New York City is burning.
The Chitauri alien army has ravaged the city. Upturned taxis litter the smoking roads. Grand Central Station smolders under the rubble. Office buildings crumble under the barrage of alien firepower, and law enforcement scrambles in hopeless disarray. Pedestrians have all but given up.
The city’s only hope of survival lies with the few brave individuals still left fighting, one of which has taken to the skies to combat the airborne enemies. With herculean capabilities, he quickly dispatches the legion of enemies on his tail as the rest of the nation watches with bated breath.
He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Look, up in the
It’s … self-proclaimed genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist Tony Stark in a flashy suit of armor.
Superheroes have long been the tried and true beacons of justice that save the world from imminent peril. In the late 1930s, at the time of the “Golden Age” of comics, Superman swooped in to rescue the fictional city of Metropolis from corrupt governors and ruthless murderers alike. In 2012, Iron Man and his fellow Avengers saved New York City from alien attack in Marvel’s film The Avengers. And this year, Tony Stark once again leads his Avengers teammates into battle against the robot Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Despite his role as co-founder and co-leader of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” however, Iron Man is one of the most human members of his extraordinary team.
From his first appearance in Marvel’s Iron Man comics in 1968 to his current appearances in Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies, Iron Man has been one of the least traditional superheroes. Tony Stark, who dons a self-made super suit to become Iron Man, is not as supernaturally gifted as his comrades. He has no genetic enhancements or physical modifications—no super strength, super speed, or super healing. Without his suit, Tony Stark is just a regular (albeit extremely wealthy and intelligent) human
Yet thousands of people have flocked to see this not-so-super hero in action on the big screen. He currently ranks twelfth on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heroes. He is the star of Marvel’s $2 billion-grossing Iron Man and Avengers movie franchises. Yet Iron Man owes part of his creation and his appeal through the years to human rather than superhuman qualities—aspects in which modern audiences in particular can find entertainment, strength, and inspiration.
“What constitutes entertainment at a specific time may capture elusive aspects of a culture” – Edward Brunner
The resulting superhero comic book industry offered what cartoonist Jules Feiffer dubbed “fantasy with a cynically realistic base”—a fictional universe whose superhuman protagonists addressed issues that affected readers in the real world. This realistic base provides “an intersection of historical moment and entertainment” and has held true throughout the years.
No matter how many superheroes had been added to comic book lore—Batman, Wonder Woman, the Human Torch, the Spectre, Captain America, the list goes on—and no matter how many storylines or universes or alternate universes had been introduced, the identity of “The Superhero” always held a ring of truth and justice to it. In the 1940s, teams like the Justice Society of America were banding together to exterminate crime on the home front while the Allied forces were fighting the Nazis during World War II. When the Cold War broke out, comic books paralleled its development with eerie precision—Captain America faced off against his Nazi-turned-Communist arch-nemesis Red Skull in the 50s; the Fantastic Four, all of whom gained their powers in space, gave a nod to the Space Race in the 60s; Bruce Banner also crashed into the scene as the Hulk after being caught in a gamma bomb blast reminiscent of the Soviet nuclear .
And it was during this Cold War period that Iron Man joined the fight, bringing along his own unique caliber of “super” to the battlefield.
Iron Man is not unique in his representation of yet another aspect of the Cold War: the role American industry and technology. Tony Stark is, initially, a wealthy weapon and defense technology manufacturer, the brains behind Stark Enterprises. To become Iron Man, Stark eventually transitions in his duties from developing weapons and armor for others to donning his own creations to fight Cold War-esque enemies. This concept of the wartime superhero, especially one affiliated with the Cold War, is nothing novel given the slew of other superheroes conceived during that era. The concept of the Iron Man character, however, gave birth to a more relatable superhero.
At first glace, this genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist may seem like a flashier rip-off of Batman—someone who lacks natural-born superpowers but uses his financial and intellectual resources to save the day. There are some undeniable surface parallels: Bruce Wayne and Stark are both wealthy industrialists and playboys-turned-superhero. Bruce Wayne has his Batmobile, Tony Stark his Iron Man suit. Both are similar even down to their trusty sidekicks and meticulous butlers. But unlike Batman, Tony Stark did not choose to become a superhero out of a self-righteous and noble desire to save his city.
