In the first scene in Iron Man 3 between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), billionaire and genius weapons manufacturer turned superhero, and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), personal assistant turned girlfriend, they have a fight. Pepper has come home from work at Stark Industries, where she is now the CEO, to find Tony wearing his Iron Man suit around the house like it’s bizarre and expensive loungewear. She asks him to lift up the mask for a kiss; he claims it’s stuck, tells her to go ahead and kiss it. Against his protests, she heads to his basement workshop for a crowbar, still flirtatious, and discovers Tony doing pull-ups in a T-shirt while operating the suit remotely. In the ensuing argument—which encompasses sins from the suit thing, to eating without her on date night, to spying on her at work—Pepper turns to go to bed alone. Tony, in desperation, finally admits to not only fault but fear. Specifically, fear that has been permeating his life since the events of The Avengers, in which Iron Man’s usual tech-enhanced but thoroughly human battlegrounds received a cosmic upgrade culminating in a near-death experience in a wormhole above the streets of Manhattan:
“Nothing’s been the same since New York…You experience things, and then they’re over, and you still can’t explain them? Gods, aliens, other dimensions—I’m just a man in a can. The one reason I haven’t cracked up is probably because you moved in. Which is great. I love you, I’m lucky. But honey, I can’t sleep. You go to bed, I come down here. I do what I know. I tinker. Threat is imminent, and I have to protect the one thing I can’t live without. That’s you.”
When I think about Iron Man 3 as a movie about trauma, about the fractured self and the shifting definition of survival in its aftermath, I think first about this scene. On a basic level, in highlighting disrupted sleep and hypervigilance, it lays out two of the major symptoms presented in the film which, alongside his recurring anxiety attacks, led to multiple write-ups on Psychology Today‘s website about Tony Stark’s possible PTSD.
But the scene’s engagement with trauma (and the film’s) goes beyond a half-hearted run through a DSM checklist. When I think about this scene I think about the suit—a clear and poignant metaphor for dissociation. It contains Tony’s mind but not Tony’s body; it’s a way of living two experiences simultaneously while fully absorbing neither. I think about the moment when he asks Pepper to just kiss the mask, and how trauma invites the construction of shields that become barriers to intimacy, even with those we love the most. I think about how what characterizes trauma is not the fact of the experience itself, nor even necessarily its scale, but rather the way in which during its aftermath the events refuse assimilation or understanding. And I think, with the same astonished gratitude I felt in the theater on opening weekend all those years ago, that I could not describe or define it better than this: You experience things, and then they’re over, and you still can’t explain them.
Imagine that you own a ball with which you occasionally play a simple game: you toss the ball in the air and catch it, again and again. You take comfort in the steady, predictable rhythm; in the arc of velocity as the ball shoots up from your hand, slows to a stop mid-air, and then careens back down. You might occasionally drop the ball, maybe the sun is in your eyes or you’ve misgauged the angle, but these errors are born of factors you understand.
One day you throw the ball and it does not slow as the force of your toss succumbs to the force of gravity; it does not slow or stop at all. Instead it continues ever upwards from your hand, at a steady speed, a straight line drifting into the atmosphere until it disappears from sight. What matters is not that you have lost your ball. What matters is that the laws of physics, previously believed to be constant and inviolable, have revealed themselves as actually subject to sudden and unpredictable change. What matters is: what else can happen, now that your conception of the limits of possibility has been violently expanded? Do you close doors with deliberate gentleness, fearing that a thoughtless swing might break the hinge? Do you turn on your stove, knowing now that the fire could just choose to keep burning? Do you get in a car, aware that every single one of the hundreds of mechanical rules which govern its motion could at any second give way without warning?
Trauma functions like this, a fissure in the linear unfolding of your reality, the experience of which colors everything that follows. A wormhole, if you will. The thing about “Nothing’s been the same since New York” is that, in fact, nothing has changed since New York except Tony’s perception: He understands too intimately, though not inaccurately, the fact that safety is always inherently an illusion. This perspective is haunting, and also isolating.
