“I have a lot of apologies to make… I can’t sleep, and when I do I have nightmares. Honestly, there’s a hundred people who want to kill me. I hope I can protect the one thing I can’t live without…”
Robert Downey Jr. expressed worry about movie franchises and how a character can get stale. Fortunately, the narrative exploration of Tony Stark’s life and heart has been a generous progression and a curious look at the shape and structure of transformation, conversion, and sanctification.
In the first movie we’re introduced to a hedonistic, self-serving Tony Stark, a man who experiences a life-changing event that turns him in a new direction. In the second film, we witnessed Tony facing toxic side-effects and impending death, racing to leave something meaningful behind (and stumbling into what his father left behind for him). Now that he’s survived both preceding films, not to mention escaping a nuclear blast and an alien wormhole, the joke’s on Tony: he’s not dead! After being tormented by his past and fearing for his future, Tony’s greatest foe turns out to be… today.
Iron Man = Repentance: transformed from our past
Iron Man 2 = Legacy: what are we leaving for the future
Iron Man 3 = Worry: how do we live in the present?
Does this reflect some of your own journey? Have you faced a season of repentance from a sinful, shameful past, and then gone about trying to establish a different legacy? Sometimes that forward-thinking becomes obsession, anxiety, and a fear that we lack control. We spend our time working on atoning for the past and building for the future, and at some point we’re hit over the head with the reality that we have no functional ability to simply live in the now.
“Ever since that big guy with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety’s kinda had its day…”
Tony’s been introduced to a world that is bigger than his brain (and ego) and must face the fact that he can’t create a suit for every possible contingency. One of the suits even resembles the “Hulkbuster” armor in the comics, which might suggest a preemptive plan for Stark’s temperamental new friend Bruce Banner. At the beginning of the latest film, we see Stark putting the finishing touches on suit #42 (perhaps a nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wherein 42 is the answer to life, the universe, and everything) but this Mark 42 prototype doesn’t work as it should (which is also fitting). Tony Stark can’t create the answer and solution for all the universe’s problems. This vexes him: anxiety attacks and insomnia plague Tony and hamper his relationships.
Prior to his cave-bound transformation in the first film, he didn’t care about anyone but himself. Now he cares about others, but still sees everything as contingent on himself. If life depends solely on Tony’s readiness, Tony’s plans, Tony’s abilities… it seems he’s doomed to failure.
Does this sound familiar? It’s a problem common to all mankind, even those of us who aren’t billionaires with super-powered armor. Even little things manifest as part of Tony’s anxiety; he obsesses about whether or not he got Pepper the right Christmas present. Bigger, better, more impressive – Stark keeps facing the need to one-up himself, to keep ahead of the game, to keep his head above water by his own volition, to impress. His suits have become externalized expressions of his anxiety, a desire to prove he can solve anything, stop anything, cover himself and others in any given situation… that he can save everyone. The reality is he can’t.
“And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” – Jesus, Matthew 6
Ultimately, Tony Stark knows his present condition is dysfunctional, and confesses to Pepper what a “hot mess” he is. He tips his hand to the astute viewer as to how he’s misplaced his identity:
“I’m just a man in a can…”
Even those who find themselves with a transformed life still fall back into mistaking their identity. The world sees Tony as a suit of armor, and Tony has bought into this, forgetting that Iron man is the person inside, the heart and renewed life given to him by the saving act and sacrifice of Yinsen in the first film. Stark needs to start living out of that true identity, not the shell of heroic identity he’s constructed around himself.
While our actions do give the world a sense of who we are inside, we aren’t defined by the strength or success of those actions. Until we can relax on a firm foundation that we haven’t architected – an identity that we’ve been given instead of one that we’ve constructed – we’re going to be running on the same tiresome treadmill that Tony finds himself on.
“…man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16
Tony writes a note to someone at the beginning of the film, saying “you know who I am”. The narrative of the film then proceeds to make Tony face the fact that he’s forgotten who he is. We also see three characters from his past at the film’s opening who dramatically impact his future, and the story then shows us how three characters in his present give provide pivotal pieces that help him live today.