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Oh, and it prolly goes without saying, but...
SPOILERS FOR IRON MAN 3
In answer to your more specific call for comments: There isn’t a straight answer from the research and theories out there on disability that I’ve encountered in my research yet- but I’m only a Ph.D. student, and I know I’ve only dappled into the literature thus far. Everybody cites everybody else, though, so I’m guessing I can basically make a semi-informed assertion and it’s alright... Anyhoo, so there’s a large debate within the disability studies community/literature, as well as in the community of disability advocacy organizations, about how much we should recognize/acknowledge disability, and what constitutes personhood. On the far side, the “critical disability theory” camp proclaims that disability needs to be considered no more of a big deal than a person’s hair or eye color. Groups like Disability is Natural exemplify this, from their promotion of PFL (person first language- nuances of verbage and sentence formation wherein connecting words like “has” and “with” are used, rather than the all-encompassing forms, such as “with autism” or “has a disability” as opposed to “autistic” or “is disabled”) to their rather vociferous claims for disability being basically ignored because it’s nothing more than a social construct. Members of this camp, whether academic or advocate, are proponents of society complying to anomaly, sometimes to the point where even violent behavior as a result of a specific condition isn’t even frowned upon or prevented, for eample (or, rather, they claim it shouldn’t be, in the very normative , society needs to do X, kind of way). Then there’s the camp focused on a civil rights perspective- these academics and advocates see the disabled as a protected class that needs legal assistance in order to achieve full citizenship. The National Disabilities Rights Network is a perfect example, as they focus on court actions and legislatures; and while they, too, promote PFL, their approach is more from a perspective that disability needs to be recognized but not be-all-end-all, and, further, the government needs to make up for the institutional oppression persons with disabilities have experienced since forever. Finally, on the other end of the spectrum of the critical disability scholars, we have the camp that treats disability like a disease. These scholars and advocates promote knowledge about the causes and treatments of disability- academics focus on what constitutes disability and what genetic or environmental factors lead to it, while advocacy groups, such as the National Autism Association usually promote funding for research for causes and cures, as well as “awareness” campaigns to “alert” people of disability. Both academics and advocates alike in this camp tend to emphasize the role of the non-disabled in the lives of those around them or for which they're responsible (that have disabilities).
Group one criticizes two for its definitions of citizenship in the first place- legalistic definitions of “citizenship,” so the story goes, come from an ableist dialectic that claims disabled persons must be made or thought of exactly like non-disabled persons in order to be “citizens” in the first place. Both one and two criticize three for a dehumanizing and paternalistic perspective and treatment of disability and persons with disabilities- disability needs to be incorporated, not quarantined, they say, and eradicating it removes integral parts of the personhood of these people; also, they criticize three for removing autonomy from persons with disabilities. Group two criticizes one for being unrealistic and ignoring the fact that the “oughts” of society are often in direct contrasts with the “is,” and demanding immediate change would be too traumatic and basically impossible to achieve. Group three criticizes both for not taking disability seriously enough, framing the issue as if one and two are heartless for desiring the disabled and their loved ones continue suffering.
My reading of the movie, then, is that it’s treating disability like group three. As I said on the notes for the podcast about the movie (here's a link to that), the serum is symbolic of the inherent desire within society to eradicate disability. Because while sure, groups one and two exist, they’re fighting against a much larger hegemonic structure that devalues disability/anomaly to the point where it’s feared. Like you said, though, the serum is more like a drug than a cure within the world of the movie, but taken in the broader cultural context that created the movie, it represents the desperate search for an end to disability through some outside or humanly manufactured force, rather than a societal shift that doesn’t construct disability as problematic in the first place. So it may not be called a "cure" directly, but that's what it's supposed to be- both in the movie and as a symbol for the culture in which the movie exists.
I think groups one and two would see the “utopia” of the movie as one of ableism. The “true being” is one without disability- Tony and Pepper are, essentially, “cured” of their disabilities, and as they’re part of the group of protagonists, this is a Good thing. Ableism is more than just using “retarded” pejoratively- it’s a discourse in the muti-faceted sense of the word, one that establishes modes of behavior and moral hierarchical structures in society. It devalues disability and places lack of disability as morally superior. So a “true” person in the utopia of the movie is one without a disability, like Tony and Pepper in the end. Group three would be fine with this utopia, as it’s the one they strive for, while one and two would be displeased with this.