You experience things, and then they’re over, and you still can’t explain them in a way that slots neatly into a comprehensible idea of your self or your life, but also to other people, who, when you try to explain why you don’t hammer nails into walls anymore (because you have no proof that it won’t make your building collapse), try to comfort you by saying Honey, it was just a ball. Pepper knows what happened in New York, but she didn’t live it; Tony can explain the facts to her, but can never collapse the distance between what could happen and what is already true. Nor can he account for the fact that other people manage to continue living their lives, cognizant of the fundamental mortal vulnerability of themselves and everyone they care about, or explain what makes it so that he cannot.
Maybe, after the day your ball doesn’t come back, you decide to get an extra lock for your door, since for all you know the relevant pieces of metal might fall out, or spontaneously melt, or transfigure into sand. But of course, an extra lock would only help, not actually solve, the problem: probabilistically (if probability can still be trusted, which itself is now an unsettled question), it would seem less likely that two locks would simultaneously cease to function, but it wouldn’t be impossible. (Nothing is impossible; that is the nature of the horror.) How many locks would it take for you to feel safe again? Three? Ten? Twenty-five? Forty-two?
Forty-two is the number of Iron Man suits Tony has built at the start of the movie, nearly all of them in the interim between New York and now. Deflecting attention from the truly unbalanced behavior that this reveals, Tony brushes it off: “Everybody needs a hobby.” Later, after his argument with Pepper, she points out that they’re machines. He says, with a kind of pathetic brightness in his voice, that they’re part of him; she calls them a distraction; he doesn’t argue but doesn’t quite concede. “Maybe.”
The most basic description of what the suits are is, of course, a coping mechanism; the thing Tony does in order to deal, or instead of dealing, with the fact of his terror. Sometimes what you need, in order to deal with things the way you’re supposed to is, in fact, a long stretch of time in which you fail to do so. Sometimes a bad choice is still the best one you are capable of making. There’s an exchange from a later Marvel movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which encapsulates this duality succinctly. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), referring to Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) fluid relationship to truth, remarks, “That’s a tough way to live.” Natasha—like Tony, when presented with the argument that his suits are a distraction—doesn’t argue. Instead she says, almost absently, “It’s a good way not to die, though.”
Iron Man 3 understands thoroughly that a tough way to live can be a good way not to die, and vice versa. The suits serve a complicated function. They keep Tony in his basement, away from his loved ones, frantically tinkering away without sleep for days on end; they literally come between him and the person who cares about him most. But it’s easy to imagine a form of distraction that would be unambiguously more damaging. (In fact, you don’t have to imagine. Just watch Iron Man 2, with its impromptu motor-racing, disastrous parties, and truly incredible image of Tony Stark hungover in an Iron Man suit eating a donut while sitting inside a giant roof-top donut.)
More than that, though, when Tony finally goes to bed, he sleeps only briefly before being thrust into a nightmare, or more precisely a series of flashbacks. The relived terror is so severe that the artificial intelligence system permanently linked to his brain perceives a threat and sends a suit to attack the only other person in the room: Pepper, who shifts swiftly from fear to irritation before leaving Tony to sleep alone. The next day, when a terrorist destroys their Malibu home, Pepper survives because Tony manages to assemble a suit quickly around her, a suit she then uses to protect him from falling debris.
A coping mechanism can push away or even hurt the people you love, sending you deeper into the isolation of your own anxiety. A coping mechanism can keep you alive when your world is crumbling around you. These facts can coexist, uncomfortably but not in contradiction.
By the way, yes, there’s a terrorist in Iron Man 3, and an entire plot beyond Tony Stark fighting with his girlfriend and feeling miserable in his basement. The story, as presented, is slippery and difficult to grasp, a domino chain of unintended consequences and unforeseen events, which is to say that the structure of the movie is another aspect of its reflection of a post-traumatic existence.
A set of chance encounters at a years-ago conference in Bern leads to a deadly team-up of evil geniuses. An impulsive threat made to spite the paparazzi clamoring for comment on his injured friend leads to Tony’s house blowing up. A flight plan made casually, before his world collapsed yet again, leads to him waking up covered in snow, abandoned by a battery-drained suit and powered-down AI, startled to find himself in Rose Hill, Tennessee.
