Iron Man and Biblical Tradition in the MCU

A companion piece to Episode 101: Who Is Iron Man?

Written by Laurel Hostak

Marvel’s  Iron Man  (2008)

Marvel’s Iron Man (2008)

This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I developed a sweeping character study of the Avenger at the forefront of a media empire that’s now steeped in the lives of so many culture consumers. We discussed the character’s deep roots in Greek mythology, Homer’s account of the Trojan War known as The Iliad, and some of the massive questions that arise when telling the story of a hero immersed in modern warfare.

In this blog, I’d love to draw attention to some of the other literary, mythic, and spiritual references at play in the character arc (reactor). Primarily, I’ll focus on its roots in both Jewish and Christian tradition.

Iron Man (2008)

Our big-screen introduction to Tony Stark came in 2008 with the first film in the now-enormous Marvel Cinematic Universe. The undeniably inspired choice to cast Robert Downey Jr. in the role, along with a tight script and smart direction from Jon Favreau made Iron Man a hit. But the film also reveled in the wealth of comic book mythology to which it had access, and the creators made deliberate choices to include subconsciously recognizable motifs from some of the most widely known stories ever told: those in the religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. In doing so, Iron Man cast the long redemption arc of its titular hero in the light of a powerful narrative tradition.

In the opening sequence of Iron Man, the heir to major weapons manufacturer Stark Industries is in Afghanistan—an instant touchstone for an audience now weary from years of seemingly never-ending conflict in the Middle East—testing his newest weapon: the Jericho missile. The name of the missile clearly evokes the Book of Joshua, the sixth book in the Hebrew Bible. The story goes that in the conquest of Canaan, the first battle that Joshua and his Israelite army’s first battle was the Battle of Jericho. According to Joshua 6:1-27, the Israelites surrounded the walled city of Jericho and blew their trumpets until the walls fell. The battle is also memorably recorded in the African American spiritual ‘Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho.’

This signals a few things to us. First, we’re in a story about war, conquest, and consequence. The real city of Jericho lies in modern-day Palestinian Territories along the West Bank of the Jordan River—an area with a history of violence and conflict between nations. The mythic history of Jericho’s walls falling at the sound of trumpets offers a picture of warfare that’s more creative than destructive, that’s poeticized to mask the horrors of actual warfare. Someone who interprets that narrative literally is in a similar position to Tony Stark in this moment (and a lot of us who don’t live in war-torn countries and can afford some distance from conflict); blissfully unaware of the terrible cost of waging war. What happens next, after testing the missile and taking delight in his own godlike power of destruction, is Tony’s complete loss of control as his convoy is ambushed and he’s kidnapped by Ten Rings, a terrorist group.

The Battle of Jericho

The Battle of Jericho

It’s significant that Tony begins his journey here, with his first tactile experience of violent conflict and a near-death experience, because it’s the catalyst for a changed perspective. Tony is held imprisoned in a cave by Ten Rings, and during his captivity forms a bond with another prisoner, Yinsen, a doctor who has developed a new technology known as an arc reactor. That technology becomes the foundation for a mechanized exoskeleton that will give Tony the power to escape the cave. He’ll emerge like another character of Biblical tradition, this time from the New Testament: Lazarus of Bethany. Lazarus was the subject of one of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel of John, raising the man from his tomb after four days dead. Notably, Yinsen lays down his life to allow Tony to complete the suit and escape. This introduces Tony to the significance of self-sacrifice, which will pay off much further along in his character journey.

Another major reference we can’t ignore arrives in the film’s central antagonist, Obadiah Stane. A staple of the Iron Man comics and the first to don the armor of Iron Monger, Obadiah is the business partner of now-deceased Howard Stark. His reasons for turning against the organization are understandable (though very very not cool); after years of hard work and sacrifice, Tony Stark returns to the fold and threatens his position of power. Let’s not forget that during the awards ceremony, Tony is referred to as the ‘Prodigal Son,’ a character from a New Testament parable about family, forgiveness, and humility. (Of course, in Iron Man 3, Tony will say “the prodigal son returns” himself, referring to one of his suits. But we’ll get to that in a minute.)

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Back to Obadiah. It’s the most overtly Biblical name in the story, and the likely antecedent is an interesting connection. The Talmud describes a minor prophet named Obadiah, a rich man who was, in the rabbinic tradition, also the servant of Ahab. Ahab was the seventh king of Israel, and he’s depicted as a godless, wicked ruler in religious texts. He also has a slight connection with the Battle of Jericho, in that Joshua’s curses upon any rebuilding of the city came to fruition under Ahab’s reign. The prophet Obadiah winds up running out of money; he’s given too much to the poor prophets in his care. Finally, he’s forced to borrow money from Ahab’s son.

