About the Author
What can I say about myself? 37 years old, native of Staten Island, New York, living between the coasts in Minnesota (The Great White North!). Roleplayer. Science-geek. Amateur Photographer. Lover of Science Fiction, Fantasy and History. (Avid Reader!) Technical Office Professional.
Tony Stark Has a Heart
(Note: Contains spoilers and discussion of plot points the first two Iron Man films, The Avengers movie)
Tony Stark. Billionaire playboy. Weapons manufacturer. Global star. Superhero.
And, most importantly for purposes of this discussion, a man who lives under a disability. Readers of the comic, or watchers of the movie know the story. In the attack on him (in Afghanistan in the movie), shards of metal penetrate his chest and threaten to perforate his heart. Only by means of technology is he able to construct a device not only to keep those shards at bay, but to become the power source for a suit of armor, the suit of armor that allows him to become Iron Man.
More importantly, that disability and its omnipresence changes Tony Stark. In fact, I want to argue that the vehicle of his disability is what causes him to become a better person.
In Iron Man, the brush with death, and the continual presence of the shards in his chest changes Tony as a businessman from the get go. Gone is his gung-ho desire to sell weapons to the U.S. military, dreaming instead of much more peaceful applications for his technology. When faced with death at any moment, the prospect of dealing death is far less appealing.
This decision propels the rest of the action of the movie. Iron Man is a pugnacious, destructive force when in combat, although one will note that repulsors and punches are weapons far less murderous than the missiles and bombs his company used to make. Tony Stark struggles with his new identity, groping toward being a hero. This development in the story of the film it leads to the final line of the movie, as Tony Stark reveals himself publicly for what he is: Iron Man.
In Iron Man II, the challenge of having to wear the suit and the arc reactor all the time is compounded by the revelation that it is slowly poisoning him. The compounds and drugs he is using is keeping this at bay, but his blood is being slowly and inexorably poisoned. Like a metaphor of terminal cancer, the seeming inexorable nature of his impending death again propels the plot of the movie, leaving him vulnerable to forces that wish to use the Iron Man technology for nefarious purposes. Although the terminal condition of the blood poisoning is indeed resolved with the help of a message from the grave, the underlying problem of the shards in his heart are still an omnipresent danger. And, we see that, far from the pugnacious use of the suit early on in the first Iron Man film, in the crucial final sequence of Iron Man II, Tony’s first concern are the innocents under threat from Crimson Dynamo and Justin Hammer.
The apotheosis in the Marvel Movie continuity for Iron Man’s change of heart is The Avengers. It was pointed out to me that Iron Man, more than any of the other Avengers, has the true hero’s journey as part of his storyline. The Call to Adventure, the reluctance to take up that call, the growth and development as a through line as the movie progresses. And, then, finally, in the climax of the movie, risking his own life to not only stop a nuclear missile from striking New York City, but then redeploying that missile, knowing that it is a suicidal act, to stop the enemy alien fleet pouring out of the portal above Manhattan.
The Tony Stark, before that fateful day in Afghanistan, would never have dreamed of offering his own life as a sacrifice for the world, a city or even another person. After his time within the suit, however, and the omnipresent threat of death by the shards in his chest or the poison allowing him to keep going, Tony Stark is no longer that Tony Stark. He is more human. That is the true legacy of his disability. The shards in his heart, the ever present possibility of death, has worked a transformation in him.
The fact that, with the aid of the Hulk, he survives this act does not diminish the attempt at heroic sacrifice. He took on the missile with the full knowledge he was going to die. Witness his attempts to call Pepper, and fail, to make one final human connection, showing just how much he has changed as a character.
Tony Stark does, indeed, have a heart.
And, I believe, even if he were somehow cured of the condition (as he has been, on occasion, in the comics), that personality change fostered by his disability is permanent. Tony Stark will always be Iron Man.