The Marvel Cinematic Universe has made billions of dollars over the course of 20+ films that are narratively connected to each other. Through these interwoven stories, characters have had many chances to explore arcs that reflect lives that we live. When it comes to the series’ most central character, Tony Stark has been coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in nearly every film he has appeared in, but he also has a more complex psychological struggle that maybe hasn’t been as highly examined by the viewing public. It’s fairly easy to miss, probably easier to dismiss, but Tony Stark is an interesting example of social anxiety when it comes to these heroes among gods.
It’s debatable as to whether or not the social anxiety that is presented on screen was intentional from the beginning, or a byproduct of the trauma that the character has experienced over the course of the series. Whether it is an intentional byproduct or an unconscious coincidence, the writers have crafted a surprisingly deep look with a character when it comes to social anxiety.
In Iron Man (2008), Tony Stark is portrayed as a cocky playboy that throws around money and doesn’t care about anyone else, with the exception of Pepper Potts. He’s seen talking to camera crews, interacting with his fans, and he giving speeches to large crowds. When he talks to someone, he has a steady breath and looks them in the eye; then the cave incident happened. Tony has escaped with a newfound realization that the weapons that he has been developing are a greater destructive force for the world as opposed to the force of good that he had initially assumed, and he dedicates himself to devising an improved suit of armor to right the wrongs that his technology had caused.
The Iron Man armor is essential when looking at Tony’s social anxiety. When he comes back from the cave, the more definitive character traits that we’ve come to know of Tony Stark, start to become more prominent . Tony is now more distracted as his mind is racing at a hundred miles a minute, he’s making jokes, and he’s preferring to shut himself inside. While he is mostly isolating himself in order to further perfect construction of the Iron Man armor, it’s also a way for him to feel safe, to take his mind off the world and the trauma he had gone through.
When Tony is outside the armor he is a mess. In Iron Man 2, more of his social ticks begin to show. He barely has an attention span for anyone, he’s constantly not making eye contact with anyone he’s speaking to, he’s trying to divert the conversation away from him, and the list goes on. When he’s inside the Iron Man, however, suit he’s calm, confident, and level-headed. The suit is a part of him and makes him feel safe from the world. He feels separation anxiety from the suit so much to the point that whenever he does go out and portray ‘Tony Stark’ to the world, he made a portable suit that he could take anywhere. In Iron Man 3 he made a suit that hones in on him and flies to his location. At the end of that movie, Tony finally gets rid of the remaining metal in his chest and he can now live his life as “normal” again, and yet after Iron Man 3, Tony just continues building Iron Man suits, unable to let go of what makes him safe.
In every movie, Tony is constantly developing the suit further until he’s seemingly reverted back to his normal, pre-cave Tony that’s more mature, as is seen when he’s out in public with Pepper in Avengers: Infinity War as if their lives were normal again. That is until it is revealed that he’s acting this way and being comfortable outside because he has now perfected the suit to be on him at all times. The suit that made him safe and has been upgraded to be more accessible, is now part of Tony Stark.
When Tony is not in his suit he’s mostly found in his home tinkering. Iron Man 2 was the last time ‘Playboy’ Tony came out. His scenes of playing to the crowd of admirers are juxtaposed to his time in his garage where he seems calmer and more at peace. As the movies progress, Tony stops being in the limelight. He stops interacting with the world unless it’s as Iron Man. His life revolves around feeling safe and every time something happens he blames himself for it. Sometimes it’s warranted, like the Iron Legion, but in the end Tony has a hard time of sharing himself to the ones that love him.
By the time we see him in Avengers: Endgame, Tony is living in a log cabin with his daughter, probably the only person on the planet he could be himself with, separated from the world. His life has had a lot of traumatic moments with him going through PTSD, panic attacks, and anxiety. Though two of those three are mostly talked about when it comes to his character, it’s still important to not overlook the importance of how anxiety can overtake someone’s life. When you boil down Tony’s life, he’s a character that the world hurt, and in return he made his own world from metal and electricity to feel safe while shutting out friends and strangers. Like he said at the end of Iron Man way back in 2008, and again in 2019, he is not Tony Stark. He is Iron Man.