Wednesday, 8 May 2013

I Am Iron Man, Too: Tony Stark's anxiety attacks

I went to see Iron Man 3 last night, and I have to say I loved it. My reasons were largely the same as everyone else's; the banter, the romance, the high-flying derring-do. However, in that theatre, hidden from the rest of the audience, I was mentally and physically wrestling with a comparatively minor part of the film.

I'm used to the twinges shooting through my wrists and up to my palms and fingertips; the heart palpitations, the facial tics. The jumps. I've experienced the symptoms of panic attacks in countless movie theaters when I've been able to force myself out of the house to go and sit in one, enjoying the company and the spectacle but all the time quietly, secretly wishing that it was over. I'm used to counting the minutes, the seconds. Turning my head away during action sequences in space or in midair-- of which there have been many in the Marvel movie universe. I force myself, I will myself to go and enjoy these films with my friends because I love them. Some days are better than others.

What I wasn't used to was seeing myself on screen.

Early in Iron Man 3, Tony is in a beachside restaurant with Col. James Rhodes, where he is accosted by a pair of children who gush about his adventures with the Avengers. He is characteristically aloof and dismissive, but this time something is different, and I wonder if anyone picked up on it as quickly as I did. The bowing of his head, the shielding of the face; alternating between mumbled and too-enthusiastic, terse replies.

One of the kids finally asks him "How did you get out of the wormhole?" and the threshold is crossed. Tony knocks over his beer and rushes, stumbles, out of the restaurant, through the oblivious crowds, clutching his glowing heart and hurrying to his awaiting Iron Man armor. Once safely inside of his power armor he has Jarvis check his vitals. Brain activity, heart, lungs. "Have I been poisoned? What's wrong with me?" Jarvis tells Tony, in bright blue LED display with a helpful hologram of his heart, that he's suffered a severe anxiety attack.

At this point I knew I was going to be witnessing something quite unlike any superhero movie I'd seen before, and I resolved to watch every minute without looking away.

Sometimes this was harder than others, particularly when, twice more, Tony suffered from on-screen panic attacks. Like the first time, they were perfectly portrayed, subtle in their onset and then silently explosive in impact. The second time one hits, Tony is sitting outdoors with the film's kid sidekick; the kid obliviously rambles on about the wormhole and the alien invaders from The Avengers, and Tony starts to babble urgently for him to stop, but by then the trigger has already been pulled. "Does talking about the wormhole make you nervous?" the kid asks rudely, and the audience around me erupted into laughter at Tony's wincing anger. As Stark rushes away from the scene, huddling against the nearest wall and breathing heavily, I feel a flood of embarrassment. The audience find this hilarious. "What the hell was that?" says the kid; I purse my lips and silently plot my revenge against Shane Black.

Tony suffers a third attack before the film's end, while driving, for no particular reason. "I didn't even mention New York," says the kid, and Tony rambles an incoherent affirmation of a trigger that he himself doesn't even understand. By the time the film is over I've resolved my irritation with the previous scene. As RDJ assures us that, even without his armor and money, he is Iron Man, I recall the times in my self-therapy that I've literally referred to myself as Iron Man.

Much like Tony's armor is his 'safe zone'-- another amazing touch-- he, like me, has a metaphorical suit that he throws on to shield himself from other people. To have this perfect metaphor for panic disorder, one I've taken and used for myself numerous times, taken and reflected explicitly on screen was an experience that almost had me in tears, when it didn't have me in tiny convulsions. I don't know if RDJ was working from personal experience, or research, but his physical tics and progression of dialogue were tuned like a piano.

Unfortunately the anxiety only served as a plot device, a temporary ailment which was soundly resolved by the end of the film, in stark contrast to my struggles in real life; this, however, is a price I'm willing to pay to have such a perfect depiction of my disability on screen and in the mainstream consciousness. When people don't understand what a panic attack is, I can ask if they've seen Iron Man 3. And more than that, I feel like I now have an ally, a symbol in Tony Stark that I didn't have before. I've talked about 'putting the armor back on', I've called myself Iron Man. Now, however, when I step into my own Extremis suit, I feel it will fit more perfectly and snugly than before. And there will be days, like Tony, where I'll get to shed the metal, and be comfortable in my own skin; nodding and smirking and saying in 5.1 voice-over,

"I am Iron Man."


  1. Thank you for sharing your insight on this topic. I, too, enjoyed the film and I was impressed with their exploration of panic attacks.

  2. I just saw Iron Man 3 tonight and I have to say you're spot on. This is the reason I love Marvel a whole helluva lot more than I like DC. Marvel characters are human, they have flaws, and are portrayed as existing in the real world with real problems. DC seems too grandiose and "super" to have any real depth to their characters.

    Watching Tony freak out hit home a lot harder than I thought it would.

  3. I'm glad you both liked the article. I feel like it's really hard to encompass how I felt and how personal the 'Iron Man' metaphor was to me even before this movie, but I hope it came across at least a little.

    I agree with your stance on Marvel vs. DC. Batman is the only DC character I really care for.

  4. I just wanted to say... I was honestly shocked and awed at the fact that they went down that path with him. It hit me hard because I too have panic attacks. Mine differ in some ways, the severity not as much... but it was still just amazing to see them pull it down to earth like that. It made it that much more real.

    That coupled with the fact that they pulled out bad-ass Tony without his suit and smacked us with it... it really just made the whole thing for me. Even with panic attacks, he still was a badass, he still pulled through and overcame. And I'm so proud of them for not letting him just be 'okay' with the fact that he damn near f****** died in avengers.

    Also, it may hearten you to know that no one laughed in our midnight release showing of iron man 3 when he had his panic attacks. They did a little at the third one, I think because of the one-liner and the response, but there was just silence... perhaps shocked silence... at the first one. I myself was just sitting there, my mouth hanging open with tears welling in my eyes. So... there's that.

    1. I was really moved by this reply. I want to say I'm glad to know other people shared this experience with me, but I was never in doubt about that to begin with. Thanks for sharing.

  5. It was nice to see this in film. Those of us with "issues" get to see that we dont need to use it as a excuse. #RiseAbove #i am not royce white!

  6. I nearly cried in the cinema. For the first time, instead of feeling embarrassed about being panicky in a crowded space, I had a hero that I could actually relate to, right up there on the screen

  7. Anxiety attacks, also known as panic attacks, are episodes of intense fear or apprehension that suddenly occur and only last for brief periods of time.
    People suffering from attacks will often experience significant anticipatory anxiety and limited symptom attacks between attacks.
    For more: anxiety attack

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