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Tony Stark’s armoured suit is as much as a part of him as the electromagnet in his chest or the blood pumping through his veins. But Stark wears another armour, one that can’t deflect bullets or stop explosions, but keeps him safe nonetheless: his sense of humour.
Stark is not what some might call “emotionally available.” He keeps himself aloof and never lets anyone get too close (with the possible exception of Pepper Potts) . He doesn’t seem to trust his teammates and, whenever they try to have a serious conversation with him, he jokes around to deflect genuine emotional connection.
When he brings a nuclear bomb through a wormhole to destroy a fleet of invading aliens and very nearly dies as a result, the first thing out of his mouth upon his revival is, “What happened? Please tell me nobody kissed me.” Shawarma therapy notwithstanding, Iron Man relies on his emotional armour just as much as his shiny red and gold suit.
Iron Man 3 had a lot of great scenes showing just how damaged he is and how poorly equipped he is to deal with his emotions. A kid shows him a crayon drawing of a space portal and his body reacts by going into shock. He assumes he’s been poisoned before Jarvis politely informs him that he is, in fact, having a panic attack. The man who can fix anything can’t fix himself—talk about irony, man.
In the finale of Iron Man 3, Stark blows up dozens of his power suits in a spectacular metaphor for his newfound emotional freedom. But in Age of Ultron, his anxiety has evolved under his nose into full-blown fear. He responds to the fear in a few different ways. His fear of what the Hulk is capable of is answered by his biggest and meanest armour suit yet—the Hulkbuster. His fear of causing collateral damage to innocent people is answered with the Iron Legion, his group of automated robots that initiate crowd control and evacuation planning. But his deepest fear—the one Scarlet Witch drags to the surface of his mind—is his fear of letting the world down, of not being strong enough to save it.
Iron Man is not alone: many people use comedy as a form of escape or deflection. Humour can be a healthy and effective way of responding to emotional trauma. But Iron Man has spent his life dealing with pain by building it into armour to keep himself from ever suffering again.
This also doesn’t mean Stark is never serious. In the first Avengers movie, when he’s chatting with Loki in Stark Tower he delivers a few great quips like, “Earth’s mightiest heroes sort of thing” or “We have a Hulk.” But then, without taking an extra breath, he looks Loki dead in the eyes and tells him seriously, “You can be damn-well sure we’ll avenge it.”
Stark is pretty much always the smartest guy in the room. He knows how one million different gears are turning in any given situation. He also likes to make sure everyone knows it. His sarcasm can be powerfully condescending and he doesn’t seem concerned about who he levels it at.
While his paramour, Pepper Potts, seems to accept that it’s just part of who he is, it’s actually Captain America who has had the most to say to him about deflecting everything with jokes. Cap is honest to a fault, and is antithetical to Iron Man in so many ways. Not the least of them being his honesty and approach of dealing with things head-on, without looking for the shortcut. He’s also most often the target of Stark’s barbed wit. Honesty without ulterior motives challenges and scares him. He doesn’t understand how Cap can see the world that clear-cut and reacts to that fear the way he does to all fear—with jokes and sarcasm.
Stark is one of those guys that should be unlikable. He’s entitled, arrogant, self-centered and self-righteous. But his overpowering charisma tends to win over against all of that. He’s endured the death of his parents; he’s been kicked to the curb, penniless only to rise up and regain his legacy; he’s beaten back his debilitating alcoholism and taken on the emotional and physical burden protecting Earth.
If he can’t make a joke everyone once in a while, what hope do the rest of us have?