But a point of compromise comes from Wrather’s comment on the podcast, too. He asked about surgeons reattaching limbs on the battle field, and why that should be morally okay, but retroactively regrowing limbs wouldn't. I actually think the surgery Tony has and the removal of the serum from Pepper represent this. In the middle of battle, the soldier’s life is in danger, after all, and while okay, you can live without your limb, preserving the person as close to what they were before being injured is the goal. And the shrapnel and serum were exogenous factors, themselves not natural to the internal development process, that then become not just inconvenient- they become life threatening. Pepper could have blown up; Tony’s heart would have been torn to shreds. There’s a fourth camp (uh oh!) that really focuses on the intersections of queer and gender theory with disability theory, and they go beyond saying disability is just a social construction (as group one does) and more than just a civil matter (group two); disability is more intrinsic to processes of becoming and identity formation, rather than societal or legal structure, per se. They assert that anomaly plays a role, whether present in the body or mind of the individual or not. They assert this as a direct result of ableism, and pound in the normative character of how disability is thus constructed (even deconstructing the word “disability” a lot, for example). But they’re also highly pragmatic- they recognize the social, political, and environmental factors contributing to processes of becoming, of assigning and internalizing stigma, etc., and they focus on individual well-being, rather than group consciousness. So this group would say, basically, take the approach that has the best outcome for the individual immediately affected. Since the shrapnel would friggn’ kill Tony, get rid of it. And that’s okay! And this group would ask questions like, “What societal structures led those veterans to be so desperate to get rid of their disabilities, they’d risk their lives and moral/ethical compasses in order to do so?” And the answer is the hegemonic discourse (DRINK!) and paradigms created and enabled (hah!) by ableism.
As for the Cartesian self, groups one through three all fall implicitly into that paradigm (even when the disability is of the mind, for they view that as a brain malfunction, i.e. something physically wrong with the brain leading to the more corporeal abnormalities). That may sound wonky, but it’s a lot easier to do than one would think, and I actually believe it’s something we do in everyday discourse, whether about disability or not, and even if not on purpose. Group four explicitly rejects this, though, as their emphasis is on how the lived body interacts with other bodies as well as the environments in which it exists, and that bodily experience directly influences the metaphysical. I haven’t seen it in any literature from group four thus far, but I think a nuance they’d probably be down with is saying “theirself” as opposed to “their self” to emphasize the inseparability of physical experience from corporeal epxerience.
Lastly, I must respectfully disagree with the assertion that this movie isn’t about disability. So many of the messages in pop culture aren’t explicit, but rather heavily implied- so while nobody ever says “disability” or “cure” in this movie… well, it’s kind of hard not to see the corollaries. Further, the conflation of physical and corporeal disability as “the same thing” in this movie is exactly parallel to much of the ableist paradigm in the real world- actually, this conflation is quite essential to it. Ableism depends on that binary of with- and with-out disability, and it lumps anything that’s a “with” together. This is evidenced in lots of ways, for example in how legislation such as ADA addresses emotional, mental, mobile, visual, developmental, hearing, etc. impairments all the same. So the fact that the movie is reflecting the real world’s problematic distortion of the wide, porous range of disability doesn’t make it not about disability- if anything, I’d say that makes it more profoundly so, as it’s not even attempting to problematize how disability is perceived and presented, but instead regurgitating it flatly. The audience is expected to buy into these assertions that PTSD is the same as illness is the same as losing a hand is the same as addiction because that’s the operative discourse in the real world. I’m glad you could see how problematic that is, but seeing it as problematic in the movie doesn’t make the movie not about disability.
So here are my additions:
I want to talk about Aldrich and the vets a bit more, because they represent two pervasive, negative stereotypes of disability that are often shoved at the public through film, literature, and media coverage. First, as I spoke of on the podcast’s comments, is the “supercrip.” This is the person with a disability that “overcomes” their disability. They usually end up being practically superhuman or something- think Lance Armstrong or Christopher Reeve- by doing what even non-disabled people wouldn’t try to do. This stereotype sets up persons with disabilities negatively in two ways: 1) It sets incredibly high standards (the running, somewhat snarky remark among disability scholars is that people in wheelchairs may as well learn to pop wheelies when they see curbs without accessibility lips), and 2) implies any person with a disability that doesn't achieve such greatness is somehow inferior to the supercrip. It contains a moral superiority/high-horse-type message within it.
Well, Aldrich definitely comes across as a supercrip when he breathes fire, and we see the veterans demonstrating superhuman strength and their regenerative capabilities willy nilly. And the guy Tony watches from the stock footage while in the van, the vet that says something about not letting the disability be the end of him or whatever, that exemplifies the rhetoric of the supercrip mythos (and yeah, I admit I don’t remember precisely what the dude says, but I remember thinking it sounded just like something a generic supercrip would spout). While "supercrip" isn't used, "supersoldier" certainly is myriad times in the movie. I realize I was probably hypersensitive to it, but I felt like I was being beaten of the head with a hammer of subtletly about this supercrip/soldier metaphor.