So beyond the names, you can see a clear parallel between Obadiah Stane and the prophet. Both work in the shadow of a powerful though morally compromised individual—Ahab as the wicked ruler, Howard Stark as a complicated man with a bloody legacy. Both then have to answer to the son of that individual, a development that feels desperate, shameful, or humiliating. The major difference is that the prophet Obadiah is regarded as a blessed person, a saint in many Christian churches. The man who dons the Iron Monger suit can hardly be called saintlike, but within the construct of the story, perhaps he thinks he is. Obadiah views Tony’s rapid ascension, which comes with seemingly no effort on his part, as an injustice. Obadiah believes he has earned the right to power and control of Stark Industries. The reversal here highlights, like the disconnect between the fabled Battle of Jericho and the realities of warfare, the tension between our expectations of reward and the realities of oligarchy and capitalism. The prophet Obadiah maintains his faith and righteousness in the face of great injustice and under the rule of a godless king. Obadiah Stane, a casualty of a complex and inherently unjust system, turns that injustice into fuel for anger, entitlement, and revenge.

Tony, the Creator

The tale of Tony Stark is one of pride to humility, of self-absorption to self-sacrifice. He is empowered by the sacrifice of Yinsen, moved by witnessing the destruction he and his organization have wrought, and finally initiated into a fellowship that prizes justice. It’s a long journey from the convoy to the Battle of New York (and beyond) because it takes work to forge a man who will willingly give up his life for other. And it’s not a straight line. Tony faces trials along the way; some are external forces or inevitable consequences thrown upon him, and others are natural outgrowths of this intensely creative and proud character.

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In this week’s podcast, we spoke briefly about Tony’s desire to create life, which manifests mosts clearly in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but this track originates much sooner. Once you remove Tony’s original purpose: weapons manufacturing, he turns to an alternative. This becomes the perpetual creation, recreation, and modification of the Iron Man suit and the refinement of his arc reactor technology. For Tony, creation is a form of survival, as evidenced by his time in the cave and his recognition of weaknesses in the suit’s performance in the field, but it also satisfies a ceaseless curiosity in him. In Iron Man 3, we’ll see the newest lineup of modified or specialized armor, and he’ll develop the technology to operate the suits remotely. That technology will begin to enforce Tony’s disengagement or disassociation from the armor, and in Spider-Man: Homecoming, it embodies an “absent father” motif. Near the climax of Iron Man 3, as one disobedient suit of armor reappears in the nick of time, Tony remarks, “The prodigal son returns.”

These developments, culminating in the creation of Ultron, a sentient android meant to establish a new order of peace, cast Tony in the light of Prometheus or Dr. Frankenstein: lower beings struck with the inspiration of gods and the hubris to actualize that inspiration. The Jewish myth best associated with this aspect of Tony’s character is the legend of the Golem. As I described on the podcast this week, the Prague Golem was an anthropomorphic figure made from clay by the 16th Rabbi Loew and animated through religious ritual. He was created to defend the Jewish ghetto in the wake of anti-semitic attacks and the blood libel. But as these stories of man stepping into the shoes of gods often go, the Golem—who, like a construct of iron, cannot reason—becomes impossible to control and must be neutralized. It’s a motif we see in the Hulk’s stories, though he more closely mirror another Gothic novel in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, so it’s natural that Tony’s partner in creating Ultron would be Bruce Banner.

Part of Tony’s ultimate journey, beyond becoming someone who would conceivably guide a nuclear missile through a wormhole to save the world, is the reconciliation of his intellectual superiority with a sense of justice. That superiority—the knowledge that he is smarter than everyone else in the room—makes him a genuinely enjoyable character to watch, but it’s also the engine behind his desire to create life, and thus precipitates major violent consequences. Once again, he’s a mirror for us—particularly Americans. I don’t at all care to argue against advancements in technology or the pursuit of new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, but especially in the context of warfare, with which the Iron Man franchise is concerned, the absolute power of creation and destruction lies in the hands of a few individuals. Tony has come a long way to admit that the Avengers need oversight in Captain America: Civil War.

As we near the release of the long-awaited Avengers: Endgame, I’m interested in how Tony’s creative impulse will face off with Thanos’ destructive impulse (Thanos’ name references Greek mythology’s Thanatos, the personification of death. Appropes.) Will Tony, who has made Christlike sacrifices on now numerous occasions, find a way to truly transcend his superiority complex? If he survives the next movie, can he embrace his creative impulse without instinctively overreaching? As we hope to teach the Thanoses of the world that the unilateral power of destruction should not be held by any individual, will Tony have to learn the same lesson for the inverse? And can he learn it without losing a part of himself?