Related articles: The Taking on the Mantle Story Type, Part I: The Crisis of Conscience; The Taking on the Mantle Story Type, Part II: The Crisis of Character
as one of my examples for the Crisis of Character subtype. However, when the time came to break my study films down and find their hidden connections, Iron Man gave me a lot of trouble. On the outside, it seemed to fit into the Crisis of Character mold along with the other films of that subtype such as Rushmore and As Good as it Gets. You have the deeply-flawed Tony Stark with his antisocial behavior. Stark begins the story thriving in a pleasant, selfish niche, a niche that is soon torn up by the roots when he is kidnapped by militants. Iron Man also contains the trinity of essential Crisis of Character players; the Flawed Protagonist (Stark), the Character of Attraction (Pepper Potts), and the Character of Disapproval (Lt. Col. Rhodes).
However, outside of this, Iron Man refused to conform to the pattern so clear in my other study films. It had an outside antagonist, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). The story’s sequences did not seem to occur at the appropriate times. Tony Stark feels the urge to change as a person far too soon. And the Characters of Attraction and Disapproval did not have nearly as much influence upon the plot as they are expected in a Crisis of Character. I know “gurus” are usually good at shoehorning existing films into their vague models, but if I tried this, it would all be BS.
At first, I was going to blow it off by saying “Well, it’s a comic book movie. That genre just needs this type of stuff.” Then, looking closer into Iron Man’s plot, I realized something. I had seem its pattern before. Actually, I am embarrassed that I did not recognize it right away. While the film’s setup and character relationships followed the conceits of the Crisis of Character subtype, its plot followed the second subtype, the Crisis of Conscience. Iron Man is a hybrid of both Taking on the Mantle subtypes.
Though Stark has a deeply-flawed personality that prevents meaningful human relationships by pushing people away (Crisis of Character), he is also a character of latent morality that begins his story willfully aligned with a morally ambiguous industry (weapons manufacture) headed by a Force of Darkness character (Obadiah Stane). This second description is the hallmark of a Crisis of Conscience story, as seen in films such as On the Waterfront and Casablanca.
While no one can deny that Iron Man’s story “works” on an audience level, the fact that the film’s story type is six of one and a half-dozen of the other accounts for all the little rocky structural moments I have always felt while watching the film. The film must always compromise one of its formulas for the sake of the other.
Take another look at my previous article on the Crisis of Conscience subtype to observe its form.
While Iron Man’s first act conforms to the structure of a Crisis of Character, starting with its Protagonist in a comfortable niche which is then pulled up by its roots by outside events, it also, to a weaker degree, follows the requirements of a Crisis of Conscience first act. Stark is first sent by the Force of Darkness character on a minor mission (to sell the Jericho missile to the US military). This minor mission is necessary to establish the Protagonist’s loyalty to the unethical business he aligns himself with. In true Crisis of Conscience form, the Protagonist is then given a bigger, far more important mission by the Force of Darkness (however, via proxy through the sub-antagonist) – to build a Jericho missile for the militant group The Five Rings. (This sequence provides the film with the first bump in its structural road. Since we do know until much later that the Five Rings are in league with Obadiah, this sequence feels disconnected from rest of the film to follow and leaves the audience confused over who is the real villain of this film.)
From this point on, the plot of Iron Man sticks almost exclusively to the Crisis of Conscience form.
Because of the “mission” Stark was given at his inciting incident, he begins his second act in a state of moral dilemma. Should he play it safe and continue towing the company line (continue creating weapons that bring death and destruction), or should he follow a newfound moral urge to break away and do what is right? Unfortunately, Iron Man lacks a key component of the Crisis of Conscience formula that helps establish and develop this dilemma. There is no Outside Relationship Character. The Outside Relationship Character is the Crisis of Conscience’s most essential supporting character. He or she is a force of goodness who asks the Protagonist for help, thus becoming the magnet that slowly draws the Protagonist away from the Force of Darkness and onto a righteous path. Iron Man briefly features a character who seems to fill this role, Dr. Yinsin (the man trapped with Stark in the militant’s cave). However, Yinsin dies at the end of the first act. For the rest of the film, instead of a physical character urging the Protagonist towards goodness and justice, Stark is left with simply an abstract feeling that he should “do what is right.” Though admirable, this ambiguous impulse leaves Stark’s motivations a bit hazy for the rest of the film.
In trues Crisis of Conscience form, Stark’s moral dilemma grows throughout Act 2A. The Force of Darkness notices this change of behavior and warns the Protagonist against it. Just like in On the Waterfront, Casablanca, and Michael Clayton, the Protagonist stays more or less on the fence until the Force of Darkness commits an act so morally reprehensible that the Protagonist can no longer turn a blind eye. Obadiah openly admits to supplying the massacres committed by the Five Rings as well as who knows what other kinds of evildoers.
At the Midpoint, Stark takes his first decisive action against the Force of Darkness by suiting up as Iron Man and defeating the Five Rings. Then, just like Johnny Friendly in Waterfront or Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton, Obadiah comes to realizes that Stark is now a legitimate threat and must be quickly eliminated.
The Force of Evil tries to destroy the Protagonist at the end of Act 2B. The Protagonist survives. The Protagonist launches himself into Act 3 knowing there is only one right thing to do: fully abandon his old ways and absolutely destroy the Force of Darkness. This is a textbook Crisis of Conscience ending. However, the storytellers managed to still execute its action in a way that still manages to come full circle and also fulfill the third act needs of the Crisis of Character: a big selfless action that proves the Protagonist has changed as a person, finally winning over the hearts of both Character of Attraction and the Character of Disapproval.
This hybridization has both advantages and drawbacks. On the upside, it allows the kind of intense action the comic book genre requires. While Crisis of Character stories focuses mostly upon an internal conflict and personal character growth (in other words, stuff that is not very visually thrilling), the Crisis Conscience is all about taking decisive physical action for what is good and right. On the downside, this form downgrades two characters very important to Stark’s transformation, Pepper Potts and Col. Rhodes, into mere supporting characters. Their relationships with Stark become minor subplots backing up the big action, rather than the causes for the plot itself.
This hybridization can also be seen to a smaller degree in a film discussed in my previous article: Liar, Liar. Fletcher Reede (Jim Carrey) begins the story aligned with a morally ambiguous law film, working underneath a Force of Darkness-like boss. Fletcher is ordered to win a case, one in which Fletcher knows he is standing on the wrong of right or wrong. This creates a moral dilemma in Fletcher, eventually leading him to reject the firm. However, once again hybridization has its drawbacks. Liar, Liar’s plot is basically split in two. Throughout the film, the audience remains confused over what the story is really all about: The court case? Or Fletcher’s relationship with his son?