The three Iron Man films together complete one mythical cycle for Tony Stark. In Iron Man 1, he is pulled into the Belly of the Whale (an acute crisis), dies a symbolic death, is reborn and finds new purpose and meaning by applying his creativity towards serving and protecting rather than mere profit-seeking and ego-aggrandizement (you can read more about this in my other post on Iron Man).
In Iron Man 2, the device and suit that saved his life were literally killing him by poisoning his body – that is, until he reaches the mythical stage that Joseph Campbell called Atonement With the Father, whereupon he makes a new breakthrough that saves his life a second time.
Now, in Iron Man 3, Tony’s drive to keep creating more and better suits, in light of the recent threats that he witnessed in The Avengers, has become an all-consuming obsession that begins to hurt his relationships. But his motive for being obsessed is good: He wants to protect Pepper and, by extension, the world in the face of ever-diversifying dangers that threaten both.
We see, moreover, two other major characters, Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen, whose passions once began with the best of intentions but eventually became destructive (to self or other) in some form or other.
Nothing good always stays good. Situations and circumstances constantly fluctuate. Any kind of grand passion, project or endeavor, no matter how pure your intentions, and no matter how much good they do at first, nevertheless have the potential to somehow become destructive if you’re not observant. I’ve certainly noticed this danger at work in my own life (even quite recently, in fact). Perhaps you have too.
It is crucial to periodically stop what you’re doing, step back from it and honestly assess its cost/benefit ratio in your life. If it’s causing too much stress, hurting your health or damaging your relationships, perhaps you need to ease up or even stop for the time being until you can assess what changes are needed to make it more positive again.
The Need to Unplug
One of the most important lessons that Iron Man 3 has to offer is the need to unplug from time to time. And I mean “unplug” in two ways:
(1) The somewhat literal sense of unplugging from the increasingly digital infrastructure of our world.
(2) Detaching ourselves from the countless distractions that consume our attention from the things that matter most, whatever those distractions may be (and they can be anything).
Unplugging from the digital interface that surrounds us is important, first of all, because the digital world becomes a distraction that diverts our attention from the more difficult and challenging human element. The human element, in Tony’s case, is represented in Iron Man 3 by his girlfriend, Pepper, and his longtime bodyguard and friend, Happy. His obsession to endlessly tinker with his digital toys (what Pepper repeatedly calls his “distractions”) leads him to neglect both of them and even ends up putting them in harm’s way.
As I watched Tony completely absorbed in his digital playground, neglecting both Pepper and Happy while they try to talk to him about important matters, I thought of how common a sight it is, these days, to see people stare at their smartphones while they’re together, only half-listening, half-present. This is an arguably minor example but the same basic phenomena of being distracted and only half-present has become almost a universal habit of our times, extending out into far bigger and more important situations.
The unprecedented array of digital tools available to us today is certainly remarkable, but by being so enchanted and addicted to it we are paying a very real human price. Consider how much of that price you are willing to pay when even all the wonderful toys in the world can never fill the loneliness that gnaws at your heart.
But just as we often learn only when we are forced to, so too does Tony when he is forced to spend a significant chunk of the film’s running time in a quite unplugged locale, rural Tennessee. There, with the help of a young boy, Harley, he learns to reconnect with simple, face-to-face human communication.
It’s Not About the Suit
The next reason why it’s important to periodically unplug is that over-reliance on external tools makes us forget our own internal resources for solving problems and getting things done. The old-fashioned ways sometimes really are (or can be) the best ways.
Iron Man 3 devotes a surprising amount of time showing Tony without the suit, almost to the point where some viewers might be disappointed that he doesn’t spend more time suited up. Personally, I was thrilled because it shows an important lesson that I had hoped at least one of the movies, at some point, would show. It shows that digital is not necessarily always better (lovely irony for such a tech-based character) and it also shows that Iron Man’s true power doesn’t come from the suit.
It’s quite natural to become attached to our creations and possessions. But when we overly identify ourselves with them, what happens when they falter, become unavailable or, worse, are taken away from us entirely?
In one critical moment in the movie, Tony needs his suit right away but it’s not charged enough, so he panics. What will he do? But Harley (playing the Wise Child archetype) simply says to him, “You’re a mechanic, aren’t you? So build something.” And like a well-timed zen master’s koan, it snaps Tony out of his stupor.
