Tony Stark’s Messiah Complex

Posted: November 20, 2014 in Iron Man

starkrollingstone1Why would Tony Stark, a self-serving, egotistical, playboy billionaire trade in the massive wealth amassed from weapons manufacturing to produce clean, renewable energy and give it away at no cost?  Looking back at Iron Man’s first appearance in Marvel’s Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963), I doubt anyone, not even Iron Man’s creators, could have foreseen Tony’s radical change of heart.

Stan Lee devised Iron Man as a response to the 60’s Peace Movement:

I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military….So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist….I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him….And he became very popular.” ( Iron Man, Disc 2)

tony stark howard hughesTony Stark head shotLee modeled Tony Stark after Howard Hughes – the quintessential American capitalist, the epitome of American individualism.  Lee’s superhero not only fascinated reader from the start, but now, with Robert Downey’s latest incarnation for the Marvel movies franchise, Iron Man’s power to fascinate has increased exponentially… because without realizing it, Lee fashioned a superhero, whose greatest attribute is not as we might readily assume, Tony Stark’s technological genius or his invincible suit of armor, but his super mimetic powers.  As the ultimate ideal of American individualism, Tony Stark presents an irresistible object of MIMETIC DESIRE.

MIMETIC DESIRE is a kind of nonconscious imitation of others, but it is important to stress that the word, “imitation” has to be joined with the adjective “appropriative” or “acquisitive.” Mimesis seeks to obtain the object that the model desires. The function of culture is to control and channel this potential conflict over the object.” (James G. Williams, The Girard Reader, 290)

Tony Stark American PatriotIron Man’s mimetic powers become all the more significant when we realize that it’s through Tony’s character that comics’ self-reflection on its role in America’s militarization becomes most heightened. But that’s a topic for another post.

In the first Iron Man film, a reporter from Vanity Fair confronts him: “You’ve been called the DaVinci of our times… what about your other nickname the Merchant of Death?”  Tony’s not phased by that.  The voices of dissent have little to no impact on his celebrity status or his ethical conscience.  The media labels him a savior, THE arbiter of world peace.  His weapons are so powerful, that a mere show of their force paralyzes the enemy. And Tony actually believes this to be true; he obviously savors his role as savior. So what would lead him to question this?  It’s the inescapable fact, that Tony, despite all appearances of autonomy and self-sufficiency, has an Achilles heel: he, like every other superhero, has a rival he can’t get free of.

Tony Stark's sacred heartEvery superhero has its arch enemy, a rival which often proves to be the superhero’s undoing.  The hero and their nemesis seem to share a special relationship, a kind of mutual obsession or codependency, which exceeds the limits of healthy competition.  They are engaged in what Girard identifies as MIMTETIC RIVALRY.

If the appropriative gesture of an individual named A is rooted in the imitation of an individual named B, it means that A and B must reach together for one and the same object. They become rivals for that object. If the tendency to imitate appropriation is present on both sides, imitative rivalry must tend to become reciprocal; it must be subject to the back and forth reinforcement that communication theorists call a positive feedback. In other words, the individual who first acts as a model will experience an increase in his own appropriative urge when he finds himself thwarted by his imitator… (Rene Girard, “Mimesis and violence: Perspectives in Cultural Criticism,” The Girard Reader, 9)

Cap vs. Red SkullThe imitation back and forth can become so intense, as each is the model to the other, that the hero and his rival may begin to resemble or mirror each other.  Batman’s rivals are criminals, so he like them, enshrouds himself in the shadows of the night.  Captain America’s rivals are Nazis. Instead of donning a swastika, Cap dons the stars and stripes of the American flag.  thor_loki_blood_brothersThor is constantly at odds with his brother Loki.  Batman, Cap, Thor, or any of the superheroes lack the freedom to fashion their identity or their appearance out any spontaneous desire or preference of their own choosing… their identities as superheroes are always already mediated by the rival’s desire, in what Rene Girard terms the MODEL-OBSTACLE RELATIONSHIP.

So who is Tony Stark’s rival?  Tony is constantly besieged by competitors consumed with jealousy… but those rivalries are completely one sided. With his usual finesse, Tony nonchalantly brushes off these rival “wanna bees”.  He’s not interested in them because for him, they hold no mimetic power.  To identify Tony’s model-obstacle, we need to identity who it is he imitates….and lo and behold, it’s plain as day. Tony’s rival is Jesus Christ. His hubris will allow nothing less. The Iron Man has got a big time messiah complex!

Tony stark crucifixBut don’t tell Tony Stark!  For sure, he’s convinced he is the ultimate self-made individual, the epitome of American ingenuity and autonomy.  But the fact is, his identity is constituted by MIMETIC DESIRE, which always has its source in the other.  Tony’s being, like ours, is founded in what Girard terms INTERDIVIDUALITY.

INTERDIVIDUALITY highlights our relational and accordingly incomplete being. As the only neologism in mimetic theory, it is intended to correct the widespread notion that we have of humans as single, autonomous self-sufficient and self-directing individuals, an illusion that our greatest literary works regularly dispel. [Keywords in Mimetic Theory]

Our need to fill that hole within ourselves, sends us searching for models who possess what we lack. But again, their autonomy,  likes ours is an illusion — we never lay hold of the being we believe others to possess. In Tony’s case the very hubris which drives him to a rivalry with Jesus Christ, will, instead drive him to humility…. you can’t sell weapons of mass destruction and expect to beat the messiah at his own game!  ~ Sue Wright


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