On the contrary, Tony Stark becomes Iron Man in order to save himself. While attending a field test for his military product abroad, Stark is attacked and captured by terrorists and triggers a landmine during the struggle; he is critically injured, with shrapnel lodged near his heart. Desperation and sheer determination to survive push Tony Stark to create the arc reactor chest plate that keeps his heart beating and to manufacture the armor to go with it. Self-survival, rather than self-righteousness, leads Tony Stark to become Iron Man.
Flawed and Fabulous
“I’m not playing God. All this time … I’ve been playing human.” – Tony Stark in Superior Iron Man, Volume 1, Chapter 3
Rather than detract from Iron Man’s legitimacy as a superhero, this ignoble beginning forms the basis of his appeal. He is the superhero who rescued himself before rescuing the world, and he did not require superpowers in order to do it. Tony Stark instead relies upon human intelligence and resourcefulness to build the chest plate and prototype suit under the guise of developing weaponry for his captors. He uses his personal fortune to develop the Iron Man armor, fight villains, and help found the counter-terrorism organization S.H.I.E.L.D.
So while DC Comics advertised that Batman may be “proof you don’t need superpowers to be a superhero,” Iron Man is proof that you don’t need to be a superhero in order to be “super.” a situation where many would have prayed for the Dark Knight to come to the rescue—like during a hostage situation involving international terrorists—Tony Stark instead became his own knight in shining red and gold armor, and in the process he became his better . As Stan Lee, the co-creator of Iron Man, explains about the hero’s conception: “what if a guy had a suit of armor, but it was a modern suit of armor … and what if that suit of armor made him as strong as any Super Hero?” The armor that allows Iron Man to be a superhero is just the product of very human efforts.
So, what if a human could be Super? It is this display of human potential, this aura of possibility and success, that attracts fans. As Stan Lee puts it:
[Tony Stark] was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist … I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him … And he became very popular.
Lee took a character who was so overtly flawed in his ambitions, his morals, and outlook—a wealthy industrialist that nobody would like—and created a role model for readers—a wholly self-made superhero. Outside the suit, Stark is prone to “humanness” like everybody else. He cracks frequently inappropriate jokes for his own amusement. He lives up to his playboy status and throws lavish parties filled with beautiful women, to the ire of his love interest, Pepper. He even quarrels with teammates; in fact, the premise of the third installment of the Captain America movie franchise revolves around a rift between Iron Man and Captain America.
But inside the suit, he is Iron Man.
While fans can idolize a character like Batman who improves his city, they can doubly relate with a character like Iron Man who improves himself. The story of Iron Man offers commentary on the reader’s own potential: Tony Stark suggests that perhaps everyone can each build their super suits, can achieve the previously unachievable, and can become their own iron men and women. In an essay in Iron Man and Philosophy: Facing the Stark Reality, George Dunn agrees that “the enduring appeal of Iron Man owes a great deal to how Tony Stark personifies the spectacular promise of technology to turn our dreams into reality, a promise that has stoked a fire in the bellies of countless men and women in the modern era.” What was initially a reason to dislike a brilliant industrialist is now a main selling point in Stark’s character. Technologically savvy and determined to save the world, Iron Man leads his superhero comrades into the modern era.
It is no surprise that thousands of children and adults alike have bought and continue to buy into this appeal, even after Iron Man transitioned from comic books to movies. While in the films he is no longer a Cold War-era hero, the movie rendition of Tony Stark/Iron Man is every bit as flawed and fabulous as his comic book counterpart. The first installment of the Iron Man franchise in 2008 begins with Tony Stark’s shrapnel-in-the-heart incident (this time while inspecting his weapons in Afghanistan), and develops into the familiar story of the creation of the arc reactor and super suit, of Iron Man’s battles, and of Tony Stark taking on the role of one of the world’s least “super,” but fortunately most human, superheroes.
Image Source: Flickr/Chris Doornbos