distinction here between “fault,” which implies wrongness or badness, and “choice/responsibility,” which is simply the power to make things happen.
The choice to be in a bad situation is never intentional, of course. If someone were to ask you, “Do you want to be sick? Poor? Lonely? Unhappy?” The answer to all of these questions would obviously be no.
But both the natural and social worlds that we live in work in certain ways and to thrive in them we must first study and understand them and then live and act in ways that are conducive to what we truly want deep down.
The problem is, first, that most people don’t really know what they truly want the most. They think they want what culture and society tells them to want. Secondly, regardless of what we think we want, we rarely truly understand how to go about getting it.
Such was the case with someone even as successful and powerful as Tony Stark, something I’ll get back to in a minute.
The point I’m making here isn’t intended to be pessimistic or condemning, and if you stick with me you’ll see how this is actually the most self-empowering attitude that you can take.
As you examine the bad situation, first detach yourself from your emotions and ego. Next, float up and take the bird’s eye view of both that situation and your entire life side-by-side. You might even draw this on a piece of paper as a kind of mind map or diagram if it helps.
Recall all your many different thoughts, ideas, attitudes, values, desires, priorities, goals and – most importantly – actions in the months and years leading up to the bad situation. If you are extremely thorough, analytical and objective, you’ll start to at least vaguely see how all the dots are connected.
There are exceptions, of course, but this is usually true, at least partly, even in situations in which it doesn’t seem like you had any choice at all in the matter. A deeper introspection, honest and expansive, will reveal that your life decisions have had some part to play in it – perhaps not intentionally, directly or knowingly. But in a long series of choices and mistakes that you either consciously or unconsciously made in the years leading up to this, you essentially did choose it by default.
Bad choices and mistakes made out of ignorance are forgivable but they are not good excuses because ignorance is also a kind of choice. Lack of money isn’t an excuse. Lack of time isn’t an excuse. In the end, nothing’s an excuse. How do you use your money? How do you use your time? If you answer these questions with complete honesty, without any self-delusion, you might find that you gradually run out of excuses.
Someone will read this and inevitably ask, “So you’re saying that victims of accidents and violent crimes chose it? A child who’s born with birth defects chose it?”
Please don’t oversimplify or misconstrue the point I’m trying to make. As I said, there are exceptions and many unfortunate incidents in the extreme range will fall into those. I’m mostly speaking here about the reasonably normal range of difficult problems and challenges that people periodically face in their lives.
I will say, though, that even for things like accidents (unless they’re freakish or catastrophic accidents) and illnesses (unless it can be proven that it’s entirely genetic) we often do share at least a degree of choice and responsibility. (Again, don’t forget my distinction between “fault” and “choice/responsibility”).
I could literally go on and on about this point for pages, but at this point I’ll return to Iron Man and how its lessons can empower you greatly.
Coming Out of the Cave
The cave sequence in Iron Man is all about Tony realizing the effects of his actions and taking responsibility for them. To save his life, he uses the same skills and abilities that he used to create those problems in the first place to find the solution.
Like pretty much everything in superhero movies, the way he makes the battle armor out of scrap metal and blasts his way out of the cave isn’t realistic in itself. It’s the hidden meanings contained within that have real value, and here they are:
(1) Personal Responsibility
We are all Iron Man. It doesn’t matter that you’re not rich, famous, powerful, good-looking or anything of that nonsense. Those are merely incidental character details. Iron Man’s true power is the power of responsibility and accountability.
The principle of responsibility doesn’t apply universally to all situations. There are certain kinds of bad situations that can happen and be maintained through a complex network of reasons and chain reactions that are not always our direct fault. But even in bad situations that we did not cause, we always have the power to respond to the situation in different ways.
However, with many personal situations there often is a degree, however small, of choice and responsibility in it. In such situations, it’s not that you have to claim responsibility. It won’t make you a bad person if you don’t. But the reason why it’s so important to claim responsibility is that unless you do, you will forever be powerless to change your situation and circumstances if you don’t like them. Why? Because you’re simply a victim at the mercy of whichever way the wind blows.
If, like Tony, you accept responsibility for a bad situation you’re in, then you’ll realize that since you’re the one that, in some way or other, created the situation, this also means you have the power to change it.
