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Not too long ago, Comic Book Resources talked to director Shane Black about Marvel’s Iron Man 3, which arrives in theaters today. When asked about David Michelinie and Bob Layton’s infamous “Demon in a Bottle” storyline, considered the darkest and deepest Tony Stark of them all, and its potential adaptation to the big screen, Black said, “No, because if we go there — it’s part of Tony’s character, but I think the ‘Demon in a Bottle; aspect, if you go there, you really have to go there. The film then becomes about that, because the journey that involves recovering from alcoholism is an entire movie. I mean, I want to keep it dark and interesting and edgy and spicy and all those things, but I don’t think we want to go as far as to deal with Tony’s descent into alcoholic madness. That’s maybe not where we want to be.”
This turned some heads, triggering accusations that Disney demanded sobriety, that Black forswore any alcohol in Iron Man 3 and insistence that it was a big deal that this issue wasn’t going to be addressed at all. I can see where the director is coming from on this: Iron Man has a lot on his plate already with four films’ worth of continuity and troubles following him, and to stop in the middle of all of that to take that turn down a dark and lonely path isn’t where we want to be in our Marvel movie medley.
Believe it or not, Iron Man 3 deals with a lot with demons, just not the particular demon of alcoholism. There are demons that are spawned from poor decision-making and from being a bit of a bastard in one’s younger years. There are demons that terrify us but, at heart, are completely manufactured from insecurity and doubt. And there are even more personal demons than that, ones that drive us into the night and can slowly crush you from the inside.
Seeing Iron Man 3 last night taught me something very important about myself and heroism, and those great, grand concepts I love to take from comics about dudes punching each other. Because, while the spectacle is fantastic, the effects and details are dead on, the acting is challenging and sly, it’s those message moments done just right that make viewers realize they just might have seen a different movie than everyone else.
WARNING: Iron Man 3 will be discussed below! I’m keeping out as many details as possible, but if you’re remaining spoiler-free, you might want to bookmark this one for later. To the brave, read on!
Tony Stark has post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s where the weight of this movie lies; there may be villains and Extremis-riddled soldiers and the Mandarin’s machinations, but this is about how Tony handles the knowledge he should be dead. At the end of The Avengers, he takes a bomb into unknown space through a wormhole pretty much as ready to die as anyone ever is. He knew the risks, he faced them, and then … he fell back to Earth. Stark has survived something beyond anyone’s imagination and now has to live another day, and one after that and after that, just like everyone else. When you face something like that, a truly traumatic experience, and don’t expect to live, it can really mess you up. Doubts and fears dog your heels as you wait for the other shoe that didn’t drop. There’s no real “after” plan to help you cope with events that big, whether you’ve faced a gigantic space army and a mad god, or a car crash that took the lives of your passengers and not you. That’s why there’s post-traumatic stress disorder listed in the DSM-V and there are therapists and agencies to help our veterans. Stark self-medicated not with booze but with work, throwing himself into a state of constant vigilance. He makes armors and stores them. He doesn’t sleep. He, like many with PTSD, copes by diving into the one thing that distracts or even feeds that gnawing fear; narrowing down to one task brings some clarity but it can easily make you lose sight of the rest of the world.
Stark’s world comes crashing down around him, literally, as his Malibu home falls into the ocean, trying to bury him in prototype armor in the process. When you survive something that should have killed you, there’s an ugly feeling that this is “it.” That was your one chance and you used it, so now all bets are off. Good luck not slipping in the tub and killing yourself now! Surviving that traumatic experience means no more second chances, there’s no escaping death now. There almost doesn’t seem to be a reason that you survived at all. I mean, why Tony Stark? Why not anyone else from the New York battle? Was this millionaire playboy really worth it?
The beauty of seeing all of this unfold, and the blessing of being an omniscient audience, is that the solution to these inner demons is played out in glorious 3-D surround sound. Tony tells Pepper Potts early on in the film that the suits are a part of him, so when he’s being crushed by the weight of his own crumbling home, he pulls himself out of the wreckage to escape. When he collapses in the snow and his armor is all busted and out of power, he drags himself to safety. And in the climactic battle (see, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to avoid all spoilers), he sends an army of himself to the rescue. He sheds armors as each one is destroyed and puts on a new one and keeps fighting.
That’s who Tony Stark is. The closing words of the movie clearly explain that you can take away all of his gadgets and toys and money and trappings, but he is Iron Man. It’s not the miracles that save you or luck or second chances, it’s self determination. The ability not to drink, the ability to survive, the ability to design a suit of armor that shoots missiles and omni-beams, all of that comes from the triumph and heroism of the human spirit. And like the movie says after the end credits, Tony Stark will return.