Tony Stark and Me and Our PTSD

On an episode in May of this year of the podcast The Incomparable, which is a great panel discussion show about whatever bit of culture, entertainment, or literature strikes their fancy, the topic was Iron Man 3. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, Guy English takes the temperature of the group concerning the introduction of Tony Stark’s panic attacks, a symptom of his PTSD following the harrowing events of the previous film, The Avengers. There was general agreement that, yes, what Tony experienced battling the aliens at the climax of The Avengers would definitely fuck one’s shit up, but there seemed to be some ambivalence about whether it out of place in the context of the film in question.

I quickly want to address what they did not, which is whether it was done well. I watched Iron Man 3 only recently, on my MacBook during a flight a month or so ago, and I found the portrayal of someone suffering from post traumatic stress disorder shockingly realistic.

Let me qualify: I have only my own experiences to draw from. Read this to get a better idea of how I know anything about the topic — it doesn’t involve aliens. I do not at all want to assert that my experience of PTSD is universal or even common. It’s just what I know.

All that said, I was amazed at how much I related to Stark in his moments of panic. I recognized my own behavior in his when one of his attacks set in. (For the sake of rhetoric, I’m going to use the word “you” even though I’m really talking about “me.)

Something sets you off — a reference to an event, an association, a physical stimulus, what have you — and an animalistic fight or flight instinct takes hold. But it doesn’t necessarily own you entirely, you don’t turn into some werewolf in a waking nightmare. Your conscious mind is aware of what’s happening. You know you’re having an irrational rush of emotions and that your body is now compelled to act with sudden and overwhelming urgency. Maybe you run, maybe you fight, maybe you hide, maybe you scream, etcetera. All the while, you recognize that something not of your neocortex is in control. You may even be able to make jokes about it while it’s happening.

So I was mightily impressed and very much surprised by the way it was handled in this movie. It would have been easy to overdramatize Tony’s episodes, to make them Hulk-like in their violence and intensity, to make Tony unrecognizable in those moments. Instead, they let them be very much Tony’s episodes. We got to see him become aware of something happening to him, see him comment on it, struggle with it, and even try to mitigate it based on circumstance. And yes, he could even have a sense of humor about it in the moment. What was so true to life for me was that Tony never loses all control in those moments, but you do see his whole body carriage change as though a new force were asserting itself on his body’s operation, as though he was the Iron Man suit, and his amygdala now the driver.

We see a lot of troubled superheroes. Too often, though, their traumas exhibit themselves in brooding or vendetta. It was extremely refreshing to see a trauma manifest clinically in a superhero character, in a way I as a fellow-sufferer recognized. Indeed, Downey’s portrayal of PTSD episodes was so real to me, it mildly triggered my own responses, sitting there at over 10,000 feet, in the dark. My heart raced with his. My amygdala called shotgun in my mind for a little while.

I understand why it might have seemed a touch superfluous to the Incomparable cast. There are a lot of ways to tell the story of Tony growing as a character and knowing what it is to have weaknesses and failings. But this way of telling that story was crystal clear to me. For a big, explode-y Hollywood blockbuster, they told that about as well as I imagine anyone could.