Forty years is a long time for any comic book character to thrive, much less increase in popularity year after year, so it’s a testimony to the genius of the Iron Man character that four decades after his creation, he is a media superstar. With Marvel and Paramount Studios’ “Iron Man 2” in theaters now, CBR examines Iron Man as a cultural phenomenon and looks at why, in an age where Big Business is the bad-guy, we still root for the poster boy for the Military-Industrial Complex.
Like any character in fiction, when examining Iron Man it is best to look at where the comic book business was at the time he was created and what was going on in the real world. In the Golden Age of comic books, many of the heroes were affluent and children of privilege. Even those that weren’t independently wealthy typically had upstanding jobs as reporters or policemen establishing them as pillars of the community. With Marvel Comics’ introduction of of Spider-Man in 1962, the publisher turned what had become tired old tropes on their collective ear. Spider-Man was a kid; he was skinny, he was poor and he was unpopular. He was everything the Golden Age heroes had never been. So when Stan Lee and his brother Larry Lieber wrote “Tales of Suspense” #39 (March 1963) featuring Iron Man, it seemed almost like a step backward. What it was, in fact, was a huge leap forward.
Tony Stark was, in the fashion of the longstanding Golden Age heroes, a child of privilege. He was rich, good looking, brilliant and even a little bit arrogant. He owned a company that made their money creating weapons for the military, at the time for the war being fought in Vietnam. To put the character into a historical perspective, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Lyndon Johnson was about to ramp up the U.S.A’s involvement in Vietnam and Marvel Comics decided this would be the perfect time for a super-hero who was, effectively, everything the Military-Industrial Complex represented. What could have been, possibly even should have been, the biggest bomb in Marvel’s publishing history was instead a hit.
If you’ve seen the movie or read the comic books, you know that Tony Stark visited Vietnam (or the Middle East in the updated version), was wounded by weapons he likely created and was captured by the enemy to make weapons for them before he died. Instead, he created the ultimate weapon for himself (in the form of the Iron Man armor), beat his captors and escaped back to America. In most writers hands, the next logical step would be for Stark to reform from his ways as a munitions dealer and swear to a life of peace, giving away his vast wealth to the poor and needy. Tony Stark, on the other hand, builds a better suit of armor, makes millions in the munitions business and has a martini while driving a sports car with a leggy red-head in the passenger seat. And we love him for it.
But why did the audience of the era embrace Stark so readily? Marvel had already figured out that children were not their primary audience, even in the ’60s. They were actually selling comic books to teenagers and college students. The people reading Marvel Comics were educated and smart. Stan Lee was not telling a story just about a super-hero, he was selling James Bond in a suit of battle-armor. Tony Stark didn’t represent the Military-Industrial Complex – he was the Military-Industrial Complex. He was rich, good-looking and fought communism like a good capitalist. Iron Man was the vision of post World War II America, embodying everything that Americans wanted to be, fighting an enemy that the State Department had drilled into the collective minds of Americans was going to drop a nuclear weapon on them. Now, all of that may not have consciously gone through Stan Lee’s mind, but it’s difficult to deny that these elements coalesced into a perfect comic book storm in the Iron Man character. Whether or not it was a deliberate choice, the end result was that corporate capitalism had a super-hero in Iron Man.
But politics change and popular fiction tends to follow suit. As the years went by and the Vietnam War became more unpopular, Stark was portrayed as more understanding of the plight of Eastern nations and his genius as an inventor turned towards practical applications that would help all mankind. Aside from his constant upgrading of the Iron Man armor, Stark and his company’s focus on weapons development all but disappears. This attitude and the playboy lifestyle create an image of pure masculinity. Even the injury to his heart in his origins implies a wound to his manhood. So while the Communists and the Cold War themes began to take a back seat, Tony Stark became more and more of a man’s man: arrogant, brash, brilliant and strong of mind and body. Tony Stark conquered women like he conquered his enemies. At the end of the day, Superman isn’t America, even Captain America isn’t America; Iron Man is America and somewhere along the line that seems to have become ingrained in the psyche of the character’s writers.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the creative team of David Michelinie and Bob Layton began working on “Iron Man.” With their stories came a more updated view of Tony Stark. While Iron Man’s Cold War enemies returned time and again, a new group of villains also appeared: the corporate rivals. During Michelinie and Layton’s stint on the title, the villains were more often than not other scientists or industrialists that either sought to steal technology from Stark or to take over his company entirely. Corporate rival Justin Hammer became a prime player in the series, taking advantage of Stark’s weaknesses and going as far as to control his armor remotely and have him kill an innocent foreign national from a Soviet Bloc country on national television. Did Justin Hammer represent America as its own worst enemy? And if so, what of Iron Man’s greatest super-powered rival during this period, Doctor Doom, a noble monarch from a vaguely Slavic nation, another character in armor. All of these elements were introduced and explored just as the Reagan administration began its hard line with the Soviet Union and on the eve of Glasnost.
