Who knew that pop culture could play a big part in my “Aspie” life? I remember the first time I saw an iconic character on film; it really stuck with me. The truth is that I’ve had more than my share of insightful moments in pop culture and I could continue speaking about them unabated, but that would turn most “normal” people off. My point is that there are fictional characters that I’ve been able to relate to in some way. One of the most famous in the “geek-centered” world of comic books, video games, and superheroes is one whose humanity made me look at myself in a whole new way.
The character I’m talking about is Anthony Edward Stark, better known as Iron Man. Of course, the first thing I noticed was that he shared the same first name as me. Now there may be a tendency for some men to turn into fan-boys when talking about someone as famous and possessing of swagger as Tony Stark, but my admiration for him comes from the way he became more human & less egotistical after the incident that made him into Iron Man. When I read about his origins in the different permutations written in different decades, I could see the meaning between the lines. I first learned about Iron Man when I was in high school; as I was embracing my geeky side I looked into his story a bit more.
He used to be the ambitious, brilliant, but self-centered head of Stark Industries, founded by his father. While visiting a war zone he is the only survivor of an enemy ambush that kills his escort of American soldiers. Tony is taken prisoner by the enemy, who force him to build a deadly weapon with his knowledge. He discovers, with the help of an imprisoned professor, that the explosion that killed the Americans has left pieces of shrapnel in his chest that threaten to pierce his heart. The professor helps Tony construct a life-saving device that enables him to finish his creation: the first prototype of the Iron Man armor. Even though the professor sacrifices himself in the process, his death enables Tony to destroy the enemy and escape back to American-held territory.
From then on Tony becomes an advocate for science that brings health and abundance to the world. It is then that he discovers that this brave new world has both challenges and rewards. While battling villains around the world and within his own life, he begins to slide into a state of denial about what he uses to cope with pressure. For me this was a pivotal moment in his story: he was a textbook alcoholic leaning on liquor, desperately hoping to forget the pressures of his life. Only the intervention of his closest friends and family enables him to get the help he needs to gain control of his addiction.
It was this story about Tony Stark’s insecurities that made me respect his character even more. As I grew older I speculated about him having Asperger’s Syndrome. He has an almost genius level intelligence and a natural skill for electronics and engineering. These talents cannot disguise his tendency towards addictive behavior and a sharp tongue in social situations. How he gained his well-deserved reputation as a womanizer is still a puzzle to me, but what really changed my perspective was the story arc of the early 1980s entitled “Demon in a Bottle”.
Several different events would push Tony towards drinking liquor very often. When he slumps into his desk chair, pouring over scrapbooks and newspapers, the look of bitter reflection over a life that he once held together is a look I’ve seen my own mirror. Just to know that there are factors in life that cannot be controlled is enough to make someone used to being in charge of their own life feel like caving into pressure. That feeling can be even more pronounced in people on the Autism Spectrum. You know the feeling you get when your life is so out of your hands you feel powerless? That is a constant, nagging problem that can take hold of someone on the Spectrum and last for long time without support. When the moment came for Tony Stark to be confronted with his alcoholism, it was done in such an honest and personal way that I’ve read it over and over again.
When his girlfriend tells him about how she lost her first husband in a car accident after months of him abusing prescription pills Tony says that he’s sorry for what happened. She rebuffs Tony and tells him that she doesn’t need his pity, she just needs him to listen. He was going down a dark path; the same one that led to the death of her husband, only Tony’s choice of a slow death was alcohol instead of prescription drugs. He may have been carrying the weight of the world, but he had forgotten about his closest friends and employees who could help him carry that weight. All he had to do was to remember that he could lean on the people he loved instead of using liquor as a crutch. It was a moment that stays with me today: Tony Stark made the decision to put away the alcohol and be vulnerable for once in his life.
Every time I read that story arc, it is a sobering reminder of my own humanity. When I look at Tony Stark’s face as the pressures of his life and the words of his girlfriend collide in his mind, I can feel the desperation as he holds the half-full glass of liquor in one trembling hand. Even as setbacks start to jeopardize his journey to sobriety, Tony becomes strong enough to put down the bottle and begin climbing out of the hole that his addiction had dug for him.
Watching the agony and terror overtake him as he stands at a crossroads is reminiscent of the times when I could not seem to find hope in my worst moments. It’s a sickening feeling when you realize how out-of-control an addiction has made your life. My own problems with poor diet and video games were definitely addictions; it took a lot of courage and insight to admit that I inherited the gene of addiction that runs in my family. For someone on the Spectrum, it’s easy to be self-absorbed while not necessarily being self-aware.
Seeing Robert Downey Jr. cast as Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers movies was a well thought-out move. Using a skilled and versatile actor with his own real-life struggles was a great way of keeping Iron Man relevant and bringing new life to the franchise. Apart from enjoying the movies, I was impressed at how human Tony was when played by Robert Downey Jr.
The power and humanity of Iron Man has had a significant impact on my own self-awareness. It’s taken me a long time to open up to my friends and family about my own struggles, but the strength I gained from doing so made the effort worth it. I feel like “Aspies” such as myself are forced to put on an armor of our own making to protect ourselves from a world that doesn’t understand. However, it takes real courage and vulnerability to be open and honest so that the world can see the person behind the armor.