The summer movie campaign officially begins Friday with the release of Iron Man, based on the Marvel comic book of the same name and featuring Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, a millionaire industrialist who dons technologically advanced iron "armor" to fight evil.

Iron Man hitches a ride on a fighter jet

Iron Man hitches a ride on a fighter jet

If the buzz is any indication, it looks to be a super smash. The film's pyrotechnic trailers (beginning with a sneak peek during the Super Bowl) may already have diehard fans camping out by the Cineplex. But beyond its obvious entertainment value, does Iron Man have more in store for us than battle suits and repulsor rays?

You bet. Superhero movies offer plenty of food for thought and our souls, right down to their premises and the philosophy behind them. Plus, a number of recent superhero films have focused as much on the men behind the masks—and on the critical events that shaped and guided them—as they have on special effects and fight scenes. And Tony Stark, the man beneath the armor in Iron Man, is one of the most complex and compelling characters in comic book history.

Superpowered in the broken places

Recent comic book movies have shown us that superheroes can come from just about anywhere, and that physical or situational limitations need not be a roadblock. In fact, sometimes they can prove exactly the opposite.

We often find superheroes, in their beginnings, to have physical weakness. In order to fight evil, they must overcome their disadvantage and become "strong in the broken place"—and in the comics, they become not only strong, but superpowered. Blind lawyer Matt Murdock becomes Daredevil, whose superpowered "radar sense" far surpasses normal sight. And as we'll see in Iron Man, industrialist Tony Stark—with a damaged heart only a handful of beats away from death—becomes an unstoppable Iron Avenger.

The idea that no one is destined for failure, that it's possible to rise above our circumstances and make a difference, is also an important part of our cultural heritage—and something that needs reaffirmation. Yet this is only part of the truth. And it's here that the philosophies behind comic books—and adventure stories in general—often fail to give us the entire picture.

Isaiah 55:8 reminds us that God's ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our own.

Paul's observation about strength in weakness (2 Cor. 12:10) refers not to a physical ability to rise above our limitations, thus imposing our will—for good or ill—upon the scene. Rather, it refers to the joyful recognition that our weakness in itself is a good thing.

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Our limitations pull us back from single-minded reliance upon our own strength—a course that leads either to failure, or victory accompanied by the deadly price tag of illusory pride. Only God can see all ends, and we can't accomplish anything lasting without him—but with him, all things are possible.

If this understanding of strength and weakness is reflected in Iron Man the movie as it has been in the comics, that could lead to fascinating food for discussion.

The Marvel character was created in the '60s

The Marvel character was created in the '60s

Freedom fighter

Iron Man was originally created in the early 1960s amidst the dynamic idealism of John F. Kennedy's America. It was a time when the U.S. looked to defend not only her own freedom but the world's, and the Truman Doctrine of checking communism wherever it spread was in full swing. As the only openly political superhero—his first armored "suit" was created to free himself from a Vietcong prison camp—Iron Man fought for the American way across the globe.

For the new film, Marvel has updated the character and his origin, substituting Middle Eastern terrorists for North Vietnamese soldiers. But the basic story remains the same, as does Tony Stark's job as an industrialist and munitions supplier to the army.

The political mindset that says "We have the strength and power to liberate the world" is often the focus of intense political debate. In an election year, in the throes of an unpopular conflict in Iraq, these themes, as portrayed in Iron Man, might spark some good dialogue.

'Ironic' symmetry

But for me, the most fascinating aspect of the story is the character of Tony Stark himself—the man behind the iron mask. In the early 1980s, Iron Man fans learned that Stark had grown up estranged from his wealthy parents, and that his early life had been an ongoing attempt to impress his father, to solicit some degree of paternal approval from a cold and emotionally distant man.

Failing to do this, Stark chose instead the life of the playboy, walling himself up from others and encasing himself in an emotional armor of his own making—years before the prison camp experience that gave rise to Iron Man, and the literal armor he would don to fight evil.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) turned to alcohol to numb his pain

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) turned to alcohol to numb his pain

But as he risked his life against apocalyptic villainy, acute anxiety began to take hold. And soon Stark discovered that the emotional shell designed to protect instead isolated; instead of keeping pain out, it bottled up his feelings and kept them in. Iron Man was trapped in an armor that he couldn't put on and take off, and gradually, inevitably, he began to break down. Tony Stark became an alcoholic, turning over the armor before finally (and literally) hitting the gutter.

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This ironic (pun intended) symmetry of the man encased in armor who can protect others—but can't save himself—is central to the comic and the character. It shows how overcoming our limitations through our own strength can sometimes create an even more crippling weakness in result. And it speaks volumes about how we as human beings are designed to function: separated neither from God nor each other.

Iron Man director Jon Favreau has stated that Stark's addiction won't be broached in this film, but scenes from the trailer seem to indicate it'll at least hint at his love for drink. Assuming this first installment does well at the box office, there will be sequels, and those films will likely dig deeper into Stark's darker side.

Art imitating life

There's more irony here: Robert Downey Jr., the actor who plays the title role, has had his own Stark-ian journey—battling his own inner demons and addictions. Stark was once in a prison camp; Downey has also been imprisoned, serving several sentences on various drug charges. Stark had his emotional armor; Downey's emotional armor came via mind-altering substances. Though Downey was never "estranged" from his parents like Stark, his father introduced Robert Jr. to marijuana when he was just 6 years old, and his parents divorced when he was 13. Like Stark, Downey has been the playboy.

Downey wanted this role as much as any in his career

Downey wanted this role as much as any in his career

Perhaps these are all reasons Downey wanted this role more than any other in his career: "You can pick a million Joseph Campbell myths and look 'em up," he told Esquire, "but none of them apply more to me [than Iron Man/Tony Stark]."

Art imitating life? Or vice versa?

Either way, as we watch this character's story unfold on the big screen, we might ask how our own lives and choices reflect his. To what extent do we rely upon our own strength and wisdom, and not on God's? What emotional "armor" and masks do we wear? Where and how do we differentiate between protecting our privacy and being vulnerable, especially to people God can use to speak into our lives? What are the drugs—literal or metaphorical—we use to numb life's pain? And how can God help us with these things?

Whether we see Iron Man the movie or not, these are certainly the types of things we all should be asking of ourselves—and each other.

Frank Smith is a writer who lives with his wife and two children in Charlottesville, Virginia.