We can’t control the outer world; we can only control ourselves. So if the responsibility lies with the outer world, there’s nothing you can do but resign yourself to your predetermined fate. If the responsibility lies with you, you can change things. All you have to do is use the same mind that made those previous choices and actions and use it in a different way.
(2) Collective Responsibility
Iron Man is not just about responsibility for personal problems. It’s also about shared collective responsibility. Each of us is a part of innumerable social groups, entities and institutions. As alert viewers can see, the film shows how the social/political are inseparably connected to the personal.
Are you aware of the karmic repercussions of the activities of the social bodies you’re a part of? Not just on the world but on your own life and level of happiness as well? If you don’t, you’re not alone. Tony didn’t, either, until his crisis in the cave. “I had my eyes opened,” he says. “I saw that I had become part of a system that was comfortable with zero accountability.”
Even after he saves his own life, he further goes on to learn ways in which his company has been involved in under-the-table arms dealing which has caused great suffering in numerous parts of the world. His ignorance of his company’s actions, while only human, is still no excuse.
Like Tony, it may very well take a personal crisis for each of us to become more aware of how the social groupings and institutions that we support or contribute to in some way affect both our own lives and the lives of others.
If you’re not aware of the consequences that the systems to which you are complicit have on the world, don’t beat yourself up for it. Those very same systems and institutions often make it hard for you to know. It’s not in the pharmaceutical companies’ interests, for instance, for you to easily have access to data about just how bad some drugs can be for you versus safer alternatives.
Simply decide, if you do become more aware, how you feel about it and what you want to do about it. Often, you might not be able to do much about it directly. But you can always, always do something about it indirectly. Remember that, like the butterfly effect, everything is intimately connected.
Once again the same mind that you used to both create and solve your own personal problems can also be used to serve the world in some way. The first makeshift suit that Tony makes in the cave saves his own life. The second, more advanced one that he makes afterwards saves the lives of others. The mind that created both is the same.
The “suit,” for you, can be anything about yourself. It can be your everyday kindness, your smile, your sense of humour, your people skills, your baking skills – seriously, whatever. Never underestimate the power that even the smallest attribute or quality can have if used right. On the other hand, all the wealth, intelligence and power in the world won’t do squat if you’re complacent.
Never say that you don’t have enough talent, brains, money or anything. Tony Stark created the first suit out of scraps of metal in a cave and the fact that the character’s a genius or whatever is irrelevant. He’s not a real person; he’s a mythical archetype.
What Tony Stark’s hour of trial in the cave symbolizes is the power that we all have, even in a bad situation, to create something of value with little resources. Entire artistic and cultural movements – hip-hop, for instance – have been created this way and have gone on to change the world.
So what are you waiting for?
Step up to the (metal) plate and be a man. An Iron Man.
Another good analysis and breakdown. I thought an important beat they hit in the movie versions was Tony Stark's place in the culture of accountability, usually it's more about his struggle with things, etc, but it hit a very good tone about realizing the comfortable spot he was in within that culture of acceptance came with such a heavy price to the rest of the world. In the real world, someone gets a righteousness indignation when they realize they're within a structure that promotes and encourages amoral choices, and the dilemna of what to do after that can leave people with a bigger hole to deal with. Most of the time that culture will not be open to change and resistant to maintain it's attitude. The personal journey of changing one's self, and maybe changing that same culture can be very challenging. Choices, change, and finding something to correct one's path to me seems one of the hardest things that anyone can do, a truly soulful act.
I'm sorry to hear about your problems, as well. I hope you find good support to help you in your issues.
And, as usual, Wolf, more good comments to make me think and keep me on my toes! Yeah, it's tricky, the matter of what to do when we learn that a system/structure that we participate in, either directly or indirectly, promotes values or choices we don't approve of. How big or radical an action (or non-action) can we take? How much of our current lifestyle must we sacrifice to do it? These are all tough questions that each person can only answer for herself. I guess it's also why I try to tell my students and young people who feel helpless in the face of all the world's problems that it's not necessarily about fighting these battles themselves directly on the front lines. There are so many different things we can do depending on our unique talents and situations in life and the size or scale of it is not the only thing that matters.
This is why I think globally but acting locally is one of the greatest encouragements we can give to people who want to do something but don't know how or where to start.
