Wednesday, June 19, 2013

PTSD in Iron Man 3

This is a delayed post about my one frustration about the third Iron Man film.  All around I really enjoyed the movie, and Robert Downey Jr. absolutely knocked his role out of the park (unsurprising).  While the main story involves a new challenge against a new foe, a very huge part of the plot involves Tony Stark struggling with the after-effects of the alien battle in New York with the rest of the Avengers.  These effects turn out to be consistent with many symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.  While viewing the film in the theater I was so excited to see how this angle would play out, as I am constantly searching for a non-stigma-approach to mental illness and treatment in movies and shows.  Here was THE Tony Stark, superhero, with a mental illness that some audience members could relate to.  And then he escapes an attack, ending up in Tennessee and meeting a young boy, Harley.  They start investigating the site of the local bombing, and at one point under pressure Tony has an anxiety attack (not the first one of the film).  Harley asks him a series of questions, one of which being "Do you have PTSD?" and Tony promptly scoffs that he does not.

Now, here I get a bit concerned that Tony is denying his problem with this reinforcement of the social stigma.  I then tell myself that perhaps this is just a realistic response that many trauma victims have, and hoped for the plot to move in the direction of Tony's acceptance of it.  This did not happen.  (*SPOILER ALERT*)  The film reaches its climax and resolution with Tony destroying the suits and removing the shrapnel and arc reactor as a sign of his devotion to Pepper Potts.  So there is closure to the film but any further discussion or acknowledgement of his PTSD or treatment of it is not included.

The signs were all there:  
-Tony was having anxiety attacks from triggers and terrifying nightmares and flashbacks to his traumatic experience in New York.  He almost died while fighting off an alien race and seeing a city he invested his company in being destroyed before his eyes, so rightfully this was something that affected him deeply.  
-He developed a hobby of building an army of Iron Man suits, presumably out of fear and for protection against any possible future attacks.  This is similar to returning military vets collecting guns or other weapons as a hobby with intention of feeling protected, but the appearance of violent intentions.  
-The combination of these two symptoms results in a scene in which Tony has a nightmare and puts Pepper in danger by activating his suit in the middle of the night. The line between his reality and his flashbacks is clearly blurred.
- Tony basically invites the Mandarin to attack him by reciting his address on television, which is textbook impulsive and self-destructive behavior.  Although it can be argued that he believed he was well prepared for the attack it quickly becomes apparent that his is outnumbered and out-powered.

I just really wish the film had not blatantly ignored and denied Tony's mental health.  If it is hinted at but not addressed it just reinforces that mental illness is something we don't talk about and something that makes us weak.  When Tony's physical health is compromised he gets it fixed.  Why wouldn't he do the same with his mental health?  Because it's not our society's view of the acceptable thing to do.  With the prevalence of violent happenings in our modern world connected to mental illness, I plead with the entertainment industry to stop stigmatizing the sick and start making this something with a tangible solution.  It didn't have to be a huge part of the film but if a little recognition of Tony Stark's PTSD had been included, I wonder how many tough guys out there it would have helped, who are currently struggling.


  1. I agree that this PTSD story line was conveniently dropped partway through, which was weird. I wonder if his problems with it will continue into the next Avengers movie (or, if there is one, the next Iron Man film)?

    In reference to one of your earlier posts, Pepper seems to be the typical "damsel in distress", and ultimately saves Tony.

    1. So true about Pepper saving Tony physically. As far as social status movement Tony still brings Pepper up to his level and "saves" her in that sense. I do hope they continue the storyline in further films, but for some reason I am doubtful. It will be interesting in forthcoming sequels if any of the other Avengers have any lasting effects of the New York battle as well.