CREDIT: Marvel Studios
CREDIT: Marvel Studios

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Iron Man 3"

Oct 21, 2013

This essay is riddled with plot spoilers. Proceed accordingly.

Certain movies stand out as classics because of the way they capture the spirit of their times. In the 60s, when space travel was finally becoming possible, 2001: A Space Odyssey raised questions about humans' place in the universe. In 2009, when people were growing increasingly concerned about our impact on the environment, Avatar pioneered a new form of science fiction that emphasized ecology over technology, and cast resource-hungry humans as the antagonists.

Although it may never become a classic, Iron Man 3 certainly reflects contemporary American debates over foreign policy. Take Tony Stark's decision to abandon his global protector role, prioritizing domestic matters instead: that decision is likely to resonate with war-weary Americans who have only recently begun to bring back their troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and are reluctant to send them to Syria. Iron Man 3 also touches on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), prejudice, the military industrial complex, and drone warfare.

Brief Overview

Tony Stark has become something of a recluse after his near-death experience in The Avengers (2012), and his girlfriend, Pepper Potts, is running the family business. When scientist and businessman Aldrich Killian visits Potts at the Stark headquarters, Stark's head of security (and longtime friend) becomes suspicious and follows him. This leads to a confrontation where Stark's security officer is injured and a man working for Killian spontaneously explodes.

After a terrorist known as the Mandarin claims responsibility for the explosion, Stark publicly declares that he is out for revenge. The Mandarin attacks Stark's home, but Stark escapes and begins investigating similar explosions throughout the country.

Tracing the Mandarin's broadcasts back to a mansion in Miami, Stark discovers that the "Mandarin" is really a clueless actor, a cover for Killian's plot to take over the U.S. government. The explosions are a side effect of Extremis—a virus developed by Dr. Maya Hansen that grants extraordinary powers and regenerative abilities to its host.

After numerous plot twists and turns, Stark defeats Killian, with the help of an Extremis-infected Potts, Stark's mechanized ally Colonel James Rhodes, and a plethora of automated Iron Man "drones." Finally, Stark orders the destruction of his Iron Man suits, intending to spend more time with Potts.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Iron Man 3 chronologically follows The Avengers, in which Stark nearly dies. He has become an anxious wreck, unable to sleep and spending day and night in his workshop. His anxiety, hyper-vigilance, withdrawal from public places, and recurring nightmares are all symptoms associated with PTSD—a crippling condition that affects three in four American troops wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.

PTSD also affects sufferers' families and loved ones: a 2012 study links it to an increased risk of divorce. This dimension of PTSD is not lost on director/screenwriter Shane Black and screenwriter Drew Pearce, who, in a particularly telling scene, show how Stark's hyper-vigilance affects his girlfriend. This portrayal of PTSD marks a huge leap forward for superhero movies. While some war movies like The Deer Hunter have dealt with it quite candidly, superheroes are routinely confronted with apocalyptic scenarios without suffering any ill effects. By giving Stark PTSD, the film highlights the price paid by those who put their lives on the line for others, and also provides an alternative to the traditional "tough guy" narrative.

As a 2011 segment on PTSD for NPR's Talk of the Nation demonstrates, the need to not be perceived as weak can keep soldiers from admitting their problems. A superhero with PTSD might be another step toward a more constructive conversation about it.


Iron Man 3 brings back Stark's archenemy: the Mandarin, a Chinese villain first presented in a Marvel comic almost 50 years ago. Comic book purists hold him to be the greatest villain in the Iron Man franchise, but critics contend that he is little more than an appeal to Orientalism. Indeed, the film's screenwriter/director, Shane Black, has described the Mandarin as "a racist caricature;" so his decision to resuscitate Mandarin baffled many fans.

At first glance, the Mandarin seems to illustrate that while the "face of evil" may have changed, xenophobia still reigns supreme. With camouflage pants, a large beard, and television broadcasts denouncing America, the modern Mandarin is a painfully obvious appeal to Western audiences' fear of Middle Eastern radicalism.

But things get more interesting. The bearded "terrorist" is a decoy—a hired actor whose image is carefully put together to fit the public's expectations for an adversary. "Because the second you give evil a face, a Bin Laden, a Gaddafi, The Mandarin," proclaims Killian, the true villain, "you hand the people a target."

Reactions to this have been divided. Many film critics and bloggers lauded the move as daring and innovative—'s Jacob Hall calls the new Mandarin "one of the best and smartest comic book villains since, well, ever." Some comic book purists, however, were outraged.