Oh, and thanks for your sympathies and well wishes! I have faith things will improve and, at the very least, I feel at peace with my challenges ever since accepting complete and total responsibility for them.
I think mindset has a huge influence over whether or not a person takes personal responsibility for the things that happen to him or her. I just read a book in which the author asserts that people have either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Those with the fixed mindset believe that their abilities, talents, intelligence and so on cannot be changed. They think you're either born smart or you're not, you're either born with musical talent or you're not–and there's not a whole lot you can do to improve it. Those with the growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that they have the power to develop their talents and abilities through effort. When they get a bad grade on a test, instead of blaming the teacher or concluding that they're just not smart enough, they try to figure out what more they could have done–study more, study in a different way, get more sleep? And they resolve to try harder next time.
I think those with a fixed mindset are less likely to take personal responsibility because they don't have a strong sense that things are in their control, whereas people with the growth mindset are much more likely to accept personal responsibility because they do believe that they are in control of their lives. Also, whatever the "bad situation" might be, people with the fixed mindset will see it as some kind of failure, while people with the growth mindset are more likely to view it as a challenge from which they can learn and grow.
So, anyway, maybe mindset is what sets the tone for the thoughts, ideas, attitudes, values, desires, priorities, goals and actions leading up to the bad situation. I, myself, have been trying to adopt more of a growth-minded attitude. Ironically, I've found that I have to first embrace the growth mindset to even feel like it's possible to change my mindset!
Do you think that taking personal responsibility is the kind of thing where you have to just jump in the pool or can you get your feet wet first? It seems like sometimes people take personal responsibility in certain areas of their lives, but not in other areas.
Thanks so much for some really thoughtful comments. Everything you've said about fixed vs. growth mindset totally applies and is relevant. There's definitely a strong relationship between the fixed/growth mindset vis-a-vis feeling helpless and powerless in the face of outer events vs. feeling able to adjust and adapt to them.
Mindset is so important because, like you say, it does influence your thoughts, values, priorities and actions. So if the mindset is very limited to begin with, one is more likely to think thoughts and take actions that aren't always in one's highest interests which then further leads to more bad situations and it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle.
While it might be harder to, I think it's better to jump in. Because everything is so interconnected, if I believe that I have responsibility in only a few areas of my lives but not others, then those other areas will inevitably, sooner or later, influence my life for good or bad and I'll still end up feeling helpless and powerless when things don't go my way and simply lucky when things do go my way.
Harold L Greene.
Regarding Ironman…For many years, the process of my progress has been recorded in a fabric that I weave from my life experiences (all of which I am, as you point out, responsible for).
The warp of the fabric is time and the woof are life impacting events.
Stepping back from the fabric, I can see bright jewels woven into it, scorched and torn places, but rarely just fabric.
This is the cloth of my self.
This is the cloth of my soul.
This is the cloth of my journey.
Thank you for reminding me that, unlike Ironman, this evolutionary construct neither dictates my strengths nor my limitations. It is simply my fabric.
Thank you, sir. That this blog could possibly reach so deep within anyone is the highest honor.
Iron Man is the best! ㅋㅋ ^^
Very profound. I knew there was a reason I like superheroes. I can very much relate to this article.
I'm glad you were able to relate to it.:)
(Delphine, is this you, by any chance?)
I got problems with the new year..sucks! I think I'm searching for my "suit" at the moment…Idk.. Great read though Han Solo! Love this blog 🙂
That's ok, Joohee.
It takes time to build your suit. You just keep at it. And when it's ready, watch out world!
The Force will be with you. Always. 😉
Nice, a comparison to hip hop! Little resources, indeed, and a huge impact. Let's all try to be a little more Iron Manly these days. Great article!
Let’s all be more Iron Manly, indeed! (And that obviously includes woMen!)
You’ve got a pretty impressive arsenal in that suit of armor there yourself, my friend: your musical skills, great people skills, teaching skills, etc. etc. 🙂
Thanks for the kind words! BTW I'm feeling some Korean Mexican fusion grub sometime so if you're in the mood for your hometown taste let's get it 😉
Ha, will do. 🙂
I never thought about Iron Man/Tony Stark as a character with much depth before; I had always assumed that he was your typical, thoughtless action hero. Thanks for helping me read between the lines.