Theorizing Disability in Iron Man 3

Unpacking the politics of disability in Iron Man 3.


[NOTE: Towards the end of this article, I spoil the film’s one really interesting plot twist, and I assume throughout that you already know the characters and the plot.]

As we discussed on the podcast, Iron Man 3 is probably about overcoming traumatic events both personal and geopolitical. It’s not really about disability as such. But it features disabled characters more prominently than any other blockbuster action movie I can think of. Nearly every character, in fact, ends up facing down some kind of physical or mental impairment. And the film is informed by a particular axiomatic theory of what it means to be disabled, which — although never directly stated — must be accepted by the audience on some level in order for the narrative to function as well as it does.

There are three central points to this, as far as I can see (two of which are highly dodgy in political terms, and one of which is a little harder to come to grips with):

1)  Dodgy assumption no. 1:  disability is intolerable.

We touched on this in the podcast a little bit.  The extremis soldiers are amputees who signed up for a medical trial that compromises their safety, their autonomy, and their moral capacity, all because the prospect of living as an amputee was intolerable. The Vice President is willing to help terrorists assassinate the President if it will eventually let his daughter can grow a new leg. And even the good characters, Tony and Pepper, can’t have a happy ending until he ditches his electronic pacemaker (at the cost of a risky medical procedure), and she purges the extremis from her system (at the cost of her newfound superpowers). The film doesn’t work unless we believe that all of these are acceptable tradeoffs. Not right decisions, necessarily, but understandable ones. Notably, the reveal of the Vice President’s disabled daughter is meant to make us sympathize with that character. If we could tolerate disability, if we thought that life in a wheelchair could still be as valid, important, and meaningful as life in any other kind of chair, it wouldn’t have that effect at all.

But like I said, Iron Man 3 isn’t really about disability. This all seems, to me, to be part of the film’s broader concern with purity. So it’s not okay for Tony to have night terrors or a plate in his chest, but it’s also not okay for Maya to want to stop Aldrich’s evil plan in a way that still lets her make tons of money. Morality, like physical and mental wholeness, is an all or nothing affair. She doesn’t get redeemed until she’s willing to walk away from her invention and her profits altogether, seconds before she gets killed.

2)  Dodgy assumption no. 2:  All forms of disability are equivalent, and indeed bleed into each other — including some that we would not typically think of as a disabilities.

When we first meet Aldrich, he seems to be suffering from some kind of neuromuscular disorder. It’s not really explained, but he has tremors, and walks with a cane. He’s also unkempt, with long greasy hair. The disability and the lack of style are not meant to be read as two unrelated traits. Rather, they are two facets of the character’s overall physicality, which is meant to distinguish him from Tony, who is immaculately coiffed and moves like a ballroom dancer. Aldrich’s physical symptoms go away, later on, but they’re replaced by a pervasive moral rot, and, as Fenzel explained eloquently on the podcast, the film tells us in no uncertain terms that if Aldrich wasn’t evil when Tony first met him, he was already unsound. Some moral fault, some fissure, existed in the man, or else he would not have crumbled when put to the test. And again, it seems doubtful that we’re really meant to read his physical impairment and his moral weakness as two unrelated features of the character.

This is reinforced again by the extremis soldiers, all of whom come back from war with physical and psychological wounds. Also interesting:  the people who take extremis because they need to, because they have a missing limb or whatever, all end up acting like drug addicts, suggesting that they have only displaced their disability, not actually overcome it. Pepper, who was “already perfect” when she took the shot, has much less trouble with its effects. And Tony himself can only purge himself of the shrapnel and the electromagnetic pacemaker once he’s overcome his PTSD. As long as he’s mentally damaged, he will be damaged physically; fixing the one fixes the other. This reinforces the general point that all disability is equivalent and interrelated — and note that part of the reason his cure does work, where Aldrich’s doesn’t, is that he fixes both conditions rather than only one.