Iron Man is not the suit. It never was. Iron Man is, and always has been, him – in the flesh with all his innate creativity, intelligence and resourcefulness. He had gotten overly reliant on his creation and briefly forgotten about the inner creativity that had made the creation in the first place.
In scene after scene, after this realization, Tony leaps into action and places himself in harm’s way without the suit (or with just part of it) – again, the theme of unplugging. This symbolizes his restored confidence in simply himself. Yes, the suits eventually come back into play in a big way but now he has remembered that he is the source of all of Iron Man’s power, and suit or no suit he’s going to find a way to save the day and get the girl.
And just in case we miss this all-important message, the film makes it even more blatant by having his friend Rhodey, wearer of the War Machine suit, unplug as well and fight side-by-side with his friend using good old-fashioned, flesh-and-blood military tactics.
Nothing you could ever possibly own or buy is the true source of your power. Your brain and your heart are the true source of your power. Use them.
The Clean Slate Protocol
Tony’s act of destroying all of his suits at the end of the film may not make much sense logically. After all, if anything, after four movies (including The Avengers) Tony has seen enough danger and threats to more than justify the existence of all those suits. Logically speaking, therefore, if anything he should keep making more, not destroy them.
However, in myth both ancient and modern, the need to convey a moral principle or lesson through poignant symbolism always trumps the need for realistic storytelling. And from this standpoint, it makes absolute sense that Tony would destroy all his suits at the end of Iron Man 3.
Why? Well, from the beginning, the suits were intended for one purpose: to solve problems, problems that Tony himself created through his former callousness, selfishness and complacency. In Iron Man 1, he realized the error of his past ways and created the suit to right his wrongs and redeem himself. In Iron Man 2, he realized that even that which once saved him could eventually kill him unless he continued to grow and evolve.
With Iron Man 3, he has learned his final great lesson (for now) which is that the people we meet in our lives, and the way we treat them, should always be the highest priority, whether they are the people closest to us (Pepper, Happy) or simply people we meet along the journey (Aldrich Killian, Maya Hansen, the boy in Tennessee) and that many of the biggest problems in our lives come from failing to do this well.
The great irony of the Iron Man suits is that had Tony not been so selfish, complacent and callous, he never would have even needed to make those suits to begin with because there never would have have been a karmic backlash to begin with (the terrorists in part 1, the Mandarin/Killian in part 3).
Having finally faced all the dark repercussions of his past deeds and learned his lessons, he can therefore destroy the suits and begin again with a “clean slate.” He has been purified. His conscience is clean. On the surface, it appears he is destroying the suits to prove his commitment to Pepper, but at the deeper level the act symbolizes his newfound commitment to be good to all the people in his life, not just Pepper, as much as possible.
I can’t overstate how important this is. If people could take just one thing away from all of my writing, I wish it would be the following.
It doesn’t matter how successful you are, how much money you make or how much you achieve if you can’t follow the single greatest, most fundamental tenet of human life: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. If you can do this one thing, then your life is a triumph.
And so, having learned thus, Tony Stark completes the first great phase of his mythical journey and “quits.” Just like Batman, in The Dark Knight Rises, quits. Just like Hellboy, in Hellboy 2, quits.
All this quitting is simply an acknowledgement that the Hero’s mythical journey runs in cycles. In each of the above instances, I guarantee you that the hero in question will not stay retired for long because the Hero’s work is never truly done. As the passage from Ecclesiastes beautifully reminds us, there is “a time to be born and a time to die…a time to tear down and a time to build…a time for war and a time for peace.”
For now, Tony Stark has earned his peace.[subscribe2]
I really liked the point you made with this post. I didn't catch that at all, and it was really nice to see it written out. Thanks!
Thank you for the comment, Demola. It's just my own interpretation of the movie. And if some people can enjoy it or get something out of it, that's as much as I can ask.
Oh, yeah right. Unplugging ….modern beings are almost attached to the new techno gadgets. Even now I am being hooked on this facebook. I think I gotta give up modern life if I want to be free from the gadgets.
