Iron Man: Real American Hero


While DC comics was mired in conservative ideologies, Marvel had the benefit of being born in the socially progressive 60’s, giving them an opportunity to capitalize on the counter-culture with characters like Spider-Man and The Hulk. Editor-In-Chief Stan Lee, a pretty liberal dude himself, oversaw the creation of all these characters. Given his leanings, it’s pretty odd that he’s also responsible for one of the most “ establishment ” heroes ever made: Tony Stark aka “ Iron Man ”. He himself claims that he wanted to “ take the kind of character that nobody would like…and shove him down their throats and make them like him ”. Stan must be dominant as hell in the bedroom. Iron Man was a billionaire, an industrialist, a capitalist, and a jingoist. The only thing that could have made him more anti-counter-culture was having the suit be piloted by Richard Nixon.

Futurama “A Head In The Polls” 1999


This is how that would probably look

Stan knew what would grind the gears of Marvel’s fan-base and used it as an exercise in characterization. In doing so, he created a character that reflected ( and continues to reflect ) several American ideologies.

Tales of Suspense Issue 39 1963


Iron Man first appeared in the sci-fi anthology series Tales of Suspense, issue 39 in March 1963. Just like Captain America, Tony Stark’s impetus for heroism begins during wartime; the Vietnam War, to be specific. As opposed to the film’s Tony Stark, who just sort of dicks around in a war zone and happens to get caught, the 60’s Tony Stark was intentionally behind enemy lines. I guess his balls are iron too.

Stark has no connection to the other great American inventor Daddy Yankee

Stark has no connection to the other great American inventor Daddy Yankee

He of course gets injured in an explosion and is captured by FU MANCHU!

The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)


Oops, I mean “Wong-Chu” ( I get confused in my old age ). Wong Chu is definitely not an Asian stereotype.

Not at all

Not at all

Since this was the 60’s, instead of having something as ridiculous as a perpetual fusion generator, Ho Yinsen saves Tony’s life with a transistor-powered iron vest. In case you’re wondering, transistors are semiconductors that amplify and switch electronic signals and power. They are mostly associated with radios and calculators, so Iron Man originally had the horsepower of a TI-84. He was one step away from being the Invincible Calculator.

He'd get no bitches

He’d get no bitches

Unless you’ve been in a cave ( with a box of scraps ), you probably know the rest of this story: he’s told to build a weapon, he instead builds powered armor, Yinsen dies, Stark beats everyone up, escapes and becomes a superhero.

iron man

Unlike most other incarnations, Stan Lee puts lots of emphasis on Stark’s physical condition, which is supposed to “ humanize ” him by having him always be near death and bummed about it. In addition, he actually had a secret identity; Iron Man was said to be a bodyguard of Stark’s who happens to do some heroing on the side. Given that he’s always portrayed as regularly boning women, I never understood how no one ever noticed that he had big-ass chest plate but whatever. Due to how ludicrous both plot elements are, they were removed by later authors, with Tony having long repaired his heart condition and revealed to the populace his identity.

Without his humanizing weaknesses, Tony Stark ceased to be much of a person and more of an archetype. Mind you, this isn’t bad thing. Most popular comic franchises continue to exist because of how broad their protagonists are. Broad characters allow for more flexible storytelling, since a writer doesn’t have to worry about the audience objecting to “Out of Character” moments. Superman isn’t a real person, which is why an idea as ludicrous as “ What if Superman was a soviet? ” can still produce an amazing series like Red Son ( 2003 ), since the audience associates Superman more closely with patriotic ideals than an individual personality.

Likewise, Stark became the embodiment of American capitalism.  Anything he wanted he could accomplish with enough determination, including having sex with models, making billions, and being a super hero. He is Lex Luthor gone terrifically right; the ultimate man of the mind. His powers didn’t come from a fortuitous accident, but industry. Sure, he has an impetus similar to other heroes ( the death of Yinsen, to an extent ), but it’s how he thinks his way out of his predicament that forges him into Iron Man. In the same way that the country romanticizes the self-made man, he’s the self-made super-man.

Not all of Stark’s American-ness is unambiguously heroic; he’s often used to reflect more unsavory aspects of the American military machine. In the original Stan Lee written stories, a common plot for an Iron Man tale was Stark developing some kind of super-weapon for the war effort and some guys plotting to take it away. And of course, by guys I mean god-awful 50’s era stereotypes of America’s participants in the Cold War. From the origin story, we of course have Wong Chu and his crew, a group of Vietcong so fucking dumb that they speak broken English TO EACH OTHER! A later issue featured the Russian known as “ The Red Barbarian ”, a boorish, ugly sod who gets drunk and throws hams at people. And of course, the worst of them all has to be The Mandarin.

