by Ben Howard
Superhero stories are inherently stories about identity. They are stories about costumes, masks, secret identities, and alter-egos. They are stories about normal, everyday so-and-so’s, and the occasional abnormal, wealthy so-and-so, who craft a new superhuman persona in order to fight evil, or crime, or maybe just to stave off the darkness within.
Iron Man 3 came out last weekend and it is full of characters in the midst of shifting identities. Tony Stark is battling with his identity as Iron Man, James Rhodes shifts from being War Machine to the Iron Patriot, even Tony’s bodyguard/chauffeur Happy is transitioning into life as the Head of Security at Stark Industries.
These identity crises, especially Tony/Iron Man’s are a fight between the true identity and the identity that gives the character power. Is Tony fundamentally Tony Stark, the engineer who builds things, or is he defined by the suit that gives him his power and his strength, the suit that he designed and is obsessed with perfecting? Which one is real? Which one drives the other?
This is the central internal fight in superhero movies. Do the power and responsibility that come with the role of hero overwhelm the identity of the human playing the role? Does power overcome self?
Due to circumstances beyond his control, well, more like adjacent to his control, Tony is left stranded in rural Tennessee without access to a working suit or his high-tech garage-cum-laboratory. In this environment, Tony is forced to confront his co-dependent relationship with his own creation. He is forced to re-imagine himself as a person removed from his identity of power.
Like Iron Man for Tony Stark or Batman for Bruce Wayne, everyone either takes on or is saddled with a label or a role. Labels and roles are loaded with powerful identities that can overwhelm us.
This is not only true for superheroes, but of the more common labels of religion. Labels like Christian, Muslim, and Atheist are useful for purposes of differentiation, but when they mutate into defining identities they can obscure the true humanity of the person behind the label.
When the role of Christian, or Muslim, or whatever religious ideology becomes the primary motivating factor that drives us, when it becomes our most important identity, when it is something we must obsess over and protect, when the label controls us, it becomes a destructive force instead of one useful for good. It allows us to always view the other as other and it allows us to always view ourselves through the lens of a constructed role and in so doing bars us from true self-examination.
Now this is not a condemnation of faith or religion in anyway, it is a condemnation of sectarian, myopic ideology which exists only to further its own existence. The problem isn’t that Tony Stark built Iron Man, who uses the suit to fight the bad guys; it’s that building Iron Man consumed him from the inside out.
Also, the response to this issue means more than changing or disposing of the label. Refusing to say “Christian”, but saying “Christ-follower” instead doesn’t change the power relationship, it merely hides it behind a different moniker. Iron Man is still Iron Man even if he calls himself Man of Iron.
Nor is this a call for pyro-theology that tries to burn down the power structure in its entirety. We don’t need to destroy the power relationship, we merely need to correct it and redirect it.
Roles exist to accentuate our humanity, to enhance it, not to direct or determine it.
One of my good friends once told me that he isn’t trying to be a good Christian; he’s trying to be a good human. That’s the actual point of the Christian faith. That’s the end game, becoming fully-human like we were originally intended to be. I hope that the role of being a Christian, of labeling myself that, helps to accentuate my humanity. I hope it makes me a better human.
But if the label isn’t doing that, if the label becomes an identity of power which distorts and misdirects my humanity, then the label and the role must be deconstructed.
What roles or identities give you power? What roles do you need to deconstruct? Is Iron Man a valid metaphor for Christian identity?
Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87.
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