Facing Evil

Science, Symbolism, and Superpowers in 'Iron Man 3'

Tony_StarkGod’s Word assures us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Our DNA’s construct is carefully interwoven into our make-up; our brains have great capacity, yet are still limited, so that wonderment stretches beyond us and keeps in place the glass the Scripture speaks of, that we see through but dimly.

The new movie “Iron Man 3” speaks greatly to the power of the human mind, but also to the power of human limitation and the danger involved in attempting to force our brains and DNA to evolve beyond the limitations imparted by our Creator.

One of the reasons the Iron Man franchise remains my favorite of the current superhero franchises is that Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has no superpowers, merely intelligence. This is highlighted throughout the third installment; often stripped of his amazing suit and forced to fight just as a man, he calls himself nothing but a mechanic. Stark is more aware than ever of his human limitations, when it comes to facing his most challenging enemy yet—an enemy who, unlike him, believes that science is all about power and personal gain.

Like so many genius-turned-lunatic scientists so popular in comic books and comic book films, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) begins the film as nerdy, mousy, brainy, and shunned by Tony Stark, who would much rather spend time with a gorgeous woman at a New Year’s Eve party. Later, a reinvented Killian approaches Stark Enterprises and its current CEO and Stark’s girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), to demonstrate that he’s on the brink of causing human brain evolution. He can take broken vessels, the men and women injured and returning less-than-whole from their Army service, and make them whole again. He can force the brain to stretch beyond its supposed capacity. But when Pepper raises legitimate concerns and refuses to invest in his research, Killian sets out to take maniacal revenge, and Tony must use his brainpower and mechanical expertise for good.

Tony Stark has also come a long way from the womanizing playboy of the first film. He is in a committed, though flawed, relationship with Pepper, and his concern for her safety and his belief that his happiness rests with her is touching to see. This is not the hard-as-nails and seethingly sarcastic Tony of yesteryear. His makeshift family grows to include a young boy in Tennessee, who aids him when he is stranded, alone, and greatly in need of an ally, no matter how unlikely.

I was also struck by the film’s exploration of the face of evil. The Mandarin, a terrorist who interrupts the airwaves, exploits the War on Terror, and wreaks havoc, is the icon seen by viewers worldwide as the visage of the attacks launched in his name. While society needs to be able to place symbols on heroes and do-gooders (one needs look no further than Iron Patriot, the suit worn by Tony’s best friend and military hero Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle)), it must also have a face of evil to contemplate and to retaliate against. While evil is very much an ever-present undercurrent in our world, we must have something to contain it in, to separate the good from the bad, to let us momentarily forget that, like DNA, evil is in our makeup since the first sin. The film gives this idea a unique twist that really makes the viewer stop and think.

Most prominently, I was inspired by Tony’s frailty and humanity. The formerly womanizing, fast-quipping genius, so self-assured and cool, suffers from panic attacks and anxiety after his adventures in New York with his fellow Avengers. Now, he has nightmares, wakes up screaming, and cannot seem to face what he experienced without triggering episodes. Much like the veterans who return from the war and fall susceptibly into Killian’s devious plan, Tony suffers from PTSD: a soldier, a warrior, one man fighting terror as so many of the good men and women of America do every day. They might not have his cool gadgets and armor, but they have his drive, his conviction, his bravery, and his unwavering moral compass that steer him to look at evil straight on, no matter how terrifying its face, and promise to make the world a safer place.

If we really do need a symbol of goodness to inspire us, we could do far worse than Tony Stark, a superhero who survives without power, rejects scientism, and represents the better side of us all.

Image copyright Marvel.

Rachel McMillan is a writer in Toronto. She blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.

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I have to agree about this movie; it's not simply a high-tech CG shoot-em-up. The growth of Tony Stark's character is also encouraging. Interestingly, on Imdb.com, a lot of Marvel fans are complaining about the movie "moving too slowly", and the weakness of the Mandarin character. They are completely missing the deeper issues. I think there's also a cautionary tale here about the face of evil. While the Mandarin seems to be the face of evil, he's a paper tiger. The true face of evil is Killian himself. As Christians, we often forget Ephesians 6:12. The real enemy is not the current liberal, atheist, terrorist, etc.; the real enemy is Satan and the philosophies he spawns.