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Iron Man 3: Reconciling Psychiatry’s Warring Camps

Iron Man 3: Reconciling Psychiatry’s Warring Camps


[Spoiler alert: You might choose to wait to watch the movie—or read this article. —Eds.]

In Iron Man 3, former arms manufacturer Tony Stark is a superhero who aspires to facilitate world peace. In the process, he wages a one-person war against villains who aim to overthrow the powers that be and attain world dominion. Given his mighty missions, who would expect Tony Stark (the Iron Man) to propose peace between warring schools of psychiatry and to attempt to reconcile the armies of the mind with the armies of the brain?

No one, probably—and that’s what makes this twist in Iron Man 3 so intriguing. Tony Stark embarks on a psycho-philosophical quest when he asks if he defines Iron Man, because he manufactures Iron Man’s suit, or if his personal identity is subsumed by this intense public persona. Jungians, Eriksonians, Kohutians—and others—will delight in this dilemma.

Admittedly, Iron Man 3 has a much more involved, action-oriented plot. The psychiatry subtext is just that: a subtext. Still, this subtext speaks directly to neuropsychiatrists, psychopharmacologists, psychotherapists, just plain psychiatrists—or whatever they call themselves. The epilogue that begins after the film ends fleshes out this footnote.

Neuropsychiatry figures prominently in this 2013 riff on the Marvel Comics 1963 character—but so do aerospace engineering and international politics. The MacGuffin of the movie is a substance known as “Extremis.” Extremis enters the CNS via a virus and binds with the brain, promoting DNA changes that send electronic and neurochemical signals to weaponize the body, impart superhuman strength, and make machines move by mind-power alone.

Iron Man 3 does not dwell on Extremis, but comic book fans will recall the original story line in which Extremis facilitates direct brain-based connections with inanimate armor.1 That process allows Tony Stark to become one with his armor. He can now accomplish humanly impossible feats. In other words, Tony becomes Iron Man, both in body and in mind. Hence, his existential identity question emerges.

Unlike some superheroes, Tony Stark is a mere mortal, even though he is a genius inventor and industrialist. He battled the bottle and was a philanderer, but he abandoned his wanton ways to become a philanthropist who devotes his vast fortune to saving the world, even (or especially) if it means putting his own life in peril. Iron Man’s red armor recollects the red cape of the Man of Steel, for both Iron Man and Superman fly through the air. However, Superman’s powers are inherent, while Iron Man’s abilities depend on man-made machinery.

Appropriately and convincingly, Stark is played by actor Robert Downey Jr, whose own struggles with substance abuse were well publicized. Downey’s back-story enhances the casting choice, as does his ability to combine tongue-in-cheek comedy with action-adventure swagger.2

Like Batman, Iron Man fetishizes gadgets. Both possess vast wealth. Unlike Batman, Iron Man designs and builds his own contraptions without relying on his butler. Stark understands neurotransmitters enough to explain how Extremis operates. His conversation sounds fanciful, except for the fact that strikingly similar engineering feats are already in the works.

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