Rachael Derrick, LMHC, got a degree in philosophy and worked in print journalism and study abroad before finding a career field that isn’t collapsing. She currently diagnoses mental, behavioral and neurodevelopmental disorders for a living. The following article is for entertainment only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any individual or condition. If you or a loved one are in need of mental health treatment, please call your doctor or visit PsychologyToday.com and click “Find a Therapist.”
Clinically, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (ICD-10-CM F43.1) can seem like a catch-all diagnosis. Feeling worried or panicky? PTSD. Feeling sad or suicidal? PTSD. Feeling cranky or having fits of rage? PTSD. In reality, if a person has experienced severe and / or repeated traumas, it’s more than likely that their symptoms really do stem from their response to the stress.
Tony Stark’s kamikaze flight into the wormhole in The Avengers (2012) is not, by any account, the first trauma he has experienced. Before he joins the team, Tony is kidnapped, wounded, subjected to untested and unsanitary medical procedures, exploited, deprived of adequate food and hygiene facilities, forced to witness the death of a friend, stranded in a desert, informed that his company was responsible for actions that betrayed his moral code, informed of crimes committed by a significant father figure, betrayed and attacked by said father figure, and self-exposed as a superhero, thereby making himself a target for even more people who wish to do him harm. And that’s just the first movie.
Scenes from Iron Man 2 (2010) suggest that Tony’s childhood was less than idyllic. Tony’s father, Howard Stark, was emotionally neglectful, if not outright abusive, resulting in a strained relationship cut short by Howard’s death when Tony was 21. Despite seeing his father as “cold” and “calculating,” Tony never stops seeking his approval. A brilliant engineer and inventor in his own right, Tony spends considerable time and effort on his father’s projects — a new element, the Stark Expo, and even Captain America — even while maintaining a casually dismissive attitude toward life in general. Though becoming Iron Man seems to be a step toward taking some of the responsibility he’s avoided for most of his life, Tony in fact “fears the insecurities created by his traumatic experiences, (…) refuses to acknowledge them and seeks an easy fix in his narcissism.”
Iron Man 3 (2013) is full of such contradictions, making it a surprisingly accurate depiction of PTSD. The first scene of Tony in the “present” — after the Battle of New York — is in his workshop, where he seems relaxed as he implants some of his own inventions into his arm. Only later does it become clear that he hasn’t slept in three days and that his new implants will ensure that he is never separated from his armor. In private, Tony boasts to himself, “I’m the best,” but a simple question from a child triggers a panic attack in public. He explains to Pepper that he’s been “a hot mess since New York” and that he is trying to protect her, then he issues a public challenge to the Mandarin sharing his home address, making Pepper a target. Though inconsistent, this behavior is understandable for someone whose reaction to trauma has challenged not only his daily functioning but his entire personality.
The classic markers of PTSD are flashbacks, avoidance, isolation and trouble concentrating. But this short list describes myriad symptoms and behaviors, including nightmares, panic, minimizing trauma or pretending it didn’t happen, anger outbursts, hyperarousal (exaggerated startle response), fatigue, worry, sadness, guilt, confusion, memory problems, trouble sleeping, reluctance to engage in tasks that require focus, dissociation (a feeling of disconnection between the self and actions or feelings), hyperfocus, change in appetite, aggression, anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure), loss of motivation or even developing phobias related to the trauma.
For Tony Stark, who has built his life around being both brilliant and relaxed, these symptoms are devastating. His natural reaction then is to overcorrect — use the time he isn’t sleeping to invent new devices, defy the fear by confronting a terrorist. He refuses to process and even denies his trauma while having a panic attack in front of Harley, a helpful young boy he meets in Tennessee.
Harley: Do you have medication?
Harley: Do you need to be on it?
Harley: Do you have PTSD?
Tony: I don’t think so.
Tony can’t even empathize with Harley when the kid tells him that his dad has been gone for six years. “[It] happens. Dads leave,” is all Tony says before demanding supplies and food. He minimizes his own trauma so hard he can’t allow anyone else to be traumatized either. Compartmentalizing may be how Tony gets through the rest of the film, but if he’d been willing to seek help for his symptoms, he might not have needed to work so hard.
(A quick note for anyone who didn’t read my introduction: I am a licensed mental health counselor currently working in community mental health. I do not specialize in trauma treatment or recovery, though I have used evidence-based trauma treatment techniques with my clients. In this piece, I am discussing a hypothetical treatment plan based on a fictional portrayal of symptoms. It is unethical for any mental health provider to diagnose or treat any individual who has not consented to treatment or had an evaluation to determine treatment goals. If you or someone you know is affected by trauma or any other mental health disorder, please seek help.)
In an alternate Iron Man 3 reality where Tony was seeing a therapist, the initial focus of his treatment could be his insomnia. Even if nightmares weren’t an issue, he shows signs of anxiety and racing thoughts along with hyperarousal. Lack of sleep intensifies every symptom of distress in the brain, including sadness, anger, worry and loss of concentration. Without sleep, Tony is at higher risk for panic attacks and impulsive behavior, such as sending a public “come at me, bro” message to an organization that has been responsible for at least nine bombings. Techniques to calm the body and brain for sleep could also help Tony manage his anxiety, reducing the frequency and intensity of his panic attacks.
To recover from PTSD, the traumatic memories and triggers need to be processed so that they no longer cause intense emotions or panic. Through various techniques, Tony could review his thoughts and feelings about his trauma in order to reduce his sensitivity to the memories and to become aware of the ways in which they impact his beliefs and behavior towards others. Tony might realize that his time as a captive in Afghanistan has reinforced his habit of offering food to show people that he cares. He could also recognize that his tendency to escalate rather than admitting his mistakes causes conflict in his relationships and contributes to his isolation. Whatever insight he might develop, Tony could benefit greatly from discussing it with a professional.
Despite the lack of formal treatment, Tony does learn and change during the movie. After trying and failing to solve every problem himself, he begins to accept help from others, even a child (who happens to have valuable engineering skills) and a stranger (who happens to be a fan).
After Pepper survives a seemingly fatal fall and kills the bad guy herself, Tony realizes that not only does he not have to protect everyone, he can trust others to help protect him. Tony even sets all of his Iron Man suits to self-destruct, telling Pepper he will no longer put himself in harm’s way to protect her. Unfortunately this, too, is an overreaction to his fear, eventually leading to the creation of Ultron and the destruction of Sokovia, but the gesture is meaningful at the time.
At the end of the film, Tony concludes, “We create our own demons.” The obvious reference is to villainous Aldrich Killian, Killian’s Extremis genetic manipulation project and the Mandarin, as well as Tony’s own behavior toward Killian, but the idea applies to trauma on a number of levels. At first it seems dismissive, implying that we can as easily destroy what we create. It also speaks to the distress caused by anxiety, as any sufferer of panic attacks will say that the fear of panic is almost as bad as the panic itself. But in Tony’s case, it is his refusal to address his trauma that allows his PTSD to develop, causing him to face internal as well as external dangers to himself and his loved ones.
The post-credit sting reveals Tony has been speaking about all of this to a doctor. However, I would recommend that Tony seek treatment from a qualified professional rather than a somnolent biochemist with rage issues.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on May 4, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week when guest writer Will Norris tells us how Thor: The Dark World represented a course-correction for that character’s series.
PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”
Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey
The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers
Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer
Thor (2011) — Aly Caviness
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — Sy Stiner
The Avengers (2012) – Craig McQuinn