This transitions nicely into my third point, which is:

 3) The film depends on a stringently policed non-Cartesian self-other dualism.

Where the other two are so clearly dodgy that I haven’t even bothered to explain why, this one is more ambiguous. It’s also a lot less obvious what the hell I even mean by it, so let’s nail down some terms. Self-other dualism divides the world between that which is me and that which is not, and generally treats anything that is not me as a kind of pollutant, or at least a potential pollutant.  This is baked into our culture on a pretty deep level — you occasionally find mystical religious leaders, continental philosophers, and pot-addled college freshmen making statements about the essential connectedness of all things, but at the end of the day if you’re walking down the street and a bird poops on your hand, you are going to wash “all things” right the hell off of you (and feel no small level of psychological distress until you do so).  Cartesian dualism, on the other hand, is the separation of mind from body. Generally speaking, mind also means soul, subjectivity, and essence,  while body implies not only the human body but the entire physical world. And many forms of self-other dualism are also Cartesian, meaning that the only thing that’s really ME is my mind, and even my body is kind of a contaminant if it starts to interfere with that.

The film, like I said, puts forward a non-Cartesian self-other dualism, which is a logical consequence of the two points that I made above. The film’s rhetoric of purity, which makes disability intolerable, also demands a rigid self-other dualism. But the film’s sloppy conflation of the characters’ physical, mental, and moral states prevents any kind of Cartesian sense of self-as-mind. Mind and body in Iron Man 3 are an irreducible unit — a bodymind — but anything that interferes with that unit is a toxic contaminant.

This has interesting implications for the conversation we had on the podcast, about the proper way to heal from traumatic events. Tony, remember, has both physical and mental disabilities, and at the start of the film he leans on technology to respond to both of these.  For his shrapnel-mangled heart, he sticks a little robot in his chest; for his vision-haunted dreams, he sticks big robots in his house. But this is only a coping strategy. At the end, he’s able to dispense with all of the robots and move forward on his own. And as someone pointed out on the podcast, there are dozens of shots in the film where Tony stares poignantly at the Iron Man helmet… the message, in the end, is that the suit is a prosthesis, and Tony is not his suit.

Tony is not his suit. It bears repeating. Generally what we mean by that kind of statement, in a superhero movie, is that the suit is not the sum total of who Tony is, the same way that Peter Parker is not Spiderman and Superman is not Clark Kent. That the human being Tony Stark is more important than the symbol Iron Man, and that his human wants and loves are as important as his responsibility to defend the public. But in this case, the purity rhetoric kicks in. It’s not just that the suit isn’t all Tony is. The suit is no part of Tony:  neither body nor mind, it is a contaminant and a distraction. “You can take away my toys,” Tony says at the end of the movie, “but I’m still Iron Man.” (It’s also interesting in this light that out of the three Iron Man movies, this is the only one that treats the suits as inherently disposable. In 1 and 2, there are multiple suits, but Tony exchanges them the way that a lobster exchanges its carapaces. Each is his skin until he discards it, and there’s really only one viable suit at a time. Here, though, he exchanges them pretty much the way we exchange our clothes, which are necessary for daily life, but not part of us. The fact that the suits can move around on their own, animated by Jarvis, surely reinforces this point.)

Tony is not his suit. Now, on the face of it, this seems like a more or less positive message, right? Step back from superhero-world for a minute, and consider a man who uses a wheelchair. To say that the man is not his chair, to look to the man and not see the chair, is generally something we ought to aspire to, isn’t it? On the other hand, when we say that we see a “man” in this context (or a woman, as the case may be), taking the disability away… are we fundamentally thinking of a man (or woman) who can walk? That is, if you view a person’s disability as somehow incidental to their true being, is there a sense in which that involves conceiving of “true being” as a fully able state?

