The Ayn Rand in Iron Man

With the comic book character Iron Man, Stan Lee challenged himself to create the most unlikely of comic book superheroes–one that most of his readers should have despised:

The ’60s kids hated the war; Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) would be an arms manufacturer. They opposed capitalist exploitation; Lee would make Stark a rich entrepreneur and industrialist. Feminism was in its second wave; Tony Stark would be a playboy. Communalism was an ideal, and transcendental spirituality was on the rise; Tony would be a megalomaniac. Lee said he set himself a goal to take everything his readers hated and make his new hero all of those things, “shove him down their throats and make them like him…”

What Lee accomplished was to introduce the world to its first capitalist superhero!

Flash forward: This spring US theaters featured the latest installment in a string of films based on the character Stan Lee foisted on the world, and which it did, in fact, come to love. Tony Stark (brilliantly brought to life by Robert Downey Jr.) has now been the lead role in three wildly successful feature films: Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010) and Iron Man 3 (2013). He is also a major protagonist in the ensemble film The Avengers (2012).

Several commentators have noted that the capitalist spirit is alive and well in the Iron Man films–and a few have even noted that there are some motifs in Iron Man 2 which are reminiscent of themes in Ayn Rand’s works. Rand invented a sort of philosophy of capitalism, called Objectivism, which she expounded in her fictional novels and other writing. She was most active during the same period that Iron Man debuted as a comic, so it makes sense that there would be an influence. There certainly are Randian themes in Iron Man 2, but I think we can say likewise of all three Iron Man films. In fact, the character development of Stark and the psychology of his enemies, seem as if they could have been lifted from an Objectivist psychology textbook (if there were such a thing).

For instance, the enemies whom Stark encounters in the films reflect Randian character types:

Islamic Jihadists (Iron Man) use the fruits of reason (stolen or purchased high tech weapons of the Western world) for the sake of achieving their irrational ends.

Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, Iron Man), executive of Stark Enterprises, represents the lie of altruism. He pretends to assert the needs of the board of directors over the “selfish” desires of the individual (Stark), but in reality, this is a cover for his own self-serving intentions.

Senator Stern (Garry Shandling, Iron Man 2) operates under the delusion that society is primary, and the individual secondary, and tries to appropriate the rewards of individual initiative for the sake of the collective. In doing so, he risks killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, Iron Man 2) is the son of an old business partner of Stark’s father. He has a victim mentality, believing that he has gotten a raw deal out of life. He thinks that Stark’s successes should have been his own, and he attempts to take them by force.

Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, Iron Man 2) is a plugged-in, crony-capitalist arms dealer who tries to compete with Stark’s superior tech-savvy through schmoozing and deceit. He envies Stark’s success and wants to destroy Stark’s legacy to buttress his own crippled ego.

The Mandarin (Guy Pearce, Iron Man 3) got a raw deal and now he’s taking revenge. As brilliant as he is, he fails to see the fallacy in his own actions. He does not comprehend that he can know the difference between good and evil the same way he can understand the biotech behind his weapons–through reason.

The overarching theme of the three Iron Man films is Individualism vs. Collectivism: Stark has to learn not to substitute the values of society for his own before he can save the day. But there are other themes that resonate throughout all three movies–like knowing that you are capable of achieving your goals and that you deserve the rewards of that achievement. Although each Iron Man movie contains a mix of Randesque ideas, I have picked out the concept I think most represents the essence of each film. (I did not include The Avengers since it was not, strictly speaking, an Iron Man movie.)

Iron Man : Learn to be more selfish
Tony Stark is introduced to us as CEO of Stark Enterprises; an innovative arms manufacturer and inventor. Incredibly talented and absurdly rich, Stark seems to be living a self-centered and hedonistic life. But in reality–as a Randian psychotherapist might observe–he has been sacrificing himself to the needs of society and his father’s legacy. He has not come into his own and begun living for himself.

Then, an event happens that makes him question the arms manufacturing industry that he helped create in the footsteps of his father: He falls prey to Islamic extremists using the weapons his company made for the US military. This leads to the creation of his famous mechanized suit of armor that comes to be known as Iron Man. It is powered by the miniaturized version of Stark’s father’s energy generating device prototype: the arc reactor. Responding to Stark’s unwelcome move to shut down the weapons division of Stark Enterprises, Obadiah Stane, Stark’s father’s old business partner, shuts Stark out of his own company and begins building his own suit from an early version of Tony’s creation. There’s only one thing he still lacks: the miniaturized arc reactor to energize the suit. He hires an engineer to create it for him, but the guy cannot do it. “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave with a bunch of scraps!” he bellows at the cowering technician, who replies plaintively, “Well I’m sorry. I’m not Tony Stark.”

