Tony Stark Finds Himself in “Iron Man”
A look at the symbolism in the opening scene
The first three minutes of “Iron Man” are some of most symbolically dense minutes in the whole Marvel franchise.
The opening scene takes place after Obadiah Stane has accepted Tony’s Apogee award in Las Vegas.
It’s a day or two following a long flight of drinking and partying with his close friend, Rhodey, and with the stewardesses. Tony is traveling through the desert somewhere in Afghanistan to distribute his weapons.
The screenplay opens with a humvee “worming” through the desert. There’s a black arrow visible on the side of the vehicle pointing upwards toward the sky.
Among the four people inside the humvee is Tony. He’s sitting in uncomfortable silence with three soldiers.
In Tony’s hand is a glass of alcohol being cooled with ice.
Tony: “I feel like I’m on my way to a court-marshal. What did I do?”
Of course Tony feels awkward — he is the merchant, and they are the soldiers. He profits from his connections to violent conflicts around the world while the soldiers sacrifice their lives for a faint purpose.
And so he lightens the mood; he’s loosened up with his drink and feels ready to ease the tension.
Soldier: “Is it true you’re twelve for twelve with last years Maxim cover girls?”
Tony: “Yes and no. March and I had a scheduling conflict, but fortunately the Christmas cover was twins.”
“March” is referring to the number three.
“Christmas” — the number twelve, Christ, and the chilly end of the year.
“Twelve for twelve” — Tony is out of time.
Tony’s prior, more juvenile mindset – a lavish and carefree phase of his early life – is complete. He’s returning once again to One, the beginning.
This is not, in the religious sense, the desirable "One" of centered concentration and enlightenmient, but the original oneness of undifferentiated chaos.
AD/DC’s “Back in Black” is blaring from a CD player; the music coming from a spinning disk.
Tony’s wearing a large, circular, and very expensive watch.
He poses for a photo with a soldier, mocking the soldiers “peace” sign before holding up his own two fingers.
“Sure, peace… I love peace” — the words slide out of his mouth with empty conviction.
As the soldier snaps a picture, the humvee in front of them explodes.
“Contact left!” the driver shouts.
ICE signifies “the stultification of the potentialities of water.”¹
Tony’s spiritual transformation is necessary in order to counter the rising power of his father’s shadow, Obadiah Stane.
Such a transformation is “stulted”, or hindered, though, when the vital potential — symbolized in the water — cannot be released from its confinement in the ice.
Ice is cold, hardened, inactive water.
Tony, with his big ego, is unaware of this hindrance and thinks everything is spinning just as it should be. On the contrary, he’s run out of time to be proactive and change his own mindset.
The intervention of a spirit must now spark the metamorphosis.
Tony has poured alcohol in his glass to have a drink and “break the ice”.
Alcohol symbolizes the vital spark struck from the union of the opposite elements of Fire and Water. It symbolizes both the flame of life and the spark of creative genius. Not only does it stimulate the latent within the spirit, but, as Bachelard observes, it actually creates. It incorporates itself, so to speak, within that which is striving to express itself.²
Tony has poured his liquid fire onto the ice in order to melt it. This easily overlooked detail represents the “thawing” of Steve Rogers (Captain America).
Unbeknownst to Tony, this gesture — in which he is loosening up the conversation with the three soldiers in the humvee, and waking up to the weight of their sacrifices — is the threshold from which he leaves his former life and former self, and will be forced to assemble a new one in the cave.
But because he was unable to “wake up” by his own conviction, it will be the vital spark of life itself that unconsciously, and violently, releases the water.
The soldier snaps a picture, then all three are sacrificed right there in the desert by the sword of Stark Industries.
Three soldiers, dead.
Tony slumps back in shock. Behind him is a constellation torn into the side of the humvee by shrapnel. Day has just become night, and these are the stars.
Prominent rays of light shine from three stars a moment after the third solider is killed. Each “star” is, of course, simply the light of the Sun shining in the background. They are arranged as an upside-down triangle.
Three is regarded universally as a fundamental number, expressive of an intellectual and spiritual order in God, the cosmos or mankind, and either synthesizes the three-in-one of all living beings or else results from the conjunction of one and two produced, in this case, ‘from the marriage of Heaven and Earth.
The Tao produced one; one produced two; two produced three’ (Tao Te Ching 42). However, it is more generally accepted that three, being the first odd number, is the number of Heaven, while two is the number of Earth, since one pre existed their polarization.²
The lights only appear for a moment, but there is clearly an intentional focus on them.
The framing of this brief shot is centered almost directly on the lights, in focus, while the humvee window and Tony (previous points of focus) are off to the side.
“Iron Man” kicked off the Marvel Universe, and also subtly established the structure of Marvel’s cosmos.
“Three in One” is a pattern of expressing a single, all-encompassing, but inexpressible and nowhere to be found (except everywhere), God. The Trinity is familiar in Christianity, but the structure can be found across a wide radius of world-views. Its geometric expression is a triangle.
A physical expression of such universality of the number “three” is reflected in the three-particle structure of an atom.
The triangular lights behind Tony are shining beside a dimmer pentagon. Its downward-pointing orientation susggests a divine intervention, or something from above coming to meet what’s below.
Tao in Marvel
Marvel’s first ten years, leading up to “Infinity War”, displays an interesting blend of Christian and Taoist concepts, and Marvel’s version of Norse mythology. Taoism also worships a trinity called the “three supreme Gods”, but the spinning core of its cosmology is the Yin-Yang.
The Tao can be conceptually set beside God. It is the circle around the Yin-Yang, and it is the center around which two contrasting forces orbit in an eternal dance, chase, or war. Yin and Yang also reflect one another in their “eyes”.
Symbols in Marvel
The “density” of symbols varies from scene to scene, and from movie to movie, ranging from completely non-existent to present, but only coincidentally, therefore possessing no syntax, and require little attention outside of the apparent narrative of the film;
And then there are scenes like this opening for “Iron Man”, where the viewer can discover that nearly every aspect of it is symbolic. Even more, it’s syntactic; the symbols form a kind of web of interconnection and are bound to the layers of the film itself. This does not occur throughout the whole movie, but during these few minutes the viewer can witness the actors, setting, dialog, social and political themes, and even the soundtrack, all simultaneously “speak” in symbols.
Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols
The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols
All images from https://movie-screencaps.com
Tony Stark Finds Himself in “Iron Man”