What We Can Learn from Iron Man and His Father

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Tony Stark (Iron Man) had a difficult relationship with his father. Although his dad loved him, Tony never believed it, and this affected him negatively. It could be that Howard Stark simply didn’t know how to be a good dad. With Father’s Day approaching, perhaps it’s time we reconsidered the fathering role, to make it better for both dads and kids.

Before watching The Avengers, I made sure I prepped for it (yes, you can prepare for watching movies) by seeing all the individual films featuring the superheroes that would make up the Avengers team. I had already seen The Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, so all that was left was Iron Man 2. I needed to see that movie because it introduced the Black Widow, the only female Avenger. Anyone who knows me well knows that I will be in attendance with bells on for positive depictions of strong women. Plus, I always like watching Robert Downey Junior (the actor playing Tony Stark/Iron Man), so I was looking forward to it even though I’d heard it wasn’t that good.

Contrary to my expectations, I found Iron Man 2 to be pretty enjoyable. Although I could have done without some of the fight scenes (boring), seeing Tony Stark face his mortality and realize that going solo wasn’t always the best or only choice was interesting. And yes, Scarlet Johannson’s Black Widow was awesome. However, the part of the movie that truly intrigued me was the incredibly minor exploration into Tony’s relationship with his long-dead father.

Tony apparently had an uncomfortable relationship with his father, Howard Stark. Although he inherited his father’s company along with his brilliance, Tony tells Nick Fury (leader of the Avengers) that his father’s best day was when he sent little Tony off to boarding school. He didn’t believe Nick’s assertion that Howard loved him. Bolstering that claim was a scene in which little Tony interrupts his father’s attempt to create a video for his Stark Expo. Howard is clearly irritated by Tony’s presence and quickly sends him elsewhere. If that was any indication of how the father and son interacted, it was little wonder that Tony thought his father never loved him.

From the movies (the comic books may be different), we don’t know much of anything about Tony’s mother, but we can certainly extrapolate how Tony’s relationship with his father affected him. Tony Stark constantly shows off his talents, and seems to thrive on the adulation of an adoring public. Thus, Tony’s belief that Howard disliked him seems to have led him to seek approval and love elsewhere. However, the roar of a crowd is a poor substitute for emotional intimacy, so it is no surprise that Tony continues his search for approval and never quite gets it. That is where he is at the beginning of the movie.

However, two things happen that change the way Tony views the world, and lead him to a place where he could consider becoming part of a team. First, in the same video, Howard leaves a message for the older Tony in which he tells him that he was his greatest creation. It is an emotional moment for the younger Stark. Second, Tony realizes that his father intended for him to expand upon his work; that his father had faith in his abilities. Through the work that Howard passed on, Tony was able to create a new element and save his own life. Afterward he says admiringly, “Dead for almost 20 years…still taking me to school.” In that moment, Tony’s relationship with his father takes on new dimensions. It is clear that his father’s love and pride gives Tony a renewed sense of purpose, and the ability to let others into his life.

I know that I was supposed to feel warmed by Tony’s newfound belief in his father’s love. However, I felt let down. Words are cheap; I wanted some action. I have no doubt that Howard loved his son (if one can be allowed to say that about fictional characters), but passing on his work and saying a few sentimental sentences from beyond the grave just doesn’t cut it. How about a hug? Or spending time with his son? Or even just writing heartfelt letters to him while he was at boarding school? Howard seemed unable to be emotionally intimate with his son and instead poured his emotions and his energy into his work.

With Father’s Day approaching, it occurs to me that Howard Stark’s paternal struggles are similar to what many fathers are facing today. Just like we do with mothers, our culture puts fathers into a particular box, and does not seem to know what else to do with them. Sure, fathers may be given a bit more leeway these days, but they’re still expected to be the providers, so that the vast majority of childcare is left to mothers. Although some companies offer paternity leave and there is the Family Medical Leave Act (that allows people to take time off from their jobs for family emergencies), many fathers refuse to avail themselves of these policies because they’re afraid of facing the penalties associated with valuing family time over work. Consequently, many fathers only spend time with their children in the brief time they have after work, and on the weekends. When this happens, families suffer.

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Similarly, while the emotional range of fathers is a bit broader than it used to be, society still expects that fathers will be the ones who tell the kids to “shake it off” while leaving most of the warmth and nurturing to mothers. For example, during one of my 9-year-old son’s baseball games, the pitcher was hit by the ball. He started to cry (naturally) and three of the coaches, one of whom was his father, went out to the mound to see if he was okay. You could tell that they were concerned for him, but they all stood around awkwardly, never touching him, while they decided what to do. How much better would it have been had his father at least put his arm around him instead of being afraid that physical comfort would have been taken as weakness? I know that many fathers are physically affectionate but, unfortunately, it still isn’t the norm. It should be.

I see a lot of fathers in my counseling practice, and almost without exception, they talk about how limiting the role of father is. Many discuss their own fathers; how they were emotionally distant, and often just not around. As such, they didn’t have good role models for how a father should be; all they know is what behavior they don’t want to repeat with their own kids. So, they’ve improved on the role but it isn’t enough. A number of them work so much that they often aren’t there. Others are physically present, but don’t know how to bridge the emotional divide. Clearly, something needs to be done so that a new generation of boys can become the fathers they should be.

What if, like I believe Mother’s Day should be, Father’s Day became less about buying things, and more about activism? What if it became a day in which fathers agitated for stronger structural supports, so that fathering became a role valued just as much as mothering? Fathers could demand adequate paternity leave, so that they could take care of their babies when they were young. They could ask for more flexible work hours, so that they had more time to spend with the kids and doing things for the kids. Fathers could figure out ways to take them to doctor’s appointments, band practice, and friend’s houses, while also volunteering time in the classroom and helping with homework. And they could work on changing perceptions of emotions and nurturing, so that they could cuddle without fear, and comfort without embarrassment.

Although we still have a long way to go, I am encouraged by recent portrayals of fathers on television who are way more present, engaged and nurturing than Howard Stark. I like watching the relationship between Richard Castle and his daughter Alexis on Castle and the deeply flawed yet loving father Peter Florrick on The Good Wife. I particularly enjoy seeing all of the fathers (there are four) on Modern Family. So, there is hope. Maybe all we need is a little extra push from fathers, celebrating and extending the role on their special day. If it worked, it could even give men like Tony Stark (should he ever become a father) the knowledge and permission to be the kind of father that he always wanted. No one should have to become a superhero in order to get there.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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