This is an honest question, and probably one that theorists of disability have already grappled with. I know for a fact that some of our readers are better-informed than I am about this sort of thing, so I hope they’ll use the comments thread to educate me a little. But certainly the film suggests a particular answer to the question, in that Tony’s journey of self-actualization is only complete when he discards his prosthesis.

But what implications does this have for Aldrich, and the rest of the extremis soldiers? If Tony can become whole by getting rid of his heart defect, why can’t they become whole by regrowing their limbs? A crucial point here, I think, is that Extremis is a treatment, not a cure. You have to keep taking it, like quinine (or like cocaine — more on that in a minute). The drug, then, is just as much of a prosthetic as Tony’s suit ever was, and although the extremis soldiers seem like specimens of bodily perfection, if you needed a pharmaceutical boost to get there, it was never really BODILY perfection in the first place. It’s just another contaminant. (See also Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, etc. For a contrasting view, possibly, see Flowers for Algernon.) Tony’s disability has a physical form:  it’s the shrapnel in his chest that’s killing him, not anything about his chest itself. For the extremis soldiers, disability is not a presence but an absence. The implication is that although a contaminated bodymind can be purged, a bodymind with a deficit can never be made whole. To do that, you’d need to bring in something from the outside — a mechanical or pharmaceutical prosthesis — and this would not leave you with an unwholesome mixture of incompatible essences.

Generalizing still further, and leaving the sorts of things that we generally call “disability” behind, Iron Man 3 is arguing that a problem can never be a relatively unimportant part of who you fundamentally are. Either it’s your ENTIRE being and will destroy you eventually (like Aldrich’s problem), or it’s entirely incidental and can be almost trivially overcome (like Tony’s). It’s not an acceptable happy ending if Tony is a brilliant, incredibly charming guy who sometimes suffers from night terrors, and leans heavily on his girlfriend to cope. Pepper can’t fundamentally be a woman who runs a company, looks like Gwyneth Paltrow, and takes injections every day to avoid exploding into a cloud of hot gas. Furthermore, Tony can’t fundamentally be a bad widdle boy, irresponsible and hedonistic, the way that he is in the 1999 party sequence. This too must be only a distortion of his true self, which is mature and reliable…

… and as a consequence (stay with me here), Robert Downey Junior cannot fundamentally be a cocaine addict.


Iron Man doesn’t just square Tony Stark off against his opposite/nemesis Aldrich Killian, right? It also squares Robert Downey Junior off against his opposite/nemesis Trevor Slattery, a once-promising actor who developed a drug problem, fell off the map, and, unlike Downey, kept right on falling. Slattery is not a total monster, like the other villains in the film, but he’s a tool of monsters, and he’s become a pretty wretched person in his own right. “Irresponsible drug-addled manchild” is the core of who he is, physically and mentally, to the point where all other aspects of his character — the menacing speeches, the central-casting terrorist beard — are simply fraudulent. Downey, on the other hand, has become Iron Man. For him, the cocaine was just a contaminant. Sure, it got pretty close to his heart. But somewhere along the line he had an operation to remove it, and he’s whole now. He is not an addict — he never was! He’s a person, who at some point along the line was temporarily afflicted with an addiction. (The corollary:  addicts, true addicts, are not people.)

And this is exactly the way that we aren’t supposed to think about addiction! It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been sober, you go into the meetings every week and tell them “I’m an alcoholic.” Because some problems have to be managed, not solved, and because people, even good people, are never really perfect. Iron Man 3 doesn’t recognize this. But maybe it doesn’t have to. It’s a superhero movie, after all, and utopian escape is what superhero movies are all about. Well, utopian escape and explosions. Iron Man 3 delivers on both fronts, so I suppose I’ve got no real complaints… here in the real world, after all, we can choose to take the good along with the bad.


8 Comments on “Theorizing Disability in Iron Man 3”

  1. Cat Vincent #

    Only just seen IM3 and still chewing over it… but the thing that strikes me most about your critique is how much more interesting it gets when you consider Stark’s anxiety in the film is a heavily sanitized (at Disney’s orders) version of his original great flaw – alcoholism. See the excellent Demon In A Bottle run of the book for more.