Well, you don't have to give it up completely. Maybe you can just take short breaks now and then. That's what I do. It helps me re-connect with life. Thank you for your comment, Gloria!
Another way of Tony Stark's existential journey is through the psychological stages of identity development (that comes from the original research done by Janet Helms on Racial Identity Development). The first movie is the beginning of a new identity, second movie is about the Immersion stage and the third movie is the stage of Emersion. He's as deep in Immersion stage at the beginning of IM3 as he's in IM2. What's great is seeing him at the end of IM3 reach the stage of Autonomy.
Unplugging from digital media reminds me of the importance of having "quality time" without the usual trappings of distractions. The term can be applied to what we're up against with the temptation of indulging in being online for the latest viral video, the emails sent since you last checked or whatever website you like to check to stay updated. Before so much became available online, this indulgence was found in the newspaper – checking the latest baseball or basketball playoff scores, how our stocks did yesterday, the latest movie reviews on Fridays and the daily offering of comic strips. It wasn't so bad because we held the newspaper in front of us and blocked out the world for short periods of time. The only difference is it's so much easier to do this with so much available on our smartphones.
While I agree that Tony needed to unplug and have more of a balance in his life with the closest people in his life, his work on all those suits would never have happened if he prioritized this balance. What I like about Tony's character is he values the importance of immersing himself in what he's doing which I saw required some insulating himself from others.
One other thing: I've asked around about this — was there any relevance to Tony's panic attacks other than an excuse to have that post-credits scene?
Derek, that's a very interesting insight about Janet Helms and her theories about racial identity development. Tony does, in regards to his superhero identity, seem to go through a similar trajectory. On a sidenote, although Helms' research mostly seems to be about the racial identity development of white people, I also went through a similar process in which I started out, as a kid, being oblivious to many of the political implications of race, then discovered, embraced and overly identified with a sense of racial identity in college (Immersion), but in my 30s grew out of it and don't define myself by my ethnicity anymore (Emersion). I also agree that one of Tony's admirable characteristics is his ability to fully immerse himself in a project. In IM1, when he found focus and meaning and rejected some of the more frivolous aspects of his previous lifestyle, it was 100% good. But in IM3, even as the suits do provide a valuable service of protection, his single-minded obsession lead to damage in his closest relationship and the cost/benefit ratio became more ambivalent. It struck a chord in me because I have the same tendency to become single-minded and ultra-focused, which can be good but sometimes can lead to the detriment of my closest relationships and even my health (like in recent years). That's a good question about the panic attacks and to be honest I hadn't given it that much thought 'till now. Maybe it's just to highlight the sense of panic Tony (and, by extension, anyone) feels when, despite his efforts to micro-manage everything and be very controlling, things can still not go his way and get out of control?
In grad school, part of my curriculum was cross-cultural psychological counseling (for my master's degree in Psych Counseling) and Janet Helms' theory was the epicenter of it all. Her black racial identity development theory was applied to whites, people of color and sexual identity. And as you can see first hand, it's a fascinating pov to apply to yourself…I even go so far as applying it to me as a Rush (the band) fan(!)
I like to use the word incubate when I'm working on something for a long period of time and it's been enjoyable and fruitful during some times in my life and not so good during other times … and sounds like it's something you've gone through.
Right now I'm giving the writer of IM3 (Drew Pearce) a hard time about these panic attacks he gave Tony in the movie. He thinks the anxiety has to do with his identity, where he is in his life and the events that happened in New York. I still believe the latter is a bunch of rubbish.
Derek, that's so awesome that you went to grad school! I wish I could go and it's long been a fantasy of mine. Counseling Psych is wonderful and it's something I have a great interest in as well. You're absolutely right that Helms' theory works for things other than race. I totally concur with your Rush example. The model also fits me for every thing or person that I've ever been a huge fan of: Stephen King, Woody Allen, comic books, the band Tool, the examples go on and on. I go through those very same stages!
Forgot to mention I'm giving Drew Pearson a hard time in our exchange on Twitter right now.
Haha, you're having a Twitter debate with Drew Pearson? Say, could you tweet the link to this article to him? If he retweets it might bring a big spike in traffic. I'm asking you 'cause you're already having a dialogue with him whereas if I ask it'd be coming out of nowhere.