Apart from whether it makes for good entertainment, what is the educational value of this kind of bait-and-switch? While one hopes that the audience will absorb the film's lesson about prejudice, the fake Mandarin's main function in the story is that of a looming menace. Moreover, once revealed not to be a threat, the Mandarin also ceases to be relevant to the plot line. This matters, because people are predisposed to estimate probabilities based on how easy it is to think of examples—a phenomenon referred to by psychologists as the availability heuristic. By bringing forth associations with Middle-Eastern terrorists, the film may actually be reinforcing the very prejudice it is seeking to combat—leaving the audience with a greater fear of Middle Easterners than before.

The Military Industrial Complex and the War on Terror

The military industrial complex has always been an overarching theme in the Iron Man series. In Iron Man (2008), Stark is in Afghanistan demonstrating a new missile developed by Stark Industries when his convoy is ambushed by members of a terrorist organization and our hero is taken hostage. While in captivity, Stark discovers that his captors possess large quantities of his company's munitions. This spurs him to move away from war profiteering, becoming instead a global (if imperialistic) force for good.

In the real world, Western-supplied weapons have also had an unfortunate tendency to end up in unintended places. In 2011, Wired reported that half of the weapons supplied by the U.S. to Ugandan and Burundian troops fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia were actually ending up in al-Shabaab's hands. In 2007, The Washington Post reported that 190,000 assault rifles and pistols supplied to Iraqi security forces by the Pentagon had gone missing, raising concerns that they had fallen into the hands of insurgents. While one might think this would serve as a deterrent to arming foreign combatants, some continue to urge American politicians to do just that—most recently in Syria.

After Stark discovers that the Mandarin is a cover, the real villain gloats: "This time tomorrow, I'll have the West's most powerful leader in one hand, and the world's most feared terrorist in the other. I'll own the War on Terror. Create supply and demand for you and your brothers and sisters."

This film is not the first to highlight the possible benefits of a narrative of constant threat. In a 2013 article entitled "Enemy Industrial Complex," UC Berkeley instructor Tom Engelhardt contrasted America's enemies of today (small guerilla outfits based in of the poorest regions of the world) with the nuclear-armed USSR of the Cold War. In that light, he points to the absurdity of today's "constant threat"-narrative, asking why no one has launched a nearly trillion dollar "car-and-gun-security-complex," given that lives lost in traffic and in gun suicides annually exponentially outnumber the death toll of 9/11. The answer, he suggests, can only be found by looking at who stands to benefit from a public perception of constant threat—both financially and politically.

Drone Warfare

Not surprisingly, Stark's ever-growing collection of Iron Man suits now includes some of the remote-controlled variety. During a particularly memorable sequence, Stark uses a remote-controlled Iron Man suit to rescue 14 Air Force One crew members plummeting toward certain death. The rescue operation is a success, but immediately upon its completion, the Iron Man suit is demolished when it flies into the path of a passing truck. Stark, who has been operating it from a safe distance, is no worse for wear.

This serves to illustrate an important point made by Arthur Holland Michel in a 2013 piece for Policy Innovations: "A drone is only as good or bad as the work it is made to perform." Yet as we have seen in Afghanistan and Yemen in particular, a "byproduct" of U.S. drone strikes has been the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians.

Ethical Issues and Discussion Questions

1. Is there a value to raising ethical questions in action blockbusters, or does the format cheapen the message? And does the audience get the message? 2. Did you see any additional foreign policy themes raised in the film that are not discussed here? 3. Do you think portrayals of PTSD in popular culture can promote a more constructive dialogue about it? 4. How did you react to the Mandarin plot twist? Does it justify the film's appeal to stereotypes? 5. What do you make of the decision to cast a businessman as the villain in Iron Man 3? 6. Iron Man 3 has two important female characters: Scientist Dr. Maya Hansen and Pepper Potts. What are your thoughts about their portrayal in the film? 7. Is it ever ethical to use drones to carry out lethal tasks? If so, when? If not, why? And what about tasks that are not directly lethal, but that contribute to war efforts?

