Storytelling Engines: Iron Man
(or “Feet of Clay”)
Someone commented, after reading last week’s entry on Daredevil, that Iron Man is another super-hero that took a long time to get right. (Yes, I do read all your comments. I love getting reader feedback, even if it is sometimes, “You didn’t read Marv Wolfman’s Daredevil run, did you?”) With all due respect, I have to disagree. Iron Man is one storytelling engine that started out great, then lost its direction…and to some extent, has never regained it.
When Iron Man started out, he was very much in the mold of Marvel’s super-heroes. They tended to take a “typical” super-hero concept of the Silver Age, then give him or her a flaw; something that humanized the character, made them a little bit more identifiable to the average reader, and perhaps made them more an object of reader sympathy and less a pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. Everyone who read Superman wanted to be Superman, but when you read the classic Iron Man stories, you were never quite sure that it was worth it to be Iron Man. Sure, Tony Stark got to wear cool futuristic armor (that he was constantly updating, streamlining, and redesigning) and be fantastically rich…but on the other hand, that same armor was the only thing that stood between him and instantaneous death. The armor literally kept his heart beating every second. Iron Man was as much a prison for Tony Stark as a super-heroic identity.
This was a good thing. It added tension to every story; when Iron Man was running out of power, it wasn’t just, “Will he defeat Villain X before his juice runs dry?”, it was “Will he defeat Villain X before his heart explodes?” It gave him a plausible reason to continue being Iron Man, even when the identity became more trouble than it was worth. It also gave him a plausible reason to conceal his Iron Man identity; he doesn’t want people finding out that he’s one ‘low battery’ warning away from dying. It was just the kind of complication that made Marvel’s heroes dynamic and intriguing in a way that DC’s heroes of the same era weren’t. Combine it with jet-setting action, anti-Communist propaganda (this was an era when a weapons manufacturer could be a hero), a solid rogue’s gallery (OK, so the Unicorn and the Melter weren’t great, but the Mandarin was a solid A-lister, and the Living Laser, the Crimson Dynamo, and the Titanium Man all made good B-list opponents), and a fun supporting cast (Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan had a great ‘Moonlighting’ dynamic going), and you have a good storytelling engine.
Then Iron Man had heart surgery. And suddenly, nobody was quite sure what to do with him. He suddenly became just another super-hero. He was a rich genius with super-powerful armor, a multi-national corporation, and any woman he wanted. Which is great, if you happen to be Tony Stark, but not so great if you happen to be trying to find interesting things to happen to Tony Stark. Suddenly, his comic became “defeat villain of the week”, and nothing more.
Which is where the other problems began. Tony became an alcoholic (interesting idea, but once you’ve done the “Demon in a Bottle” storyline, there’s only so many times you can show him aaaaalmost drinking before it gets dull.) Tony became a paraplegic (a very interesting idea, but they backed off on it…which was kind of tacky, really. Tony Stark comes up with a cure for spinal injuries, uses it on himself, and it’s never mentioned again?) Tony got brainwashed into working for Kang, killed, replaced by his own teenage self from an alternate universe, who sustained a heart injury that required him to wear the Iron Man armor permanently or die (thank you and good-night.)
Ultimately, the biggest “handicap” for Iron Man, after curing his heart injury, is his own personality; in order to make him into a distinctive and interesting character, storylines like ‘Armor Wars’, ‘Extremis’, ‘Illuminati’, ‘Civil War’, and ‘World War Hulk’ make him out to be a control-freak, a borderline madman with an almost-megalomaniacal belief that he’s smarter than everyone else, has a more cohesive vision for the future of the human race, and needs to put it into practice regardless of the human cost. Basically, in order to make him interesting, they’ve made him a borderline super-villain…and all because they needed to find something to do with the character after curing his heart injury.
Wisely, the upcoming movie has decided to scale back on the “Iron Man as power-hungry futurist” angle and reinstate the heart injury. However, it remains to be seen how Marvel will handle casual fans who see the film, pick up a copy of the comic, and find out that the hero they’re interested in has killed an ambassador, wounded another, threatened a third, and ripped a civilian jetliner in half, killing hundreds. Marvel has managed to keep Iron Man “interesting” over the years, but it might have had a serious cost in terms of the image of the character.
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