Heads up! Spoilers below.
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It doesn’t take a lot of digging to see that Ironwood is a man who tends to approach tasks as if he’s the only one capable of doing anything. Consider his very first appearance with a fleet at his side, which he’d clearly done without consulting anyone else.
And he held firm when he was with Ozpin, who explained why this display of force was damaging to their goal of peace. Ironwood is a self-reliant, confident (see also: arrogant) man who is certain that he has the right idea and everything under control.
He was warm and friendly when he first arrived at Ozpin’s office, but he quickly became serious when the fleet was mentioned. Although he did call Ozpin “Oz” when trying to plead his case for bringing those ships and forces, he was overall insulted that he was being questioned.
And in return, when Ozpin said they should both continue to train the best Hunters and Huntresses they can, Ironwood openly questioned Ozpin:
“But ask yourself this: Do you honestly believe your children can win a war?”
From Ironwood’s perspective, he’d taken action that the people of Vale needed to feel safe. The reaction he got seemed unappreciative and shortsighted for someone like himself, who does better with tactics as a whole than with how public morale truly works. As he said:
“When they look to the sky and see my fleet, they feel safe, and our enemies will feel our strength.”
So we can agree that Ironwood places action as the highest priority and indeed, an ideal trait in a leader. Going back to young Ironwood for a moment, I’d like to reflect on how that impacted him when combined with his tendency to take on tasks by himself.
Now it’s not been confirmed how Ironwood was so heavily injured as to require prosthetics for the majority of the right side of his body, but I venture that it was Ironwood overrating himself in his early career as a military man.
He sees his judgment as best, and he doubts those who don’t agree with him – if indeed he asks for a second opinion at all – and that’s as an adult, general, and headmaster.
Now imagine younger Ironwood with even less experience. If he had an opportunity to seize a bad situation and turn it around in what he envisioned as a display of cunning as well as strength, I am positive he would jump on it.
And when the worst happened, and he sustained such heavy injuries, what did Ironwood do? He rebuilt his body, most likely as soon as he was able to, and he continued to fight. Only now he was the man behind the front lines leading other soldiers, and Ironwood had turned a loss into a gain.
Action is always the determiner for Ironwood, and he made all that happen on his own (at least in his eyes). If this is at all true, he learned very little in the long run from the mistake that cost him half his body. He only seemed to hold more strongly that this loss was not enough to stop him, and his judgment could still be held in high regard. He was and is his own greatest ideal.
But there are distinctions that set him apart from the typical mighty lone wolf (and from the “Tin Man” of Wizard of Oz that inspired his role and character). He puts others first in his actions, he feels loyalty in his own way, and he does have a heart buried under that steely general’s facade.
First, let’s look at how he puts others first in action. Think of Penny (and try not to cry) and the guards she always had with her to keep her safe. She was more than capable of protecting herself, but he still went to that length to make sure she was never in harm’s way.
This type of protection denies her freedom to have choices and make friends, however. This is standard behavior for Ironwood believing he always knows best. Yes, she would be in danger if she was publicly known to be a robotic fighter child from Atlas. But he designed her to feel, to act like a person, and he wasn’t fully letting her be one by doing that.
Next up, get your tissues and consider his gift to Yang.
He didn’t come in person to deliver it, he just made it and sent it. This is definitely part confidence – he was certain she would accept and it would turn her life back around like it did for him – but that certainty once again eclipsed even the idea that she might not be ready or refuse.
Bearing in mind that someone who is about half prosthetics and as I said, he likely did that the moment he could, Ironwood may be less inclined to think of her not being ready (although he does have the capacity to see things from another person’s perspective, it’s not his strongest skill).
So in action, he puts the people of Vale, Penny, and Yang first – but he overlooks their feelings in the process. He doesn’t realize a fleet will instill worry, that guards will hamper freedom, or that a new arm might not be what Yang really needs right then.
But he does feel loyalty to a group, and his emotions do run deep. Yang’s robotic arm from Ironwood displays this on two counts. He learned a hard lesson in humility during volume 3 at the battle of Beacon. It’s not a far stretch to think Ironwood felt responsible for what happened, and hence why the arm was free of charge for her.
He’d lost hundreds of robotic soldiers, several ships, and at least two heavy mechs (Atlesian Paladin-290s) in the fight at Beacon. Not to mention any expenses he put into repairs to the city itself.
Ironwood had taken a serious financial hit, and he was in no position to be giving away top line prosthetics. Even after the time skip, that was a considerable chunk of change he’d lost along with most of Atlas’ reputation and trust.
But among the guilt over the fall of Beacon and so many preventable deaths, there was Yang – a student of Ozpin’s and one person he could personally reach out to and set things right for. Can’t bring back Pyrrha, Penny, Ozpin, or the Fall Maiden, but this young Huntress could have two arms again. This gesture was Ironwood expressing his remorse as much as it was a display of confidence.
And I would be remiss in my analysis of Ironwood’s emotional state if I didn’t mention the meeting with Glynda and Qrow during the fight at Beacon. When Qrow changed his weapon to the scythe and seemed to be scowling at Ironwood, James immediately tried to convince him that the attack wasn’t him.
I’ve linked the ten minute mark in this video, so you can see the full scene and have the delight of hearing the genuine concern in his voice when he calls out to Qrow (if you so choose).
Glynda, Ozpin, and Qrow are among the few people Ironwood truly considers friends, even if they don’t have the normal friendship where you’re generally nice to each other… He would be hurt to find that Qrow did not trust him.
At the threat of harm, Ironwood’s reaction was to explain and when he thought Qrow meant to attack him, he turned his pistol around to use it non-fatally (when he truly believed that Qrow had every intention of attacking him to kill or at least maim).
And if there was any doubt remaining that Ironwood does indeed care for the people he holds close, there’s this moment after Qrow teasingly calls him an idiot and says he knows this wasn’t Ironwood.
Just look at that exhausted relief that he still had their trust, and yes, a touch of injury to his vulnerable ego that he’d shown those emotions so readily. As an established man of action, he was back on his feet and giving out orders with very little prompting, but the moment was there.
On that subject, I do want to point out that he is also prone to showing his mental state through his overall appearance. Consider James Ironwood of volume 2 (left) to the James Ironwood of volume 4 (right):
In volume 4, he has stubble, his clothing is slightly less immaculate than it was, his hair is messier, and overall, this is a man with more on his mind than how he looks.
But he is still Ironwood. He is a general and headmaster and the lovable jerk we remember, even in his brief appearance. When Jacques Schnee questions him, he yields even less than he did with Ozpin by directly calling Jacques out on making his choices about himself, not about Atlas:
JS: “I’m not talking about the good of my company, I’m talking about the good of Atlas, our entire kingdom!”
JI: “That is a load of garbage, and you know it.”
The video is linked here at the start of the discussion if you want to hear Jacques Schnee being put in his place. I know I never tire of it.
But he shows a softness and compassion to Weiss from the moment she entered their meeting room, and he told her she always had a place at Atlas Academy, and that they would be in session before she knew it.
He still walks that line of firm and sure of himself, but he’s more sincere in his kindness than he was in the past. He’s able to express that sentiment to her directly and immediately after having exchanged harsh words with her father.
That slight but large shift in him after the fall of Beacon is an interesting piece in his development, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that affects his actions going forward.