Iron Man

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Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010) have both done well at the box office. (Marvel/Paramount / The Kobal Collection.)

Iron Man

(pop culture)

Ever since his creation in early 1963 (in Tales of Suspense #39), Iron Man has been one of Marvel Comics’ heavy hitters, a consistent seller in his own title and a regular guest in other comics, including The Avengers. Iron Man’s creation is officially credited to four people: writer/editor Stan Lee, who plotted the first story; his brother Larry Lieber, who scripted it; artist Don Heck, who drew it; and the great Jack Kirby, who designed Iron Man’s original armored battlesuit.

In his alter ego of Anthony (Tony) Stark, wealthy playboy inventor, owner of Stark International, and (let’s not beat about the bush here) an international arms manufacturer, he was an unlikely figure for young readers to identify with. (Lee partly based Stark on the wealthy inventor and business mogul Howard Hughes in his younger days.) In Marvel’s early days, much was made of the company’s creation of “heroes with problems,” and Stark’s was potentially fatal: While demonstrating some new weapons in the jungles of Vietnam, he is injured by a bomb and captured by a Viet Cong warlord. With his life ebbing away, Stark is forced to work for his captors, creating new weapons, but unknown to them he secretly builds himself a high-tech suit of armor that will both keep him alive and make him a walking arsenal.

Once in the gray, clanking suit, Stark defeats the warlord and returns to the United States to assume the role of a superhero, but his tragedy is that he can never remove the chest plate that keeps him alive. (Indeed, Stark admits, “The name of Iron Man makes strong men tremble! But, what good does it do me?? I can never relax … never be without my chest plate—never lead a normal life!”) To compound his dilemma, the armor needs constant recharging and has the unfortunate tendency to run out of power at the most inconvenient moments, usually in the middle of a pitched battle. With many of his stories taking place in the vast Stark International complex, readers were soon introduced to Iron Man’s rather morose chauffeur, “Happy” Hogan, perky secretary “Pepper” Potts, and the inevitable love triangle. Hogan loved Potts but knew that he would never be good enough for her; Potts loved Stark but he was her boss; and Stark loved Potts but was held back by the prospect of his keeling over dead at any moment.

As very much the establishment superhero, it is perhaps no surprise that Iron Man was Marvel’s premier red-baiting strip for its first decade, sometimes even showing Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev plotting against Stark. Almost all Iron Man’s major villains were communists of some hue or nationality, including Titanium Man, an armor-wearing Soviet giant (later immortalized by singer Paul McCartney in a song on his Venus and Mars album). Notable exceptions were the Melter, the Black Knight (one of many Black Knights in comics), Count Nefaria, the Maggia (an all-purpose crime cartel), and his archenemy, the Mandarin. A sinister Chinese mastermind in the tradition of Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu, the Mandarin rivals Stark in scientific genius and is out to conquer the entire planet.

By the late 1960s, Potts had given up pining for Stark and had married the nearest man—who just happened to be Hogan. So Stark embarked on a series of doomed, tragic romances. The first of these, Whitney Frost, turned out to be the mysterious leader of the Maggia, but then became Madame Masque after her face was scarred. Happy Hogan was periodically called in to help Iron Man and, inevitably, managed to turn himself into a bald giant called the Freak. There’s no doubt about it: Knowing Tony Stark was dangerous business.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Iron Man was a mainstay of Marvel’s output—appearing in all sorts of consumer merchandise, featured in the Marvel Superheroes television cartoon show from 1966 to 1968, and taking a bow as the hero in William Rotsler’s novel And Call My Killer … Modok (1979). The character was one of the charter members of the Avengers and has maintained a regular presence in that superhero group ever since. Stark’s millions have come in handy, funding the plush Avengers’ mansion, for instance; and his technical wizardry has enabled him to devise all manner of means for getting the team out of trouble. That same technical brilliance also created an ever-evolving suit of armor, and his hulking gray costume was soon transformed into a sleek, shining red-and-gold number, bristling with gadgets and ordnance. For his six-year run in Tales to Astonish, Iron Man was predominantly written by his co-creator, Stan Lee, and drawn by Don Heck or Gene Colan, and when he was given his own title, in 1968, George Tuska became his artist for most of the next one hundred issues. With that sort of creative stability, fans generally knew what to expect and, if truth be told, this most middle-aged of heroes was occasionally rather dull.