What I’d like to add, here, is that the supercrips (except, of course, Tony and Pepper) in this movie are all presented as bad- which can be a good thing, sure, because that could tell us the myth of the supercrip is false; but it also leads to stereotype two, which is the disabled person as sinister, evil and criminal. Movies and media present serial killers and stalkers as “crazy,” and consistently emphasizing their “craziness” as the reason for the crimes committed. Discussions about shootings, murders, and even acts of terrorism become “regular” people being worried about mental stability and sanity backgrounds, rather than the socio- and geo-political structures contributing to whatever actions being covered. Persons with disabilities aren’t usually shown as regular characters in fiction, but when they do, and if it’s not a plot-point that they have a wheelchair or Downs or something, they’re usually someone with a mental disorder that attacks someone or does something traditional frameworks of morality would consider wrong. Disability isn’t just otherized neutrally, then, but rather otherized in a way that’s exacerbated by fear. Other is deadly and will murder you and not care about it. All the baddies in this movie (except the VP) are examples of this stereotype, because the negative effects of Extremis lead to them going “crazy” and being totally okay with killing people. Like you said, Stokes, their moral compasses are compromised when on Extremis, and whether we’re viewing them as inhuman because they’re addicts (which yes, society absolutely constructs addicts as less-than-human), or if we’re just keeping the fact that they had limbs blown off in the back of our minds, either way, they’re disabled and doing Bad Things.
Another thing I'd like to emphasize is the VP. It's brushed upon a bit by Stokes, but I think our expected reaction to his daughter's leg is highly important. The shot of that little girl are a Big Reveal- her leg is focused on for a few seconds, and danger music starts as the camera zooms in on the space that we'd expect to be occupied by a lower shin, ankle, and foot. We're supposed to feel shock, having not expected this (as we've been given no reason whatsoever to think there was an inside man at all up until that very moment) (which is actually kind of crappy writing, just saying). But we're also supposed to at least sympathize, if not empathize, with the VP and why he'd want to help someone with a serum that could regrow her leg. And in order to do that, we're supposed to believe disability is a bad thing- if it weren't, why would we be remotely understanding of a Vice President that's willing to betray his President and Country?
The image of the little girl is doubly-exploitative. It's a kid, and it's a kid in a wheelchair. Heartstrings: SNAPPED. Actually, the more I think about it, the more that whole subplot pisses me off. They could have done away with it and the abduction of the President would have worked just fine. Hell, it actually could have been kind of cool if they had been able to figure out it wasn't Rhodes in the suit, but at the last second or something, or if someone on Air Force One that figured it out/ had been told and was trying to warn others had been killed. Instead, two cheap, exploitative tropes were used to justify a minuscule plot-point. Ugh.
WARNING: PRETENTIOUS DOUCHEBAGGERY ABOUT TO OCCUR
As a scholar of disability theory (see? I usually don't pull that shit, but this is my dissertation, for Pete's sake...), if I was to sum up my feelings about the movie's portrayal of disability succinctly (hah, me succinct, that's pretty hilarious, right?), I'd say that it's operating from the overarching abelist paradigms already in place in modern society- at least modern Western, 'Murican paradigms and discourses. It takes myriad assumptions for granted because that's how ableism itself operates, and its non-questioning of those assumptions implies reinforcement, not challenge, to them. Extremis symbolizes the drive to eradicate disability off of which ableism garners tacit- if not explicit- support. The veterans are nearly caricaturized versions of the myth of the supercrip and the murderous disabled person. But ultimately, the movie takes a stand that could help persons with or without disabilities live in this world with one another.
I'd like to push things a little and say that maybe, since we see how the "cure" isn't really a cure, but rather becomes another addictive/harmful substance, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, the writers are trying to say we shouldn't strive for a cure for disability, and that maybe we should live with conditions once they reach the point where they're irreversible. I think this sort of falls apart with Tony (since he has found a way to live with the shrapnel), though. Still, I'd like to think there's at least a little merit to this, as I did like the movie so much.
On that note, I really, really enjoyed the movie. More than the second in the franchise; it has been so long since I've seen the first, I cant't quite say if that's still my favorite now. My love of critiquing things I love is something I've done for ages, even when I didn't realize that was what I was doing. Christ, when I was a little kid, I'd go from asking my mom why Ariel was such a bad girl (deliberately disobeying and getting into a shouting match with her dad? TOTALLY naughty!) to singing "Part of Your World" in the bathtub, acting out this scene entirely (and making a mess in the process). Skills and capabilities have grown, but the basic idea has remained the same.
I think that's probably why I fall into the fourth camp. I have my ideals and aspirations, but I realize there are a lot of real barriers to them. So I can enjoy Iron Man 3 but still recognize it has some serious flaws or problematics embedded within its scenes, characterizations, dialogue, visuals... etc.