From Iron Man in 2008 to Avengers: Endgame in 2019, it is not too much to say that the success of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was initiated by Iron Man. At first, the image of Iron Man was somewhat different from what we generally think of as a hero. But through a series of events, he grew up and eventually became a true hero, while protecting his loved ones.
Many people face critical turning points throughout their lives, which lead to considerable changes in their values and behaviors. What turning points did Iron Man have in his life and how did these moments change his values? With the release of Avengers: Endgame, The Argus looked deep into the changed values and behaviors of Iron Man, one of the key figures in the Avengers, and analyzed them based on psychological theories.
For this playboy, Tony Stark, there seems to have none of the features of a hero-only anguish and retrospection. However, he breaks the mold of a typical hero, who normally disguises his true identity by proudly speaking out to the public, “I am Iron Man.” At the beginning of Iron Man, with the displays of his macho bravado, this narcissist shows off a new weapon named Jericho in Afghanistan. On answering a U.S. soldier’s question, “Is it true you went 12 for 12 with last year’s Maxim cover models?” he replies, “That is an excellent question. Yes, and no. March and I had a scheduling conflict but fortunately the Christmas cover was twins.” This is the story of Tony Stark, who graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 17 with his brilliant talent and serves as the present CEO of the world’s top arms company, Stark Industry.
Iron Man’s childhood: Narcissistic personality disorder
The portrayal of Tony Stark in the beginning of Iron Man is exactly in line with that of a playboy. He does not attend the awards ceremony, but instead has fun at the casino and invites a reporter to his mansion in Malibu to enjoy a one-night stand. He even drinks sake while traveling on business by his private plane and relishes the flight attendants’ pole dance. This kind of life is nothing but a routine for Tony. He is overconfident in his ability and enjoys others looking up to him. Narcissistic personality disorder is the most appropriate term to define Tony Stark’s character.
Lim Chan-young, a medical doctor, department of psychiatry, diagnosed that Tony has a lot of personality traits in accordance with narcissistic personality disorder. He said, “In the early days of the Iron Man series, Tony shows excessive self-confidence, an arrogant attitude which allows him to ignore people around him, and a perception that he is a special person. Most of all, the lack of empathy he has for others is remarkable. The famous scene which Pepper Potts, the personal assistant of Tony, carves the phrase “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart” on the arc reactor and returns it to Tony directly represents Tony’s personality problems before he was reborn as a true hero, Iron Man.”
Tony’s narcissistic personality disorder can be traced back to his unhappy childhood. As can be inferred from the words of Dr. Ho Yinsen, who had been kidnapped in Afghanistan with Tony and saved his life by placing an electromagnet (which later became the arc reactor) on his chest, Tony was not properly cared for by his parents. In Iron Man 2, Tony even describes his father, Howard Stark, saying, “He was cold, he was calculating. He never told me he loved me.” In addition, Tony lost the chance to reconcile with his parents as they passed away in a car accident when he was 20 years old.
About Tony’s deprived background, Dr. Lim said, “If a person does not get the proper care in the process of growth, his or her self-image won’t be formed correctly, resulting in low self-esteem. To overcome this, one creates an exaggerated self-image which only recognizes oneself as a special being and tends to underestimate others.” He also stated, “Characters are greatly affected by hereditary traits. Recent studies particularly insist that antisocial personality, so-called, psychopathic temperament is inherited. Considering the case of Howard Stark featured in Avengers: Endgame during a trip into the past undertaken by Tony, he hopes that his soon-to-be-born son, Tony, would not resemble himself-one keen on valuing his interests over public interests. It can be inferred that Tony’s selfish personality was highly influenced by his father, although he did not intend it.”
Iron Man’s self-image: Iron Man suit as Persona
Initially, Iron Man’s chronicle focuses on the performance and design of the Iron Man suits, which are upgraded repeatedly, not on his awakening as a hero. In other words, Tony’s role as a hero is limited to making a high-performance suit. The one inside the suit does not matter. The conclusion that Tony without a suit is just “a rich and smart playboy” was already made during the argument with Captain America in Avengers. That is what everyone around Tony knows, including Tony himself.
The Iron Man suit acts as strong persona for Tony along with its high strength. Persona is a psychological concept presented by Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, which means a kind of mask carrying out one’s social role expected by other members of society. The agony of other Marvel heroes, such as Hulk and Thor, was based on their amazing power and responsibilities. However, that does not exist for Tony. His feeble physical abilities, which are not different with those of an ordinary person when he takes off the suit, make him enveloped by a fear of death. In particular, this anxiety was maximized when he was thrown into space alone with a nuclear missile, as shown in the final scene of Avengers.