That all changed in the 1980s, when the young writing team of David Michelinie and Bob Layton, along with artist John Romita Jr., decided to shake up the comic. Under the new regime, things began to go very wrong for Iron Man, as Stark International was hit by industrial espionage. A despairing Stark took to the bottle and had to draft in one of his employees (and best friend), Jim Rhodes, as a stand-in Iron Man. Were the fans ready for an alcoholic superhero? They certainly were, and for the first time in its existence, the feature actually started winning awards. However, once the creative team left for other projects, the awards dried up and the comic entered a period of almost constant change.

Rhodes regularly took over the Iron Man mantle (in response to Stark falling off the wagon) and eventually struck out on his own as War Machine, a sort of ethical world policeman, suited up in Iron Man armor. Stark’s company collapsed, and he had to start again from scratch. He was paralyzed by an assassin’s bullet (but recovered three issues later), got drunk again, died and came back to life, and got drunk once more. Throughout, readers noticed how Iron Man stories depicted the contrast between Stark’s vulnerability in his civilian identity and his invincibility as a superheroic modern knight in shining armor. One well-received interlude in Stark’s troubled times was a storyline called “Armor Wars,” which revealed that various Marvel villains had been ripping off Stark’s technology for years for their own weapons.

In the 1990s, Marvel decided to put Stark out of his misery and killed him off (Iron Man #325, 1996). However, one issue later a teenage Stark was plucked from an alternate dimension and began where the original left off (although without the alcohol). As part of its short-lived “Heroes Reborn” reboot, Marvel launched a new Iron Man series, Vol. 2 (1996–1997), set in a pocket universe, featuring an adult Tony Stark. This Iron Man returned to the mainstream Marvel universe and starred in another new Iron Man series, Vol. 3, beginning in 1998 and initially written by Kurt Busiek, who established that this was the original Tony Stark (with the memories of all previous versions). Author Warren Ellis and artist Adi Granov were the original creative team on Vol. 4, which began in 2005, and writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca launched Vol. 5 in 2008.

In early twenty-first century comics, Tony Stark has publicly revealed his identity as Iron Man, and acted as U. S. Secretary of Defense. Stark played a major role in Marvel’s Civil War (2006–2007) as the leader of the superheroes who supported the U. S. government’s Superhuman Registration Act (which has since been repealed), and briefly served as the director of the law enforcement agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Since then Stark has pledged to stop manufacturing armaments and founded a new company, Stark Resilient. The latest version of Iron Man’s armor is housed within the hollow parts of Stark’s skeleton, when not in use, and is controlled directly through his central nervous system. Hence he has become a cyborg, a man with computerized machine parts.

An alternate version of Iron Man is also one of the original members of the title team in Marvel’s The Ultimates, about the Avengers’ counterparts in an parallel universe, and stars in two Ultimate Iron Man comics miniseries (2005-2006 and 2007-2008), written by acclaimed science fiction author Orson Scott Card.

Iron Man first appeared in animation in 1966 in The Marvel Super Heroes television series, in which he was voiced by actor John Vernon. He received his own Iron Man animated series in 1994, with Robert Hays providing his voice. Iron Man appears in two animated series that debuted in 2009, Iron Man: Armored Adventures and The Super Hero Squad Show, and also in another, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, which debuted in 2010. Iron Man likewise appears in the direct-to-video animated films Ultimate Avengers (2006) and The Invincible Iron Man (2007).

Marvel Studios and Paramount released the first live action Iron Man motion picture in 2008. An enormous commercial and critical success, the film was directed by Jon Favreau and starred Robert Downey, Jr., who proved to be superb at capturing Tony Stark’s personality, brilliance, and charisma. Other cast members included Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts; Terrence Howard as James Rhodes; Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane, a villain co-created in the comics by writer Denny O’Neil; Favreau as Happy Hogan; and a cameo by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Favreau also directed the 2010 sequel, Iron Man 2, in which Downey, Paltrow, Favreau, and Jackson returned to their roles. Don Cheadle takes over the role of Rhodes, who becomes War Machine in this movie. The film also features Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow. Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell play Whiplash and Justin Hammer, respectively, both classic villains from the Iron Man comics. Robert Downey, Jr. stars as Iron Man again in the 2012 movie The Avengers, and in Iron Man 3, to be released in 2013. —DAR & PS