In our world, the same problems are playing out in real life: Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs–and no collective of Apple employees, however schooled in Jobsian thinking, can take the place of the deceased entrepreneur extraordinaire. Apple’s stock has been on shaky ground since Jobs passed away in 2011. In Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the individual pursuing his or her own dreams and visions is all-important.

Failing at making his own arc reactor, Stane resorts to stealing Stark’s. He justifies his actions with an appeal to altruism and its inverted morality: “Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you? Your father helped give us the atomic bomb. Now, what kind of world would it be if he was as selfish as you?” In contrast to the collectivist impulse represented by Obadiah, we see that Stark eschews the expected superhero dual identity. That, should he embrace it, would force him to distance himself from the fame of the hero persona and impose on him the humility that society demands of the great. Instead, he proclaims, staring into the cameras on international television: “I am Iron Man.”

Iron Man 2 : Believe in yourself
Tony Stark struggles to maintain his property from the grasping hands of the government, an arms dealer who wants Stark’s fame and prestige without earning it, and a sociopath who blames Stark’s father for robbing his own father, and himself, of a better life. Stark must do this while trying to overcome a problem with his arc reactor that threatens to kill him.

Early on, we see Stark defend private property before a senate hearing called by Senator Stern, who wants to nationalize Stark’s invention. Stark is hilariously irreverent before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “You want my property? You can’t have it. But I did you a big favor: I successfully privatized world peace.” However, Stark is out of sorts because it appears he will die from the toxins created by the arc reactor in his chest. He doubts his own abilities can break this impasse, and so he makes a series of mistakes–including relinquishing his CEO status to Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow), and letting a prototype version of his suit get stolen by his friend who works for the military.

In Randian philosophy, there is the idea that life is not stacked against us like a bad hand of cards. We are equipped to understand reality, and thereby to act to achieve our values. Knowing this is what Rand understands as self-esteem. This is the lesson Stark must learn in Iron Man 2.

Eventually, Stark resolves all these problems, regaining confidence in his abilities and reestablishing his ownership of the Iron Man suit. But ultimately he decides to grant the use of the suit to his friend, James Rhodes (Don Cheadle). Tony will not let society claim what is his alone, but he will lend his invention to a friend whom he knows will reciprocate and help him out from time to time. This interplay reflects Rand’s trader principle: the precept that no one may be sacrificed to another individual or group, but rather, each must offer something of value to the other.

Iron Man 3 : Stay focused
An important idea in Rand’s philosophy is that morality is rational: what makes sense for us and what is right are the same. But we must constantly choose to think. We cannot rely on handed-down wisdom, the current views held by society, or our own whims. That things can go wrong when we go on autopilot is the main idea in Iron Man 3.

Subsequent to the inter-dimensional battle in The Avengers, Stark has developed his technology 100 fold over what he had achieved in prior films. Now his armor can fly to him, and even assemble itself as a fully autonomous AI-driven robot. Stark has a fleet of these intelligent suits which can aid him in battle, each with special characteristics and battle strengths. The reason for the constant tinkering is that he has unresolved fears, which he needs to address yet is putting off. His obsession with his gadgets begins to get in the way of his relationship with Pepper Potts, and his fears begin to manifest in the form of anxiety attacks.

Then a terrorist begins bombing, and the strikes come more and more often. Stark discovers that the origins of the mysterious villain, The Mandarin, lay in his own past: Stark had mindlessly blown off a think-tank founder–who wanted to partner with Stark–and an idealistic geneticist with a breakthrough biotechnology. Stark quickly forgot about the geneticist and her work, but the think-tank founder became a terrorist who went on to exploit the discovery. Now he wants to sell the government technology to help it defend against terrorist threats that he was manufacturing in the first place.

For much of the film, Stark must go without his suit as he attempts to discover the identity of the Mandarin. In the process, he regains confidence in his intellect, not only in terms of past successes, but also in his innate ability to create now and in the future. He comes to acknowledge his lack of focus, both in the past, when he inadvertently sowed the seeds of the terrorist trouble, but also, in his current relationship with Pepper. In the end, he makes a bold move to cement these realizations into place–he destroys all his Iron Man suits.

The notion of the purposeful destruction of something you hold dear, for the sake of something worth even more, is a recurring theme in Rand’s work. In The Fountain Head, for instance, architect Howard Roark burns his greatest architectural feat to the ground rather than let it be ruined by a committee. In Atlas Shrugged, the world’s innovators destroy their own work to keep it from being appropriated by the government. This destruction is justified by the absolute right of the individual to the fruits of his/her own work and ideas, as expressed in the right to property.

Stark destroys Iron Man because he now has absolute confidence in himself and his ability to obtain his own values. He does not need suits to protect him because he created them in the first place and he is the true source of their power. He can create a new Iron Man suit or any other thing that he may need. And because of this, we know that we will see Iron Man saving the day, again.

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