Since then, Tony tries to hide himself more and more into the suit. In Iron Man 3, Tony tests his brand-new suit, the MK. 42. He cranks out a lot of suits, suffering from insomnia and anxiety which is little short of panic disorder. He claims that the suits are being upgraded according to his will, but in fact, the suits are dominating his daily life. The suit is transformed into 007 bag in Iron Man 2, remotely controlled in Avengers, and in Iron Man 3, pieces of a suit fly from anywhere and assemble when Tony wants. The suit, which has become remotely controlled by itself like an avatar, creates a paradox - Tony is safer when he is not wearing the suit. The reason for this is because Tony can command the suits to do dangerous tasks from a safe place. Therefore, Tony is separated from the suit.
In other words, the progression of these advanced suit designs is leading to Tony’s regression. In the paradox and contradiction of the Iron Man suit, which was originally a tool for him to show off in, the suit turns into a persona in which to hide himself. Thus, “human” Tony is preoccupied by anguish. Tony overcomes these worries by introspection, and realizing that he is just an ordinary human being. After his house is destroyed by a group of terrorists, Tony makes an emergency landing in a remote area as the suit is turned off. However, he resolves his crisis with his extraordinary brain and creativity. The scene in which Tony moves from suit to suit whenever it is broken during the battle against the villain, Killian, shows that the suit is no longer a complex or a persona, but a tool for Tony.
Iron Man’s last moments: Erikson’s psychosocial developmental theory
Through a series of events, Tony has come to demonstrate a lot of physical and mental growth. His life can then be analyzed using “Erikson’s psychosocial developmental theory.” Eric Erikson, a German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, divided human life into eight stages, from infancy to senescence, claiming that everyone interacts with the social environment on the basis of a genetic disposition and goes through those eight stages one by one. Successful completion of each stage can lead to the development of a normal, healthy individual, but failure at any stage leads to a mental defect associated with that stage. Erikson also said that there are core virtues at each stage and one’s developmental status can be determined based on whether or not the core values have been achieved.
Dr. Wind Goodfriend, a psychology professor and assistant dean of graduate programs at Buena Vista University, explained, “As an adult, Stark is currently in the stage called “Generativity versus Stagnation.” To successfully pass through this stage, one must develop a sense of generativity, or a concern for guiding the next generation, either by parenting or by working with groups of young people. A lack of generativity, also known as stagnation, is a feeling of emptiness or questioning one’s purpose in life.” In fact, Tony did not have a son or daughter until Avengers: Infinity War, nor did he have any direct relationship with young people until Captain America: Civil War except for the little boy, Harley Keener, whom he had met for a while in Iron Man 3.
However, according to Dr. Wind, Tony has an influence on the next generation by being a superhero and serving as a role model. Also, this type of relationship changes to a more direct form in Spider-man: Home Coming. Making a mentor-mentee relationship with spider-man is a case in point. For example, after Tony meets Peter Parker (Spider-man), Tony gives advice to Peter, who has similar concerns with him.
Regarding this relationship, Dr. Wind commented, “Working with the next generation to leave some type of legacy is a key to successful Generativity. So working with Spider-man and other youths in various films (e.g., Iron Man 3) shows us Stark’s sincere wish to connect with the future. The relationship he formed in Iron Man 3 appears to continue, as this person attends his funeral in the final scenes of Avengers: Endgame.”
Also, about Tony’s change of character, she said, “Stark’s personal evolution from selfish to altruistic is a slow progression throughout the Marvel series of films. We see him put others first, make a commitment to a life partner, and give the ultimate sacrifice of his own safety to protect others. He realizes that he can not protect other people or his own legacy completely alone, and that he needs to be part of a team. This is what makes The Avengers so successful; they work together and achieve more as a group than they would as individuals.”
Eventually, in Avengers: Endgame, Tony sacrifices himself to save the universe and dies in the presence of his best friends-War Machine, Spider-man, who is like a son to Tony, and Pepper, his lifelong companion. Tony Stark, the playboy and typical narcissist he once was, is reborn as a true hero, “Iron Man,” and bids us farewell.
Why are we so enthusiastic about MCU movies? A solid worldview based on intimately connected storytelling, realistic action and high-quality computer graphics may be the major reasons. Among them, what cannot be ignored are “humane heroes.” Each of the heroes of MCU has its own distinct character, pain and anguish. In particular, the scene that Tony sacrifices himself, who once was an impersonal millionaire, creates a huge impression. The death of Iron Man, who shared the same fear and pain with the public, a hero who was human - all too human. The reporter applauds him for his courage and self-abnegation. Love you, 3,000.
People who helped the reporter write this article
Lim Chan-young, Medical Doctor, department of psychiatry
Dr. Wind Goodfriend, psychology professor and assistant dean of graduate programs at BVU
By Na Geum-chae
Associate Editor of Theory & Critique Section