On the other hand, a strong female lead in the form of Bethany Cabe (Stark’s lover and head of his security team) appeared, as well as James Rhodes, Tony’s African-American best friend, pilot and eventual armored compatriot, War Machine. America, in the form of Tony Stark, was becoming multicultural and embracing feminism. But despite all of the culturally and politically relative story elements of the period, the story that would put this creative team on the map was perhaps the most telling: “Demon in a Bottle.”
This arc told the story of Tony Stark succumbing to the excesses of his playboy lifestyle. Stark had long been presented as a drinker and hard-partier, so Michelinie and Layton addressed what readers of the era may have already suspected – Tony Stark was an alcoholic. At the time of Iron Man’s inception, the general impression from the media was that everyone had a drink. You’d have a drink when you got home from work, you’d stop at a bar on the way home for a quick one and you’d drink with friends. Primetime sit-coms would commonly feature the wife fixing her husband some sort of alcoholic beverage when he walked in the door. And what would James Bond be without a vodka martini? Popular culture was obsessed with the social aspects of drinking and Tony Stark was no different. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s we, as a society, stopped referring to people as drunks and started recognizing alcoholism as a disease.
“Demon in a Bottle” portrayed Stark’s battle with his drinking in a sensitive way that pulled as few punches as you could in those days. Readers saw the painful reality of addiction as Stark suffered physically and lashed out emotionally while going through withdrawal. Today the comic book industry might have spent months telling this story, but Michelinie and Layton presented the entire battle in a single issue, fans went through what Tony Stark went through, one panel at a time, and in the end, you felt like you’d read something special. It wasn’t a story of the addiction; it was a story about taking control of one’s own life.
Fast-forward to 2005, when Warren Ellis took over writing “Iron Man” with the “Extremis” story arc. This story was a way of revamping Iron Man and modernizing his origin. It was kind of hard to believe that Tony Stark was a young playboy in 1963 and still active and youthful forty years later. So, instead of Vietnam, Tony was in Afghanistan, just as we saw in the first “Iron Man” film. The other major change to the character was that the Extremis armor – which utilized a “modified techno-organic virus” to allow Stark more complete control over his technology – updated the Iron Man armor to reflect our modern understanding of technology and computers and gave Stark an array of powers of his own. In short, “Extremis” made Tony Stark the Iron Man for the 21st century. Following “Extremis,” author Brian Michael Bendis was tasked with a series of stories that would change the face of Marvel Comics and at the center of it all was Tony Stark.
If Stan Lee and subsequent writers feel that a rich playboy industrialist was the model for America, Brian Bendis must believe that America is brilliant and ruthless, because that’s how he wrote Tony Stark. During the initial phase of what would become a series of major story arcs, Bendis established that, from the beginning of the current Marvel Universe’s history, a small group of Marvel’s characters worked behind the scenes to manipulate the outcome of events that shaped their world. The chairman of this “Illuminati” (who included Black Bolt, Reed Richards, Namor, Dr. Strange and Professor Xavier) was Tony Stark.
After Earth was caught in the middle of the Kree-Skrull war in “Avengers” #89 – 97 (June 1971 – March 1972), the Illuminati visited the Skrull homeworld to warn them not to involve Earth in their affairs again. The Skrulls attempted to detain the Illuminati and before the heroes could escape, the Skrulls manage to gather enough information from them to create Skrulls that could hide amongst humanity undetected. Later, in an attempt to save Earth from the Hulk (and vice-versa) the Illuminati tricked the gamma-irradiated Bruce Banner into being rocketed to another world. Sadly, this plan also backfires when Hulk’s spaceship eventually explodes, killing his new wife. The Hulk declares war on Earth and invades, causing massive amounts of property damage to the city of New York, fracturing the super-hero community. Add to this mix the fallout of a spuer-hero Civil War, the death of Captain America and under the guidance of Tony Stark the implementation of a Super-Human registration act and the formation of an extra-dimensional prison reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay and you have a recipe for disaster.
Throughout these events, Tony Stark drives himself and others to control the outcome, to ensure public safety at the cost of personal freedom, sacrificing friends (and friendships) over and over in an attempt to save the world from itself. Stark fails as often as he succeeds, ultimately making himself the bad guy while taking every attack on his person in relative silence. In the end, Stark is crucified in the media and maybe justifiably. Because, the world is not safer, it is not a better place; it is, in fact, a darker world. And as much as readers railed at and cursed Tony Stark throughout the whole story, they also loved him for it. If that isn’t the story of 21st century America, I don’t know what is.
The Marvel Comics of today is returning to the Heroic Age. The darkness is passing and the world is becoming a better place. There is hope. There is Iron Man. And Iron Man is America.