Selected Carnegie Council Resources

The 'Copter Will See You Now Arthur Holland Michel, freelance writer and editor As countries develop policies for civilian and commercial drones, it is important to apply ethical standards that are permissive of innovation. (Policy Innovations magazine, August 2013)

Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order Richard N. Haass, Council on Foreign Relations We have been guilty of overreaching abroad and underachieving at home, says Richard Haass, and these sins are really two sides of the national security coin. After all, "our capacity to act abroad is obviously directly limited and affected by the capacities we have created here at home, whether the capacities are military or economic or human." (Public Affairs program, June 2013)

The World as a Battlefield Jeremy Scahill, The Nation; Marlene Spoerri, Carnegie Council In the name of the "war on terror," the U.S. is conducting covert warfare and targeted killings, and it dismisses the resulting deaths of innocent civilians as "collateral damage." What are the ethical and practical repercussions of these policies? Jeremy Scahill's blistering talk ranges from Iraq to Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. (Ethics Matter, June 2013)

Drones: Legal, Ethical, and Wise? Joel H. Rosenthal, Carnegie Council The U.S. drone program raises serious ethical concerns, particularly about accountability and due process. Congress, with support from President Obama, must develop new oversight rules to ensure that U.S. values are safeguarded. (Op-ed for Christian Science Monitor, March 2013)

WAR Sebastian Junger, author, journalist, and documentarian In this thoughtful and very personal talk, Junger ponders what attracts young men to war, the difference between friendship and brotherhood, the question of when nations should intervene, and lastly, the issue of his own mortality. (Public Affairs program, June 2011)

The New Assassination Bureau: On the 'Robotic Turn' in Contemporary War Caroline Kennedy, University of Hull; Nicholas Rengger, St Andrews University When the film "2001" first came out, the plot--in which a robot faces an ethical decision--seemed like pure science fiction. Today it's becoming reality. This essay examines the legal and ethical dilemmas created by increasing automation in warfare, including what the authors believe is the most problematic area of contemporary war: the use of drones. (Carnegie Ethics Online, June 2011)

The Global War on Terror: A Narrative in Need of a RewriteAmy Zalman, senior research strategist, private sector; Jonathan Clarke, author, foreign policy expertThis essay focuses on how the global war on terror was constructed and how it has set down deep institutional roots both in government and popular culture. The war on terror represents an "extraordinarily powerful narrative," which must be rewritten in order to change policy dynamics.

Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century P.W. Singer, Brookings Institution Once the stuff of science fiction, robotics are already changing the way wars are being fought, says P.W. Singer. How will they affect the politics, economics, laws, and ethics of warfare? (Public Affairs program, February 2009)

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Why We Fight" In 1961, Eisenhower warned that the interests of the increasingly powerful "military-industrial complex" might one day determine the direction of U.S. policy. Has that day come to pass? (Ethics on Film, May 2008)

Works Cited

"Availability Heuristic", Wikipedia, Last modified on July 22, 2015

"Drew Pearce," Wikipedia, Last modfiied on July 18, 2015

"The Enemy-Industrial Complex", UTNE, Tom Engelhardt, April 18, 2013

"For Soldiers With PTSD, A Profound Daily Struggle", National Public Radio, Talk of the Nation, June 2, 2011

"Hit him hard", The Economist, August 31, 2013

"'Iron Man 3' - Air Force One Rescue", YouTube, Trailers, May 1, 2013

"'Iron Man 3' Fans React To Controversial Twist", Brett White, May 6, 2013

"'Iron Man 3': Mandarin Blowback?", Yahoo! Movies, Movie Talk, Joal Ryan, May 6, 2013

"LBCC: 'Iron Man 3' Director Shane Black Panel", Comic Book Resources, Josie Campbell, October 30, 2011

"New survey: 3 of 4 post-9/11 vets have PTSD, anxiety", Navy Times, Patricia Kime, September 13, 2013

"'Orientalism' (book)", Wikipedia, Last modified on July 20, 2015

"Shane Black", Wikipedia, Last modified on July 29, 2015

"Study Links PTSD to Higher Risk of Divorce Among Soldiers", Administration for Children & Families, January 28, 2013

"U.S. Weapons Now in Somali Terrorists' Hands", Wired, David Axe, August 2, 2011

"US has killed far more civilians with drones than it admits, says UN", NBC News, Michael Ishikoff, October 17, 2013

"Weapons Given to Iraq Are Missing", The Washington Post, Glenn Kessler, August 6, 2007

"Why comic book fans hate the Mandarin in 'Iron Man 3' (POLL)", 89.3 KPCC, Mike Roe, May 7, 2013

"Why 'Iron Man 3''s Mandarin Is the Best Comic Book Movie Villain of All Time",, Jacob S. Hall, May 6, 2013

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