Iron Man, Acquired Injury, and the Biggest Missed Opportunity In Disability Representation Ever

This is a re-post from my old blog.  It was part of a project called Redefining Disability, which I’ll talk more about in subsequent posts.



The Mark III armor as featured in the 2008 fil...

The Mark III armor as featured in the 2008 film Iron Man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only character that I have ever felt a strong sense of identification with as a person who has a disability is Tony Stark.

You might find this surprising, because Tony doesn’t really identify as someone with a disability. He isn’t presented that way. He doesn’t think of the shrapnel near his heart as something that fundamentally changes him, “separates him” from other people, or puts him in a completely different category of human experience. That’s usually an issue in fiction whenever a main character has an acquired injury. Unless we’re talking about mental health issues like PTSD, Tony as an icon for disability awareness probably doesn’t register in people’s minds. That’s EXACTLY why Tony is more representative of my experience as a person with a disability than anyone else.

Tony’s injury is relevant. It’s something he has to think about. It’s something that affects his life. It’s not something that defines him. I don’t know anyone who thinks of Iron Man as “that superhero with a heart problem.” We all know that Tony has one. We just don’t care, because it has nothing to do with Tony as a person, and it’s not the motif that defines Iron Man.

The shrapnel doesn’t define Tony’s choices for him either. He doesn’t decide to be Iron Man because he’s got a heart problem. The ARC reactor powers the Iron Man suit, yes, but Tony doesn’t create Iron Man as a way to compensate for having metal in his chest. It’s true that if he hadn’t been injured he never would have been Iron Man, but that’s different from having Iron Man act as his “I can do anything I want!” sign.  The heart problem is just a part of a larger picture.

There’s no question in Tony’s mind that he can still be the same Tony — or even a better Tony — with a heart problem. He doesn’t have to wrestle ad nauseum with questions of how he’s going to contribute to society, whether he’s going to be a burden on other people, or how he could ever possibly be attractive to Pepper with a disability. He’s got issues with intimacy and depending on other people, sure, but those have nothing to do with the shrapnel.

I know that body image, self worth, physical independence, and changing self-image are all relevant to the experience of many people who have disabilities. Those things should be discussed, and I have no problem with characters who deal with them as part of an ongoing development process. Most of the time, characters who have disabilities make me want to strangle them because they can’t go 10 minutes without doing or saying something that emphasizes the disability.

I have my moments now and then, and I’m pretty sure that’s true of everyone. Overall, those things aren’t a big deal to me. I felt like singing an enormous hallelujah chorus when Iron Man skipped the whole “self-indulgent whining” period and got the hell down to business.

*I don’t have an acquired injury. From stories that my friends have told, it probably would have been realistic for Tony to have more on-screen adjustment issues. I’m still glad that the Iron Man franchise didn’t do that, and I think that choice is in keeping with Tony’s development as a character.  He’s not really the most emotionally aware guy I’ve ever seen.

The first thing I thought of when I saw the scenes where Tony was testing the second Iron Man suit was learning to use a wheelchair when I was a kid. I got the chair and was pretty excited about it, but I had no idea how to use it. So, my parents told my cousins and I to go up and down the block until I knew what I was doing. I will spare you the shenanigans that went on, but the experience was a pretty close parallel to Tony’s fire-extinguisher moment, and it ended with a neighbor bringing us home in his truck. When all was said and done, though, I knew how to use a wheelchair and how not to use one.

The ARC reactor can be seen as something similar to a pacemaker.  That’s not a hard comparison for most people to follow.  I think the Iron Man suit is like a wheelchair in a lot of ways.  It can also be paralleled with orthopedic braces.   The suit is a tool. It doesn’t define Tony. It isn’t his prison. He’s not “confined” to the Iron Man suit. He’s not “suit-bound.” The suit is his freedom, in a way. It’s the thing that lets him go out and do all the awesome things he wants to do. He’s the same person whether he’s inside the suit or not. When he’s done with the suit, he gets out of it, and he’s still Tony Stark.

