Ruby Nation

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Those Who Use the R-Word: Iron Man and Disability Follow-Up


The themes of disability that have always been a thematic in Iron Man have become more prominent than ever in the past year's story, involving Tony Stark systematically lobotomizing himself to keep his mind's brilliance out of the wrong hands. Yesterday's issue saw the climax of the story as Norman Osborn, who I discussed in another previous essay, finally catches Tony. The confrontation is profoundly one sided; Norman is equipped with his cynically marketing-driven Iron Patriot suit, a powerful war machine based on Tony's stolen technology. Tony, on the other hand, has lost so much brain function that he can't even speak in complete sentences, and has only the flimsy protection of the original Iron Man suit he built in an Afghani POW camp ( see the Iron Man movie for more ). Upon seeing how handicapped his foe is, Norman starts beating the hell out of Tony, and screams..

"I don't care how retarded you've gone and gotten yourself-- you're not going to ruin this for me!

Sadly the symbolism here is going to go over many readers' heads, as they probably consider the R-Word a medical term and even an acceptable colloquial insult. To anyone with a developmental disability, or for that matter anyone with a loved one with a developmental disability, the R-Word is hate speech. Many have admirably decided to pledge against its use as disparaging term ( myself included ); many still use it obliviously, especially in pop culture ( where " not being PC " is too often used as an excuse to hurt ). It's very telling that the only time writer Matt Fraction has used the word in this story is coming out of the mouth of Norman, an avatar of everything evil in the human condition.

You could even go so far as to read the confrontation from a disability rights perspective. Tony Stark is a good man who has dealt with several disabilities, but each time has treated himself with self-loathing for it, trying to use his engineering genius to create a " fix " ( and sometimes worsening his well-being as a result ). Norman Osborn is a petty crook with an insatiable hunger for power, first from the super-soldier formulas that made him into the Green Goblin, now with the prosthetic skin that is the Iron Man technology. After Norman's rise to political power ( based on excellent PR and seizing opportunities from Tony's mistakes ), Tony realized he had to destroy his intellectual properties to the point of shutting down his brain so they wouldn't get into those wrong hands; in the process, he discovered a newfound sense of inner peace as he lost his intellect. But Norman could never accept any sign of weakness, and lashes out at Tony with sadistic glee, even attributing his inability to fight back to a lack of masculinity. The common childhood axiom that bullies simply take their insecurities out on those weaker than them is obvious here, except that Norman is a grown man doing this with full knowledge of, and satisfaction with, the consequences of his actions.

Fortunately, Norman's plans do not succeed. Tony's brain deletion sequence concludes, and with a look of emotional clarity and the utterance of " I win ", he falls to the ground comatose. Not only does Norman not get ahold of Tony's secrets, but he is caught on world news beating an invalid man half to death, something even he will have trouble spinning in his next press conference. It's the very definition of phyrric victory for Tony, but it's also a fitting end for the hero; he dies feeling okay with himself, even if in a severely addled state, and keeps his inventions safe from being abused. Not a happy ending, but excellent as the conclusion to a tragedy; Tony's inventions could not be used responsibly by the world, but in death he became a martyr for strength of morals, and did so without any of his intellectual genius.

Of course, the story ends with Tony's friends in the superhero community taking his body and planning to restore his mind; it would be foolish to expect Marvel Comics to put a permanent end to one of their most merchandisable characters. As much as I have loved the character, I find myself almost wishing the series had ended here, to preserve the power of this statement.

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