10/13/2014 07:56 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2014

Even Superheroes Shouldn't Fly Drunk

Recovery Lessons From Iron Man

In a world full of threats, both jihadist and viral, economic and climatic, finally there is some good news. There still could be an "Iron Man 4." God knows we could use the help, even if it's just for the escape.

Of all the superheroes out there, Iron Man has taken on the worst of the bad guys. But only the most dedicated "Iron Man" aficionados, the ones who shelled out their hard-earned allowance on colorful stories splashed across newsprint pages, know that Tony Stark had to defeat his own personal arch villain in order to continue taking down the likes of the Mandarin and Titanium Man:

He had to defeat the bottle.

It's so easy to look up to superheroes and think, "Wow, if only I could be like that. All of my problems would just disappear--I could handle anything." And to be sure, being able to fly would solve an awful lot of everyday problems. Personally, I agree with my children who claim that an invisible version of the "Green Lantern Superman Hulk" would make me the ultimate superhero.

But, as any passing fan knows, being a hero always comes with its own set of problems. Superman can't get romantically involved, which stinks because as one of only four survivors of his planet, he must be lonely. The Hulk loses his temper and spends his life searching for an antidote while on the lam from Special Ops. The Green Lantern must learn to feel and overcome fear in order to defeat it.

First appearing in May 1968 as Stan Lee's "quintessential capitalist," Iron Man has been through a lot--almost as much as Tony Stark. He's defeated innumerable villains in his decades-long run in the print pages of comics, and even more in his recent displays on the big screen, expertly interpreted by Robert Downey Jr., who is in talks for a third sequel in the "Iron Man" series. Of course, Downey shares more than one might think with his silver screen alter ego.

Fans of the "Iron Man" films probably remember a notable scene from the second movie where Tony Stark gets sloppy drunk at his own birthday party. That scene was director Jon Favreau's adaptation of a famous "Iron Man" storyline--Demon in a Bottle, published in 1979. This nine-issue story arc displayed two of Tony Stark's crutches for dealing with his problems--the Iron Man suit and alcohol. The arc opens with Tony downing his fourth martini on a trans-Atlantic flight, then immediately being called into action as Iron Man. His suit briefly malfunctions, which he blames on slowed reaction time due to drinking. Although the snafu proves to be the work of arch villain Justin Hammer, Tony already knows his drinking affects his job performance.

Even superheroes shouldn't fly drunk.

Writers Bob Layton and David Michelinie treat Hammer and the bottle with equal weight as the "dragons" Tony must slay. As Hammer's attacks on the integrity of the Iron Man suit increase in both effectiveness and gravity, Tony falls further into his bottle, ever-present in the brightly colored panels. He even tries to get sauced when Hammer captures him.

But the ultimate defeat of the bad guy, which also comes with the revelation that it was Hammer who caused the Iron Man suit to kill, does nothing to free Tony Stark of the true villain. Tony continues binge drinking to forget his problems, focusing the blame on his Iron Man alter ego.

Alcoholism doesn't need ready-made excuses upon which to attribute the need to drink. They can be created out of thin air. After all, wouldn't you feel better about drinking if you were a victim of circumstance?

Later in the story, when Tony realizes that a loyal staff member resigned because of his drunken behavior, not due to the suit or Hammer or any other excuse, our hero has what we call a moment of clarity. Tony Stark realizes that his problems belong to Tony Stark. And since Tony Stark is the one with the problems, he makes the not-so-brilliant leap to leave behind the world, and normalcy, to become Iron Man entirely.

It turns out about as well as you might expect the decision to cure alcoholism geographically (by changing locations). In his haste and ever-present slightly inebriated state, he causes a tanker filled with chlorine gas to rupture. He heads home, feeling defeated ... and ready for another drink.
Tony's intervention comes at the hands of Bethany Cabe, his current love interest, who lost her first husband to a bad mixture of drugs and driving. He accepts her offer to help him quit and get through the withdrawal process.

We see him angry, we see him sad, we see him try to bargain, we see him badly tempted, and we ultimately see him succeed. Bethany stays with him through the entire process, showing how important social support is to recovery. The arc ends with Tony optimistic about his future--he has goals and plans, something we know can greatly help people stay sober and focused.

Even the best laid plans, however, can go awry. Everyone has bumps in the road, and Tony hits his hard. Emotionally manipulated by someone he thought was a friend, he feels he has no other way to deal with his problems than by turning once again to alcohol. Relapse is a common, though not required, step in the recovery process, and Tony shows us one worst-case, extreme scenario--he loses everything, including his Iron Man alter ego.

Writers must wrap up story lines, and reality is harder to resolve than fiction. Addiction isn't nine neat issues that end with the hero riding into the sunset in a fast car with a beautiful redhead at his side. Addiction is the story of a lifetime, with its own rising and falling action. But millions of Tony Starks around the world are living proof that heroes can show up in the most unlikely places, successfully living healthy, full, and rich lives.

Dr. Jason Powers, M.D., is certified by the American Board of Addiction and holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Chief medical officer at Right Step and Promises Austin, Dr. Powers has been recognized four times as a top addiction by H Texas Magazine. Dr. Powers is also the author of "When the Servant Becomes the Master."