Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been doing something that seems to have become a bit of an annual tradition for my husband and me: watching all of the Marvel movies in timeline order. Because mental health has been on my mind a lot lately, the way the movies tackle the topic has stood out to me even more than usual.
I’ve always been a big fan of Iron Man – in fact, my husband and I get into frequent debates about who is better between Iron Man or Captain America. I’m a big fan of the fact that Tony Stark is just a regular guy (Well, aside from being a genius and billionaire…) who decided to fight for a better world. I’ve also always appreciated the ways the MCU has kept Tony as perhaps the most human of all the Avengers, so when we got round to Iron Man 3, I knew going in that it shows Tony struggling to make sense of what he’d gone through to that point. But this time watching it really got me thinking.
For the few people out there unfamiliar with the Marvel movies, here’s a quick (spoiler-laden) overview of the relevant movies. Tony joins forces with the other superheroes in The Avengers to fight an army of alien invaders led by Thor’s brother, Loki. The fight is ultimately won when Tony flies a nuclear warhead into the wormhole through which the aliens were invading. The movie ends almost immediately thereafter, but Iron Man 3 picks up a few months later.
We see Tony making new suit after suit, trying to perfect his armour and make sure that he’s able to protect those he cares about. He says that he’s tinkering because he can’t sleep, and we ultimately see him having multiple anxiety attacks. It’s clear to the audience – and eventually to Tony – that he’s suffering from PTSD and anxiety as a result of what he’s gone through.
I can’t emphasize enough how refreshing it is to see mental health disorders shown in such a way in a movie. Too often in Hollywood, mental illness is shown as a justification for negative or criminal behaviours – think Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. Movies and television tend to stigmatize mental illness or turn it into a joke rather than show that a person can suffer internally while still contributing positively to society.
That’s why I love Tony Stark’s character. (I admit, I know nothing about the comics, so what I’m saying here is based entirely on the MCU movies.) He struggles in a very real, severe way to make sense of what he went through in New York, and responds in a very realistic, human way. The first time he has an anxiety attack, he thinks there is something wrong with his heart or his brain, and when told it’s actually anxiety responds with, “…me?”
(Even the “Fat Thor” we see in Endgame – though very flawed in some ways – can be credited with showing that even a god can experience depression. And, interestingly, I’ve heard the argument that Tony’s reaction to Thor’s change in appearance shows his understanding of the god’s mental illness.)
All this is to say, that’s the kind of thing we need to see to eliminate the stigma around mental illness. Somebody like Tony Stark, who has it all – “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” as he puts it – can still struggle with their mental health – and that’s OK.
And if it’s OK for Iron Man to have mental health disorders, then maybe others will see that it’s OK for them to have them, too.
Sara McCleary regularly writes for the news columns of Sault This Week.