Super-hero movies are our modern mythologies, noted a friend who had gone to see the movie with me. It doesn’t require any particular convincing to see that she’s right in many ways, especially since the last several years have seen an endless torrent of makes and re-makes. What was it, four big-budget Spider-Man films in ten years? Is the frame of the story so compellingly fresh that we can hang four films on it in a single decade? Probably not.
The very similarities between all of these superhero stories draw us back in, time and time again. Take a slightly altered version of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory and apply it to recent superhero movies, hypermodern incarnations of stories that all follow the same basic structure. In very, very simplified terms, Campbell’s argument goes: there is a basic pattern to be found in most narratives from around the world. Different religions and myths share a similar underlying story, with local variations based on the needs of a particular culture’s interpretation.
There is something inherently attractive about the basic structure of superhero stories, especially to American audiences. A fairly ordinary, even flawed person goes through some event or is given some special ability, learns how to deal with it both physically and morally, uses it to defeat some bad guy who just barely outmatches them, and gets the girl. Apply this to most big stories about male heroes, from the Harry Potter series to Star Wars to the story of Odysseus. It’s a winning formula every time, especially when you add something new to its external circumstances (magical Britain, outer-space, a huge war and mythical creatures, respectively).
Maybe we are compelled to come back again and again to this story structure because there is something inherently accessible about it. Any boy could be Harry Potter before Hagrid bursts in on him, or Peter Parker before his run-in with the spider. And Iron Man’s Tony Stark, before his moral and romantic transformation, represents one type of attainable masculine ideal in the world of rampant capitalistic consumption: the rich, sarcastic playboy who also, as a stand-in for aspiring nerds everywhere, likes to tinker with machines.
The third installment in the Iron Man franchise makes a valiant attempt to make us think (but never too hard) about what it means to assume another identity and the responsibilities that come with it. The hero at the story’s center is undeniably masculine, as the franchise reminds us again and again, but he’s far from infallible: this Tony Stark, older and more fragile, suffers from bouts of panic and anxiety attacks, fitting for film’s near-literal representation of the state of modern man in a hyper-wired age. Both dependent on his technology and at times plagued by it, Stark’s trajectory throughout the film tries to add a little more depth to a story that would otherwise have rested on the shaky footing of some fire-breathing villains. These villains are, like most of the villains in modern superhero movies, ultimately pretty forgettable. It’s Stark (and his seeming similarity to the real-life Robert Downey Jr.), and the film’s attempts to think about the layers of performance and identity, that ultimately lift this film slightly above its predecessors and peers. It recognizes and embraces the complications that come with repeating a story over and over again–within Stark’s panic attacks are hints of the limits to which modern male superheros are subject, as they age, fight over and over and over again, and almost (but never quite) die.