Iron Man 3: Reconciling Psychiatry’s Warring Camps

Psychiatric TimesVol 30 No 8
Volume 30
Issue 8

The subtext of Iron Man III speaks directly to psychiatry. Spoiler alert: You might choose to wait to watch the movie – or read this article.

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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.

Minds can communicate with machines in real life, and not just in reel life. For instance, recent news reports revealed that electrode-laden caps allow wearers to communicate with a plane via the mind alone.3 The cap-wearer makes the plane change course when he or she concentrates on making a fist with one hand or the other. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been experimenting with such technologies for years. Private industry will soon bring related bioengineering feats to commercial markets. Such One Step Beyond–style “mind-control” was previously the province of parapsychology, but no more.

Still, the Iron Man 3 story itself remains science fiction. In Iron Man 3, Extremis has supercharged an army of invaders. World powers and underground conspirators are in hot pursuit of this mysterious substance that can potentiate their evil goals. They are ready to battle Iron Man and anyone else who tries to obstruct their plans to overtake humanity. A once-suicidal scientist, an easily swayed botanist, and a drug-addicted actor figure into the fast-paced plot.

After the movie ends, and after Tony Stark has disarmed his enemies and rescued his love object, spectators are in for another surprise: an epilogue involving Tony Stark and Dr Bruce Banner. The epilogue screens after the last credits roll, when the film is officially over.

In this scene, Tony sits on a sofa, wearing his “civvies,” his armor out of sight. Tony recounts his triumphs and travails. Superhero fans know Dr Banner (Mark Ruffalo) as the physicist who turns into The Hulk whenever his anger is aroused. He becomes big, green, and amygdala-driven. Superficially, this scene looks like a teaser for the forthcoming Marvel film, Avengers 2, which features both Iron Man and The Hulk. However, psychiatrists who listen with their third ear hear tacit messages embedded in the dialogue, replete with reflections about rifts in mental health care.

Tony talks to Dr Banner “. . . and thank you, by the way, for listening. There’s something about getting it off my chest and putting it out there in the atmosphere, instead of hold-ing this in. I mean, this is what gets people sick. . . . Wow, I had no idea you’re such a good listener. . . to be able to share all my intimate thoughts, my experiences with someone . . . it just cuts the weight of it in half. . . and the fact that you’re able to help me process . . . you heard me?”

At that moment, the camera shifts to Dr Banner, who sits in a chair behind the couch. How curious! A film that revolves around neuropsychiatry, DNA alterations, neurotransmitters, and bioengineering comes around full circle to highlight the importance of talking, processing, communicating, and sharing.

Tony Stark never implies that talking it out would have changed anything-or that he wanted to change anything. (Thank goodness, for that would deprive both him and his audience of both past and future action-adventures!)

Yet he endorses the value of making meaning out of life experiences, including save-the-world kind of experiences. He affirms his belief that psychotherapy can contribute to this philosophical pursuit. Unfortunately, he has chosen someone who is “not that kind of doctor.” It’s not just that Dr Banner is a physicist, and a hard scientist, but Dr Banner tells Tony that he does not have the “temper . . . or temperament” to do that kind of doctoring: Dr Banner turns into The Hulk when his emotions are aroused-not a good trait for a therapist.

This article was first posted online on 7/25/2013 and has since been updated.


Dr Packer is Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY. She is also in private practice in New York City. She is the author of Superheroes and Superegos: Analyzing the Minds Behind the Masks (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO; 2010) and several other books, for which she receives royalties.


1. Ellis W, Granov A. Iron ManExtremisDirector’s Cut. New York: Marvel Comics; 2010.

2. Packer S. Superheroes and Superegos: Analyzing the Minds Behind the Masks. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO; 2010.

3. Kingson JA. An old Torah, older sunken boats and a seriously old primate. New York Times. June 10, 2013. Accessed July 12, 2013.

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