ADHD in Fiction Case Study: Tony Stark

May 16th, 2016

The characters in works of fiction don’t just leap onto the page from a void. Every artist who creates memorable characters draws from their life experiences. Traits, mannerisms, and expressions the creator has seen, come to life in the creation.

There’s no such person as Tony Stark and there’s no such thing as the Iron Man suit, in real life. If there were, though, I’d bet you dollars to donuts he could be diagnosed with ADHD. Not that he'd be likely to seek out professional help.

I watched all three Iron Man films, as well as The Avengers, over the weekend, in preparation for seeing Captain America: Civil War today. The following are my observations of behaviours consistent with my experience of ADHD, present in Tony Stark. Some of them are “official” signs and symptoms, and others are known as “soft signs” or patterns those in the mental health professions have identified, but can't quantify scientifically.

One of the most noticeable things to me about the Iron Man films is the chaotic nature of the dialogue. Most movies have actors speaking in a very clean way, almost never interrupting each other or talking over one another. This is very unlike real life where people continually collide verbally. Not so in films starring Iron Man. Tony habitually talks over other characters, interrupting and cutting them off.

No doubts about Tony’s reputation for thrill-seeking and risk taking. He drives powerful cars very fast, his suits are the ultimate expression of man’s desire for flight, and in the first movie he demonstrates a missile presumably in a war-zone.

In his early life there are multiple examples of his promiscuity. Monogamy is a challenge for him after a lifestyle of constantly new and exciting partners.

His memory is very good, until it comes to boring things, like his assistant’s birthday or her allergy to strawberries.

Several on-screen events and implications lead me to believe Tony has never once been on time for anything. It’s a good thing his wealth allows him the freedom never to have to miss a flight.

On the other hand if someone else is late or even a fraction of a second behind him, they are suddenly very irritating. He does not wait for anything he doesn’t have to. Which is linked to impulsivity, shown in his disregard for diagnostics of equipment, safety checks, and his extremely impulsive statement at the end of the first movie: “I am Iron Man.”

However Tony Stark is undeniably charming, charismatic, and a natural leader. Despite all the aforementioned traits, women flock to him, and his friends remain loyal. Pepper Potts seems to be the only person able to bring Tony to heel.

When working in his shop, the world disappears. He becomes oblivious to everyone and everything, lost in the science and mechanics that are his true passion. In the world of ADHD we call that “hyper-focus”. It’s probably physically painful when someone interrupts this intense focus.

Though oblivious to a lot of things, when an issue of injustice becomes apparent to him, Tony reacts strongly toward correcting it. He takes risks and defies traditions in order to set right what was wrong.

Tony is shown drinking heavily in several scenes and in the comic books he develops a severe drinking problem. It may even be argued that he is also addicted to adrenaline.

Underneath his devil-may-care attitude, he is a very emotional person. His feelings are real, and deep, even if he lacks the capacity to express himself or show that he cares through action.

“I don’t like being handed things” is a phrase he repeats often and is likely a mechanism to avoid responsibility that will overwhelm him and that he believes he will eventually fail to live up to.

Any location Tony Stark has been working is invariably a chaotic and messy place. It’s likely he knows where every piece of equipment is at any given time, but to any other brain the space looks overcrowded and unlivable.

Despite the chaos he creates, all environments must be completely within his control. The comforts of his wealthy lifestyle must be immediately to hand at all times. Even to the point of bringing a fully-automatic drinks cabinet to the Middle East.

To many, his high profile public image may speak to an unhealthy need for attention. From an ADHD perspective, all that notoriety struggles to fill a deep-seated need for validation, one that may never be truly filled.

A classic ADHD trait Tony often exhibits is distractibility. The smallest thing can catch and hold his attention away from more “important” matters. However, importance takes a backseat to interest every time, for the ADHD brain.

When something does catch his interest though, his attention is hooked, as mentioned before. He is prolific in his area of interest, working 72 hours without sleep. It's also worth noting that Tony carves out his own operating systems to suit himself. ADHD rarely finds a ready-made system that works for them; we tend to make our own.

When a problem presents itself, Tony is a creative, outside-the-box thinker. You need to be if you intend to save 13 people falling from a plane when you can only carry 4. He was even compared to Da Vinci who some have speculated probably had ADHD himself. “Following’s not really my style.”

Although it may not seem like it, I believe Tony has a strong sense of empathy for the emotions and pain of others. He puts up a sarcastic mask for most of the world, thereby protecting himself from the inevitable pain of emotional connection.

He is a Maverick in the truest sense of the term. He finds delight in defying authority and fun in recklessness. He lives by his own rules. “I have a plan: attack.”

His mouth and mind work twice as fast as most of those around him. He's smart, but also a smart-mouth and undoubtedly the class clown as a child. “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”

He can be very observant, spotting a helicarrier crew member playing a computer game on the bridge of over two dozen people.

Even Pepper Potts is a sign of Tony’s ADHD. Starting out as the assistant who handled all the day-to-day duties too boring for the man himself to attend to, she then became the organized partner who assists the ADHD individual to thrive, unburdened by the tasks their brain can't handle.

Tony remarked once that he has a “laundry list of character defects” and so might these appear to the untrained eye. However, looking through a lens of ADHD, it all becomes clear to me. I empathize with almost every one of these so-called “defects”. Knowledge is the key to eliminating stigma.