You Know Who I Am: Rigidity, Chaos, and Identity in Iron Man 3
Tony Stark cannot sleep. He has nightmares. He has panic attacks. He's been through plenty of crap in his life, but somehow he's not bouncing back so easily this time. He is as quippy and quick as ever, but the strain is showing.
In a sequel that, after the raging success of The Avengers, could have easily made its bank being nothing but a series of loosely tied together action sequences, we get instead one of the most psychologically revealing, intricately characterized movies of the decade. It's a brilliant look at the aftermath of trauma and the navigation of resilience and identity. In a genre that explores approximately everything about identities but how to actually have one, here is a movie that, at the center, is about a guy trying to figure out how to exist after everything he knows has been shaken to the core.
Ultimately, Iron Man 3 is a movie about synthesis. It sets up a fierce dialectic that divides our loyalties. The rigidity of the suit vs. the chaos of the post-traumatic mind. Iron Man vs. Tony Stark. We want both sides to win, and the ferocity of our devotion to that outcome meshes seamlessly with the standard Stark modus operandi: Cut the wire. Find a way. Choose the third option. Reject the false dichotomy. I will save the President and get the girl. The only way to resolve thesis and antithesis, without sacrificing either, is synthesis. In the synthesis of rigidity and chaos, we find that ever elusive quantity in a life full of trauma: an integrated identity. And with integration comes resilience.
Everyone knows who Iron Man is, hey? After all, he held a press conference. Everyone knows who Tony Stark is now, except him.
Can you regulate? | Extremis and the Glitch
When we meet Tony Stark in the original Iron Man movie, we meet a man who is holding on tight to any control he can grab. He doesn't like to be handed things. He speaks quickly, clipped, each word bitten off and seemingly designed to shut you up unless you have something important enough to say. His every action and reaction is there to slow. everything. down. Because his mind? Looks like this:
It's a barrage of information and ideas, fast and loud and unstoppable. Inspiration and synthesis happen faster than light, and basically everything about Tony, when we meet him, is designed to modulate that flow. To control it. Being a genius, particularly a creative genius, is chaotic. In order to survive, one must regulate that chaos. Tony's system for regulating it is almost entirely external. He has guardians at every door. He has Jarvis. He has Pepper. Both there, primarily, to regulate the flow of information. (In both directions, I might add, since Tony has a propensity for spewing his thoughts before really considering their consequences.) He is constantly assaulted by the chaos of his mind. In a very real sense, he has a disability. His creations, and his relationships, are a very elaborate prosthesis.
He couldn't regulate, so he built something (or several somethings) that could.Iron Man 3 opens with a little backstory. "It started in Bern, Switzerland, 1999," we're informed by the voiceover. But it didn't start here:
It started here:
Daniel Siegel defines the human mind as "a relational and embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information." If we conceptualize the mind as something other than the biological brain, what is it?
It is what lives in our interaction with the world. The mind emerges from the interaction of the brain and the environment. The brain receives all of the sensory information from its surroundings at once. In order to navigate those surroundings, we must find some way to make sense of that information. We must decide what to attend to, how to process it, and what to make of it. We must regulate it, or it is simply a senseless, useless glut of noise. The mind's ability to regulate opens the door to all of the other things that typically define humanity: planning, empathy, strategy, relational skills, and so on. It is the foundation of all mental functionality.
On the biological level, the middle prefontal cortex allows us to inhibit and modulate the firing of the amygdala. In other words, it allows us to regulate our emotions. Amygdala yells "EEK FEAR FEAR FEAR" and the middle prefrontal cortex lets us pause, reflect, and consider our response, rather than running off shrieking in terror. When a surprising or damaging event occurs, the flow of information is disrupted and we are consumed by our response. The middle prefrontal cortex lets us get a grip, assess the damage, and begin to strategize how to repair it. Maya Hansen found the beginnings of a way to generate repair in the body. Extremis is a sort of nanovirus that offers regenerative capabilities, speedy healing, and the ability to look like a flaming hell monster.
For those that can regulate the flow of fiery nanobots, it gives them superpowers. For those who cannot, the "glitch" in the serum makes them explode in spectacular fashion, obliterating the surrounding countryside.
When Extremis carriers are harmed, you can see the surge of flame inside them as they heal the damage and restore themselves to the status quo. If they successfully adapt, their resilience earns them continued existence. If they fail to adapt, they combust and/or die. When typical human beings are harmed, they have a similar choice. Trauma is injury. Sometimes we are able to recover from it without much incident. Sometimes there's a glitch.
In the aftermath of the events of The Avengers, we get a rare look at what must certainly be a rather common problem for superheroes. What happens after you get bashed across the entirety of New York City and shoot yourself suicidally into space, and then survive it? If your superpowers do not include immunity to trauma, what becomes of you when the action sequence is finished and you return home, fundamentally and irrevocably changed?
Tony tells his momentary sidekick Harley that he doesn't think he has PTSD. He may not, but he's not well yet, either. He's struggling to regulate, trying to return to what he was before, using his old tricks to heal himself, but coming up short. The old tricks aren't working.
He's on fire.