  2. Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

    I think you’re right on that “disability” is probably the wrong term to use here, since the movie’s totalizing views of characters conflates not only body-phenomena with mind-phenomena, but also conflates varieties of each: psychological trauma and chemical dependency and traumatic injury in war and congenital deformities and being a jerk. Your proposed dichotomy between contamination and deficit is much more apt, doesn’t map neatly onto real-world political distinctions (a trait I find more and more refreshing these days), and is of a piece with the essentially aristocratic politics of fairy tales and popular sci-fi/fantasy.

    But I want to raise a question about whether or not Tony is his suit. Considering the whole movie franchise, I think that sometimes he’s his suit and sometimes he’s not. (In this movie, sure, mostly he’s not. Upon reflection I’ve come to think that the end of this movie punts on the more provocative questions it raises.) But the fact that the suit is somehow tuned to him so that Don Cheadle can’t use it, the fact that it functions as an extension of his will even when it’s unconscious (rescues him from drowning, flies him across the country) — is SuitTony another trope of BodyMind? Actually I wonder if we’re using the right theoretical framework — would it be more apt to say that Jarvis/Suit/Tony is akin to superego/ego/id, with Tony and Jarvis negotiating over the disposition of the exoskeleton?

    But speaking of skeletons, when I talked upon the podcast about Tony brooding at the Iron Man mask, I brought it up in connection with Yorick’s skull in Act 5 of Hamlet. Hamlet, who has a similar hangup about contamination, is pondering the leveling effects of mortality: “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”

    I think this is the ultimate reason why the film’s insistence on purity is so unsatisfying and also why it has to be vigilantly enforced. Also why the ending, from the resurrection forward, is unsatisfying to me. You might manage to remove every contamination—if such a thing were even useful or desirable—but death, the ultimate contamination, will in the end remove us all.

    Roll credits.


  3. Stokes OTI Staff #

    Yeah, with regard to the franchise as a whole, I think that the question of whether Tony is his suit is an open one. To the extent that when he removed his pacemaker at the end, my first thought was “Holy jeez, did they just make him not be Iron Man?”

    I kind of want to see — and suspect that Alan Moore or someone has already written — an Iron Man comic set 300 years in the future, where the empty Iron Man suit, not really self-aware, but imprinted with enough of long-dead Tony Stark’s preferences to function, continues to lead a kind of grim shadow-life, blindly fighting crime. Every year, on Tony and Pepper’s anniversary, it leaves a dozen roses on her grave. Tony programmed the suit to always bring Pepper a present in the event that he forgot to buy one, you see, and since there’s been no activity on his credit card since March of 2052…


    • Lavanya #

      Something like that’s been done. Adam Warren’s “Iron Man: Hypervelocity.” The basic premise is that Tony uploads his mind to a prototype Iron Man suit, one that supplements him and will allow him-as-Iron-Man to make decisions at speeds faster than his human meat brain can think at critical moments, and to back up himself if he were to ever die. Tony then gets shot, and the suit goes off to solve the mystery of the attempted assassination on its own, thinking of itself as Tony.

      I say “itself” for the sake of simplicity. The suit is very much Tony, and doesn’t see any meaningful distinction in how ‘he’ forked his consciousness off from meat!Tony’s. Both carry the same problems. Suit!Tony ponders how one advantage of its new physiology is that it literally can’t drink alcohol anymore, freeing himself from any chance of giving into his addiction, but then quickly realizes he could write a program to simulate the effects of alcohol. Suit!Tony chooses not to take an e-drink, and muses about how things never really change.


  4. Gab #

    I have an extremely long reply, about as long as the original article. It’s a little embarrassing. Should I put it on my personal blog and link it here so people don’t have to scroll or tl;dr my crap? :/


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