Understanding the psychology of a superhero is a good way of making them feel relatable. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Robert Downey Jr has done an incredible job of making the audience feel for Iron Man. Over a decade, fans have seen Tony Stark’s emotional journey play out. Laura Ferron offers some great insight into Iron Man’s psychology and his motivations for saving the world.
Freud states that guilt is the fundamental affection for the social bond. On one side, it proposes narcissism. It´s better to be guilty than totally indispensable. On the other side, guiltiness encourages feelings of helplessness.
Tony Stark is a great example of this omnipotent guiltiness towards psychic trauma. In the first MCU movie, we see Tony kidnapped and hurt with his life threatened by the very weapons he created. He’s not responsible for the weapons purchase, he didn’t know about it. Yet he embraces guilt as an unconscious control mechanism. Guilt soothes his anxiety upon the horror of being attacked by his own inventions.
From that moment on guilt will become his primal affection. It will guide him to make his life meaningful. “All that matters is the next mission” he tells Peppers when she discovers his new toy.
Furthermore, in Avengers, Tony offers the ultimate sacrifice to save the world. In giving his life, he gains his place as a hero. To overcome guilt, one has to identify with an idealized object: the martyr who becomes a hero by paying a debt with his life. But his neurosis doesn´t allow him to stay there for a long time. In Iron Man 3, we see him having panic attacks. Panic attacks and anxiety crisis are physical sensations that show the absolute lack of control and the manifestation of the fear of death that guilt contained. At the end of this movie, we see Tony finally accepting his human condition: he has surgery to remove the arc reactor from his chest.
“My armour, it was never a distraction or a hobby, it was my cocoon…and now, I’m a changed man. You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys. One thing you can’t take away: I am Iron Man.”
Again, emotional stability is not his thing and in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Scarlet Witch’s mind games show him his greatest fear: the death of their friends and Steve (his super ego reminder) regrets: “Why didn’t you do more?” Such a statement triggers all his previous traumas and narcissistic wounds so that out of guilt he plays God and creates Ultron.
Tony tells Nick Fury that it is all his fault, to which Fury reminds him war is not an invention of his. Towards the possibility of a new alien invasion, Tony feels impotent, petrified, on the edge of death. From that traumatic experience, he creates Ultron who projects his destructiveness of which he can genuinely feel guilty.
To fail the expectations of our loved ones is the worst thing for anybody, especially for a narcissist. And poor Tony is systematically insufficient. He saw himself as a disappointment to his father and he is afraid he will be to Pepper, to his friends, to human kind. And the most terrible image of this torment is Spider-Man’s death in his arms during Avengers: Infinity War. At the end of the film, we see a devastated Tony, alone in an unknown planet, not knowing who survived in Earth and having failed to save anyone.
Be sure to check out Laura’s other guest post about The Hulk and anger management.