"You'll never see me coming." | Rigidity and Chaos
Emotional health is a balancing act. Too many feelings, we're in a chaotic state, overwhelmed and out of control. Too few, and we're depressed, trapped in a rigid, static state. Often, when trying to gain our footing, we bounce back and forth between the two banks of Siegel's "river of integration", alternately imposing a severe set of rules on ourselves, and then rebelling and acting out. As with his regulatory processes, Tony's oscillations between chaos and rigidity are externalized, too.
Most obviously, faux villain the Mandarin is the agent of chaos. He offers the President instructions on how to control him. The President complies, and the Mandarin immediately reneges.
He repeatedly attempts to demonstrate his unpredictability and the inevitability of his victory. Then, when about to be caught and nailed down, is revealed to be merely a smokescreen, played by a completely random stage actor in it for the drugs.
Happy spends the bulk of his screentime trying desperately to exert control over events. He insists on his rules and badges, taking his role as head of security more seriously than anyone else does. Initially apparent as a literal representation of rigidity is, of course, the suit itself (and therefore, to a large extent, Tony). The suit begins as Tony's ultimate protection. It is solid, impenetrable, iron. Every time the mask closes over his face, there's the briefest flicker of relief at having stopped the flow. Inside, for a moment, maybe it is quiet.
But very early on, we begin to see that it's no longer working. When the chaos invades Tony's nightmares, he calls for the suit in his sleep and it attacks Pepper, who is trying to wake and soothe him. "That's not supposed to happen," he says. "I'll recalibrate."
Over and over again, the suit begins to fail him. It still serves its purpose as a shield, but it is less up to the task with each subsequent call. Then, the Mandarin responds to Tony's rebellious provocation by bringing the chaos to his front door.
He fights the good fight, saving the ladies and being saved in return, but ultimately...
The suit fails, imprisoning Tony and leaving him with nothing to do but watch as his home is destroyed, Jarvis (or his externals, anyhow) is dismantled, and he's flung into the sea.
"You know who I am." | Integration
In Tennessee, we come to that acid test of identity, the question we all have to face at some point: When I've lost everything that defines and contains me, what is left?
No Jarvis, no Pepper, no suit. Can you regulate?
Enter the adorable sidekick who, along with some comic relief and good feels, brings Tony's salvation. Not, for once, by actually saving him from himself and then yielding the credit, but instead by challenging him with the most simple and most complicated of questions. "And you are...?"
"The Mechanic. Tony."
He begins to regroup, to repair. To restore the status quo. He sets his suit to charging. He makes a plan. In trauma psychology, there's a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth. You're injured. You drop below your personal baseline of functioning. You can fail to return to baseline (PTSD). You can return to baseline (normalcy). Or you can rise higher than you were before the trauma occurred (resilience). Extremis, optimally, is striving for the third option, though the motives of its creators are likely not as noble as all that. Tony, at first, is trying for option two. Let's reboot. Reset. Get back to normal. But the suit won't charge. Instantly, Tony panics. What now? He slides down the side of the car, paralyzed, lost.
"What am I gonna do?"
"You're a mechanic, right? You said so," offers Harley.
"Yes I did."
"Why don't you just build something?"
In the first fight scene with AIM, he manages to call the suit's hand and foot, enough to get him free of his bindings, but no more. He doesn't panic, but instead fights with what he has, repulsor on one hand and gun in the other.
Finally, he gets the whole suit, and this, perhaps, is the ultimate moment of truth. Because he could stop there. Back together, rigidity restored. But he doesn't stop there, because he knows, now, rigidity is brittle. Breakable. Fallible. It's not good enough. Now he wants more.
Despite my efforts, I couldn't grab a screencap that wasn't blurred from the final, fantastic action sequence. It is the externalized epic battle that Tony is fighting in himself, beautifully rendered in nonstop motion that illustrates every point made above.
His suits arrive to back him up, and all at once they are no longer him, but tools. He dons and discards them effortlessly, grabbing on and letting go as necessary to serve his purposes. He runs up and down and across the bridges chasing a suit and reaches it at last, only to irrevocably shed it in the next instant to escape Killian's grip. He jumps in another suit to break his fall, then drops half of it so he can move his leg freely out of reach. Pieces of the suits attach and detach as needed to meet his demands, his choices.He's deciding who to be, right in front of us, what's necessary, what's expendable.
Rigidity versus chaos, embracing both to make a flexible, resilient mind that can handle what it has to handle. He stares his trauma right in the face, and he rises.
It's the most heroic thing he ever does.
Finally, in a shout-out to programmer's girlfriends everywhere, he detonates the remaining suits, knowing that the capacity to make them is in him, as it ever was. His combustion is not a loss of control at all, but a choice.
He fixes Extremis, to remove the glitch. He has the shrapnel removed from his body (by others, it should be noted, while he is unconscious). He throws his arc reactor into the ocean, but keeps his screwdriver. "My armor? It was never a distraction, or a hobby. It was a cocoon."
Rigidity and chaos are both useful. When we are hurt and damaged, we need a rigid shell to protect us while we heal. We need to stop the flow sometimes, in order to regain our footing. Chaos is equally necessary - it offers us vitality, ideas, and the seeds of evolution. But ultimately, we must leap off the riverbank and trust in the flexible self to face what comes. We must find our balance, so we can take the benefits of both extremes.When you lose everything, what's left is you. Indestructible. Yours. Resilient. "You can take away my house. All my tricks and toys. The one thing you can't take away?"