Seven years ago (has it been that long?), I remember sitting in the theatre to see a movie about a ‘B’ level superhero in the Marvel canon. Or so I thought.
His name was Iron Man.
As I sat there riveted by Tony Stark’s journey, I can honestly say that I knew then that Marvel had something special. Now, after the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and six different films, Tony Stark—and, more specifically, Downey–has become an iconic figure in our culture.
Other than the fact that Downey infuses a relentless charm into just about every character he plays, there is something undeniably appealing—even relatable—about Marvel’s broken billionaire. Despite his vast wealth and intelligence (not to mention his electromagnetic heart), Tony Stark’s new beginning feels almost familiar—even spiritual—in some respects.
A few years ago, I heard James Harleman speak on Stark’s journey, comparing it to that of a modern-day disciple. Harleman argued that Stark’s self-centered lifestyle is shattered by his own sinfulness (weaponry). However, after a mysterious stranger gives him new life by literally exchanging his old heart for a new one, Stark is reborn. (Yinson even sacrifices himself to help Stark escape his captors.) This ‘new life’ gives Tony a new purpose and starts him on a path that puts the well-being of others before his own.
And that’s where he stopped.
But, as we know, the journey of Tony Stark continued.
In Iron Man 2, we see similar patterns as Tony battles the demons of his past in the form of a vengeful Whiplash and his own ‘broken heart’. (Admittedly, the ‘illness’ aspect of the narrative was merely a pale reflection of the Demon in a Bottle storyline. Had they had the courage to really delve into Tony’s battle with alcohol, we would have seen a much better example of someone grappling with their own sinfulness while desiring to break free. And that scene of him sitting in the doughnut shop would have made much more sense…) What’s more, the ‘new’ Tony also struggles with his own place in a larger ‘superhero’ world. While called to be a part of the Avengers, he struggles with the idea of being part of a larger community. This portrait of a ‘new disciple’ reveals a person who, although they have a new life, have yet to fully come to grips with their past while also struggling to connect with their new—and broken—community.
Iron Man 3 furthers Stark growth by forcing him to deal with the burden of his responsibility. With the development of his PTSD, Tony’s spiritual journey becomes overwhelmed by the sheer size of his place in the universe. Whereas he once felt that he was somehow greater than those around him, he can no longer handle the weight of his role. In many ways, his tech becomes his cross to bear as he struggles to find himself. As a Christian, this echoes the burden that can come as our spiritual responsibilities increase as well. In the end, as Tony develops the tech to heal himself, he also manages to accept his role and fully become the new man he has been called to be.
As a Christian, I believe that it’s this journey that makes a character like Tony Stark so compelling, especially spiritually. While he may consider himself to be a ‘self-made man’, he’s also broken, relying heavily upon his new heart. Similar to the apostle Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, Stark’s life is suddenly changed with a new purpose. His transformation speaks to the reality that there is hope for everyone who seeks it.
Like Tony, we too can have a new beginning.