Directed By Shane Black
Tony Stark: “Nothing’s been the same since New York. You experience things, and then they’re over. 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… [to Pepper] that’s you.”
Iron Man 3, the latest installment in Marvel’s Universe, brings us one of the best superhero films to date. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I enjoyed it more than the first Iron Man film, it does more than enough to erase the bad taste left from the second installment of the franchise. Reprising his role of “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr. knocks another one out of the ballpark with his signature brand of sarcasm and smugness that gives life to the character that we have loved for over five years now. This time, however, we see that the character of Stark now also has to deal with anxiety issues and levels of concern for his friends that we have not really gotten to see in any of the Iron Man films or even The Avengers, but Downey Jr. balances it in magnificently. Shane Black (of Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang fame) brings his own unique style to the superhero genre by shifting the over-the-top superhero motif to more of an exaggerated action movie — giving more grit to Tony Stark as a man instead of some of his more indestructible Avenger counterparts. This leaves us with a film that takes the franchise to new heights while staying true to the things that keep us coming back for more and more. In this case, instead of a pound for pound slugfest with Tony Stark in his Iron Man suit, we have Tony, brought low and having to rediscover who he truly is, discovering that the thing that he thinks is his greatest strength may actually be the thing that holds him back.
“Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit.” -Ezekial 18:31 (NIV)
To really understand where Tony Stark is in Iron Man 3, oddly enough we need to revisit the first Iron Man movie. It is there we find Tony Stark, a sarcastic, self-absorbed “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” who doesn’t care about his actions and how they impact others — especially those closest to him. After his caravan is attacked, he is brought to his lowest point. It’s at this point where he can no longer rely on his money, comfort, or connections to save him. This is where he comes face to face with what his life has accomplished; death, destruction, and pain. But, it’s in the cave, in the middle of the desert, that he finds an unlikely friend, and fellow prisoner, a scientist named Yinsen. Yinsen reminds Tony of the things in life that are important and through their short friendship, Tony has a figurative (and literal) heart change. He begins to stop the “Tony Stark” show and he refocuses his life with greater purpose. This change allows him to appreciate those close to him and compels him to seek penance for his past indifference. And while, as Ephesians tells us, we believe it is impossible for someone to simply “pull oneself up by ones bootstraps” and atone for their own past transgressions (“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith… not by works, so that no one can boast.”), it is obvious Tony has changed.
“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” -Matthew 6:27 (ESV)
This is the trajectory that Tony is on (in his own way) when he has his part repelling the attack on New York in The Avengers. But even Tony realizes that some events are too big to just gloss over and forget. Iron Man 3 puts us face to face with a Tony Stark who can’t sleep, is prone to anxiety attacks, and who can’t stop spending time in his shop, trying perfect all his iterations of his Iron Man suits. As humorous as it is that he has now created forty-two (the answer to life, for those Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans out there) Iron Man suits, he still has failed to shake his insecurities and continues to dive deeper and deeper into his work in an attempt to assure himself that he and his friends can be safe.
Tony Stark: “You start with something pure, something exciting. Then come the mistakes, the compromises.”
Even though he is referring to the scientific development, Tony has hit on his own view of how he sees all of his actions. This is where we connect with Tony. Just like the “old” Tony Stark died in the cave in the desert, the new Tony Stark that wraps his safety and security — his whole identity — up in being Iron Man, has to die (figuratively) as well. He has become complacent. He has taken his new life, his new perspective — something that is pure and exciting, and then started falling back on his own creations instead of being the person he was made to be. He has forgotten who he is because he is scared and alone. This is a mirror of what finding our identity as Christians is like. We go through life trying to mask our insecurities or short-comings with our wealth or status or our creations, but, ultimately, all of them will not lead to life. We accept salvation, something pure and exciting, and then come the mistakes, the compromises. It is why Paul, in his letter to the Phillipians, urges them to “work out their salvation”, to never get complacent, to never stop pursuing. Never stop seeking out the thing that gives you true identity. In his life, in his way, Tony has stopped. He is crippled by fear. He has forgotten who he is.
After Tony finds himself stranded without his suit, without his home, and without his allies, he hits rock bottom again. His anxiety attacks come easier — with the mere mention of New York. It’s when he is at his lowest that he has an unlikely ally, a kid, Harley, who reminds him who he is — what makes him Tony Stark.
Harley Keener: “You’re a mechanic, aren’t you? So build something.”
True identity, that is what Tony needed to be reminded of. From that point on we see Tony, out of his suit for a great duration of the film, embracing his strengths and overcoming his anxiety. Of course, he eventually dons the suit(s) as he battles the forces of the Mandarin — but it is with his renewed spirit and understanding that he is not his suit or any of his creations.
Tony Stark: “My suit was never a distraction or a hobby. It was a cocoon. And I’m a new man now.”
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” -Psalm 51:10-12 (NIV)
While we can’t easily shake the distractions of life, oftentimes it is nice to be reminded where our identity truly lies — who we truly are as sons and daughters of God. When we begin to look to other things to give us value we often find ourselves wanting or unfulfilled Hopefully we are as fortunate as Tony Stark and have good friends who come along side us to remind us of who we are and to care for us even if we get knocked down. It will never be easy or safe but it sometimes takes the Pepper Potts and Rhodeys in our lives to help encourage us out of our isolation and self-sufficiency. If not, life can easily become out of control and we can begin to let ideas or power define who we are. When that happens we come across people who have confused their pain or situations with their identity and they let it ultimately lead to destruction much like the Mandarin does at the end of the film — when he even cries out “no more false faces…” before embracing his false identity fully.
Tony Stark: “You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys. But one thing you can’t take away? I am Iron Man.”
In the end (without giving too much away), Tony frees himself of his past and, again, begins to work out who he is. He is able to let go of the things that have been consuming him since the experience in New York and he looks to the future with a better understanding of what it takes to keep moving forward with his life. He seeks to do good for and to those around him and we will all see if his recovered identity will continue to be worked out in The Avengers 2. Regardless, Tony now knows that the Iron Man suit(s) or any of his other gadgets were what defined him, but quite the opposite. What made all those things great were what was inside or truth behind them… the truth that Tony Stark is Iron Man.
Pepper Potts: “Am I gonna be fine?”
Tony Stark: “You’re in a relationship with me. Nothing is ever going to be fine.”