Not all of these reversals of expectation are narratively weighty, or even as emotionally charged as the moment when one of the suits that he keeps building, because he can’t stop thinking about protecting Pepper, puts her life directly in danger. But the cumulative effect of these failures of expected outcomes is the sense of a universe in disarray, a world in which cause and effect function so out of sync as to have become completely severed. Improbably enough, the movie unfolds seamlessly, its skewed junctures becoming apparent only in retrospect. But even this is a testament to the role that narrative can play in remaking the world into a livable place, as pointed out by R. Blair. In a rare Marvel post-credits stinger that both surprises and delights, Tony’s voice-overs are revealed to be excerpted from an impromptu fake therapy session with a snoozing Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), suggesting that part of the way he has found to live with what has happened is to learn to be the one to tell the story to himself.
The departure to Rose Hill, in particular, has always struck me as representative of another facet of life in trauma’s aftermath: The things you do just to have something to do, the steps you take solely because sitting still is unbearable. Tony’s AI system brings him there, out of the rubble of the attack on his home, following a plan made to investigate a lead on the growing terrorist threat. It’s a literal autopilot that recalls a stanza from Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain”:
The Feet, mechanical, go round —
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —
I could think of worse phrases to describe a robot suit dragging your unconscious body through the air than “a quartz contentment.” And I could think of worse ways to explain the days I spent living a very normal life that seemed newly and persistently unreal and distant than to say that it was like I was in an Iron Man suit moving of its own volition, without any input from me except its own idea of what I might once have wanted.
The first time Tony has an anxiety attack, the question that sends him running outside to gasp for air is, “How did you get out of the wormhole?” A better question might be, “How much of you is still there?” In Rose Hill he breaks into a shed to begin repairs and meets a 10-year-old boy named Harley, thrilled to see Iron Man sprawled on his couch. “Technically, I’m Iron Man,” Tony tells him, to which the kid responds, “Technically, you’re dead.”
He’s referring to a newspaper headline about Tony’s presumed death in the explosion in Malibu, but this too is a way of thinking of the self that persists beyond that which seems unlivable: A walking ghost, an echo of the person who existed before who has not discovered how to exist after—who perhaps is not convinced he has survived at all. When Harley goes to say his name, Tony interrupts, calling himself only “the mechanic,” an identity separate from the person he was before, who has—like his suits, like his AI—become inaccessible. During Tony’s last anxiety attack, Harley reminds him of what he said—he’s a mechanic, he builds things—and the new identity leads him to a new plan, a new way of operating through his reality.
It’s worth looking at the villain of the movie, who (as in all Iron Man movies) operates primarily as a reflection of Tony himself. We first meet Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) as a stuttering, limping, disheveled scientist trying and failing to get Tony’s attention in Bern in 1999. In the years since, he’s reshaped himself as a suave and collected businessman who attempts to wow Pepper with a tour through a hologram of his brain to show off his breakthrough. His motives are mercenary in a standard blockbuster way—more fear equals more weapons equals more money—but that breakthrough is interesting: Extremis, a virus that works on the repair-oriented parts of the brain not only to heal injuries but to give humans a full-body upgrade. He’s assembled a small army of skin–regrowing, fire-breathing super soldiers, and late in the movie, he kidnaps Pepper to try to make her part of the team.
In field-testing documentation uncovered by Tony, we see that Killian’s recruits consisted largely of veterans, the population through which PTSD was first identified and defined, particularly amputees. One recruit says in an interview that the defining moment of his life was “the day I decided not to let my injury beat me.” But because it is a villain’s tool and therefore a villain’s weapon, Extremis is not presented as a miracle cure. The process is so risky that his subjects’ bodies fail to regulate the virus. That happens often enough—including to the optimistic soldier quoted above—that Killian uses these failed recruits to carry out his campaign of explosive attacks.
More intriguingly, and despite the fact that the glimpses we see of people undergoing the procedure mostly involve them writhing in pain, Extremis is presented as addictive. An early scene of a henchman handing off an ostensibly illicit dose to a shaking man soon to become an unwitting bomb is shot to resemble a scene of a dealer handing off a dose to a junkie; Killian warns new recruits that addiction will not be tolerated.
What this suggests is that the quest for healing, defined as a return to a pre-traumatic wholeness, is illusory and doomed. and furthermore, that the pursuit of perfection is as damaging as it is addictive. Extremis is a biological mirror to Tony’s suits: A grasping towards a superhuman protection to attempt to master and control that which is fundamentally ungovernable.