I know this analogy isn’t perfect. Tony has a lot more freedom to leave his “wheelchair” at home than most people would. Wheelchairs aren’t weapons, and they don’t have anything to do with saving the world. Tony’s suit is a choice, not a piece of equipment that’s vital to his independence. You could look at the suit as a big indulgent toy, but I don’t think that’s what it is.

I’ve talked about some of my experiences with adaptive equipment and walking in this post. This moment is exactly what being allowed to use a wheelchair felt like for me as a kid:

Sure, there are plenty of times when having a wheelchair feels more like this:

The world is still not very aware or conversant with accessibility. In the United States, the best we have are a bunch of un-enforceable ADA standards that don’t take into account individual needs like height, arm strength, etc. The daily problems of using a wheelchair, walker, or other mobility device are frustrating, and they can feel like a prison for someone who starts using them as a teenager or adult.

There’s a whole other issue which I’ve talked about before where most people still “meet” a person’s mobility aids before meeting the person. I think if there were more diverse portrayals of people who use wheelchairs (or walkers/crutches/etc) in the media, this would start to change.

It would also do a world of good if there were more people like Tony Stark, who happen to have disabilities instead of having “disability” be a major issue and story focus. I’ve never actually seen another character who could have such a widespread positive impact on disability awareness.

I’m not suggesting that we “redefine” Iron Man and categorize him as a “disabled superhero.” I’m suggesting that we acknowledge what he already is, use it to empower people, and move disability awareness out of the 90s. All it would’ve taken was a slight change or two in the scripts. A throwaway reference to Stark Industries making contributions to an advocacy group for people with acquired injuries, or a disability-related magazine somewhere on Tony’s desk. More than that would be out of character for Tony in my view. He’d never have to talk about it or DO anything directly if he didn’t want to.

AztmrN3CQAAjkhQThe whole time I was watching the first Iron Man movie, I kept thinking how awesome it would be if RDJ could do in-character (or in costume?) PSAs alongside real kids with heart problems, pacemakers, etc. Iron Man 2 expanded on that hope to include kids with chronic illnesses that need to be managed with medications and diet: things like diabetes, HIV/AIDS, cancer, the list goes on. Of course, in the back of my mind, I was hoping someone would clue in to the wheelchair analogy and include kids who use adaptive equipment, too, but I didn’t think that was as likely.

When The Avengers became such a big deal, I started imaginging RDJ and Mark Ruffalo doing them together, because I’ve always seen the Hulk as more of a disability to Banner than a superpower. (I wanted to talk more about that in this post, but I’m running long already, so I think I’ll save it.)

by bishounenizer @ DeviantART

Overall, I think Marvel should get credit for trying. They’ve at least raised the point that superheroes can (should?) develop PTSD. The X-Men movies tackle cure mentality head on and try to present some of the complexities involved with that issue. Professor Xavier has done a lot of good since X-Men: TAS first brought him to audiences outside comic readership in the nineties. Iron Man 3 kind of kills my idea for “Iron Man Has A Disability” PSAs, though. While I can understand and accept (some of) the reasons the storyline went the way it did, I think it’s a shame and a huge missed opportunity.
I want to wrap up with some key ideas that I’m hoping folks will get out of this post.

  • Different doesn’t mean separate. Every person is unique. I want to see characters with disabilities who aren’t singled out or set apart for having them.
  • Relevant, not life-defining. Popular attitudes toward disability in the media tend to fall in two camps. The older, more dominant one portrays disability as a life-defining issue. The second, equally unbalanced one, is that “disabilities don’t matter because everyone is the same.” Disabilities matter, because they affect people’s daily lives and choices. They don’t have to define a person’s life.
  • Wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment represent freedom for people with disabilities. Imagine what our lives would be like without them. No one is “wheelchair-bound,” “confined to a wheelchair” or needs to be pitied because he or she uses any kind of mobility aid.
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