In one of several climactic moments, Tony, in only his own skin—having sent all his suits to save the day elsewhere—reaches out on the beam of a flaming oil rig to rescue Pepper, who is trapped by Killian’s machinery. He stretches out his hand as far as he can, trying to persuade her: “You gotta let go, I’ll catch you, I promise!” The music swells optimistically, romantically even, preparing us for the moment where Tony protects his love with nothing more than faith in himself, having learned at last that he never needed the suits to be a hero. Except the machinery shifts, Tony misses, and Pepper tumbles forward, hand outstretched, into an inferno.
In the ensuing confrontation, Killian taunts Tony: “I was so close to having her perfect.” And Tony, devastation still fresh on his face, replies, “She was already perfect.”
She was already perfect. In the face of his failure to achieve the one thing he swore to do, having survived the one thing he was sure would destroy him, Tony gains a new clarity on what it is to live a human life, which can so easily fail. She was perfect when she was mortal, she was perfect when she could be hurt. She was perfect when I couldn’t save her. It’s a definition of perfection explicitly unrelated to any idea of invulnerability, separated at last from the impossible demand for permanence.
Of course Pepper lives; in a final surprise, the process Killian began as an attempt to make her one of his own empowers her not only to survive the fall, but to be the one, finally, to take him out—with one final assist from a stray suit. Startled by the violence of the affair, newly afraid of her own altered body, she warns Tony not to touch her, a reversal of their roles at the beginning. And he reassures her that he can come close, that she has not been made monstrous by what was done to her.
She asks, “Am I gonna be okay?” And he tells her, truthfully, “No. You’re in a relationship with me, everything will never be okay. But I think I can figure this out, yeah.” And then, holding her at last skin-to-skin, he initiates the Clean Slate Protocol, the self-destruction of each and every suit, one by one, exploding around the two of them like fireworks, like the New Year.
Look: Iron Man 3 is a movie which, among other sins, demands that the audience accept neutrally that a billionaire might just build himself a private drone army for fun. It feels a little overwrought to say it changed my conception of myself, that it gave me a new vocabulary and framework through which to articulate the things that happened to me and the things which I, in turn, had done and wished I hadn’t. But when I think about Iron Man 3 as a movie about trauma, as a story about what it is to live with the unlivable, I think about this final sequence, about these contradictions which are not contradictions: She was already perfect, when it seemed that she was dead. Everything will never be okay, but I can fix this. The creations that saved the day need to be destroyed, because “a good way not to die” has tipped over into being irrevocably a tough way to live.
And I think about the first time we see Pepper, her head of security trying to convince her to replace the janitorial staff of Stark Industries with robots like the ones Tony’s been assembling in his workshop. Reacting to her skepticism, he clarifies, “What I’m saying is that the human element of human resources is our biggest point of vulnerability. We should start phasing it out immediately.” To which Pepper immediately, incredulously responds, “What?”
It’s a tossed-off line, an idea that goes nowhere, so it took me several viewings to catch that this exchange captures the entire thesis of the film. The human element is, inescapably, our biggest source of vulnerability. We are fragile, terrifyingly so, and when we break there is no going back, no return to wholeness or to the version of ourselves who existed un-fractured. You experience things, and then they’re over, and you still can’t explain them, because they will never make sense; because the world is and has always been immune to logic and control. But the answer is not to give in to the temptation to phase out our humanness—to become less human in an attempt to become more perfect and therefore more safe.
Maybe you never really leave the wormhole. Maybe trauma is something to learn to live with, side by side, and not to overcome. Iron Man 3, for all its silliness and strangeness and morally questionable underpinnings, offers less a manual on how to do that than a rough and complicated picture of what that might look like. It offers the possibility that the unwise things you did to keep going can be worth the fact that they sustained you long enough to be able to let them go. That losing one self doesn’t mean you will never create another. That even though it might never make sense, there is power in finding a way to tell your own story. That the human element contains both our weaknesses and our best selves. That one day you might throw another ball into the air, not because you trust that it will come back but because you trust yourself to survive if it doesn’t—because you see, at last, that surviving is what you’ve been doing all along.