Tales of Suspense Issue 55 1963

Because Wong-Fu was just not offensive enough

Because Wong-Fu was just not offensive enough

Good fucking God. I was honestly shocked that Marvel Studios decided to work the Mandarin into the Iron Man film series because, frankly, he’s an Chinese film ban waiting to happen. The caption of his first appearance literally says “ the most feared Oriental of all time ”. Who is the Mandarin, you ask? In his original appearance, he’s a Chinese dude with ten rings ( each with a different weapon ) who’s loosely affiliated with Red China and, of course, knows karate. Good enough karate to punch through POWERED ARMOR. It’s no surprise that the character is rarely used in any medium, despite his intended importance. In their first encounter, Iron Man barely survives, marking him as the toughest villain of the original series run. Stan Lee intended for the Mandarin to be Stark’s definitive arch-nemesis. To once again quote Bruce Willis; “ Any story where you have good guys versus bad guys can only be as smart as the intelligence of your baddest guy ”. Just like Lex Luthor helps define Superman, the Mandarin (despite his shittiness) and Iron Man’s other antagonists was meant to help define Tony Stark. Iron Man is a champion of America’s technological and military might, so his antagonists are those with comparable resources who use them irresponsibly. By irresponsibly, I mean in an “ anti-American ” manner. A conflict like this was especially relevant during the Cold War, where the threat of nuclear attack from “ The Reds ” was always thought to be looming. For the first time in a while, America was on an equal playing ground with several enemies who could mete out the same swift violence this country often reveled in.

Of course, given the lack of sophistication applied to these early comics, Stark’s culpability in the propagation of this conflict is all but ignored. One issue features him pitching a recently created disintegrator ray to the military brass. His proposed uses are an anti-tank weapon, a breach weapon, and a city destroyer.

Tales of Suspense 1963


Tony Stark actually proposed, albeit hypothetically, using a WMD again a city of civilians. Once again, the only thing that makes the creation of such a weapon a problem is that the ham-throwing Red Barbarian tries to steal it.

The usage of Tony’s technology by un-American groups has been touched upon multiple times, most recently in the Iron Man film series. In the first film, Tony inadvertently has a hand in his own capture when one of his own “ Jericho ” missiles is used against his convoy, leading to the shrapnel in his heart. As M. Night Shyamalan would say: “What a twist!”. This is one of the reasons I think the Iron Man film series is by far one of the best comic book adaptations ever; it acknowledges an aspect of the character that might make him appear unsympathetic to the audience and finds a way to explore it without betraying the character himself. Pre-Afghanistan Tony is pretty much the Tony Stark of the 60’s, unconcerned with the dangers of his technology. Because of this, he suffers an Outer Limits –style comeuppance as his indifference leads to his own injury. In reality, this is something that is a consequence the increase of military technology. Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in his 1961 farewell speech about the threat of the “military-industrial complex”: a concept referring to the monetary relations between armed forces and the military industrial base that supports them. Specifically, he warns there will most likely be a “ potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power ”. As long as there are weapons, people will be there to sell them, often for their own interests. Terrorist groups like the IRA or Al Quaeda, both antagonists to different parts of the West, obtained much of their weaponry from the very regions they act against. Western weapon manufacturers have funded their countries’ own enemies. Tony getting attacked in Afghanistan is beginning to seem more than appropriate.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Civil War #1 (2006)

photo posted on

The more unsavory aspects of Tony have been used to make him an excellent foil for THE American Avenger, Captain America. As opposed to Tony’s ambiguous nature, Cap’s heroism is unquestionable. While he also originated in wartime, Cap had the fortune of being conceived during a conflict considered black and white (some would say ‘stark’ but that’s a terrible pun). World War 2 turned the West into the heroes of the world, with Captain America as all of the country’s heroism given form. In Captain America: The First Avenger ( 2011 ), Steve Rogers isn’t interested in the politics or glory of war, he just wants to help people. He even turns down the presidency in a John Byrne written story because he felt he wouldn’t be best suited for the realities of the the political world. In Daredevil : Born Again (1986), a corrupt general asks Steve to play ball with a cover-up, citing his loyalty to the government. His response: “I’m loyal to nothing, general, except the dream“.

In contrast, Tony originates from both the Vietnam War and the Cold War, one of the most divisive periods in American history. The War against the Eastern Powers is often thought of as a conflict that arose entirely from politics. There isn’t a Hogan’s Heroes or a Blackhawks for Vietnam, instead we got depressing shit like M.A.S.H. and First Blood. The American people knew what terrible acts were committed during the war due to regular media coverage. There’s no easy moral to look back upon, no fable to obscure the ugly reality of war. Tony Stark isn’t the romantic infantryman who stormed Normandy, he’s the detached administrator who drew a bulls-eye on Hiroshima. Stark is the crushing force of the military incarnate; his violence concealed by the colors of a superhero. Due to his origins, Tony has always been more politically aligned than many other heroes. In his original series he’s clearly shown to be willing to act under the orders of the government against international challenges.


This becomes a huge plot point in the Marvel crossover event Civil Warwhere Tony Stark ends up supporting the Superhuman Registration Act, which would force anyone with powers or a mask to register with the government  (including revealing their identity) and become commissioned soldiers. With the backing of S.H.I.E.L.D. it looked like the plan would be a go if it weren’t for the resistance of Captain America. Cap feels that forcing heroes and citizens to register with the government  would be a violation of civil liberties. This of course kicks off a schism in the Marvel Universe, with both heroes being the representatives of the two sides.

Unlike similar crossovers, Civil War attempts to be more morally gray. Many reviewers agree that, while an interesting series, it fails to do that spectacularly. Tony Stark and his allies are portrayed as having a laughably high advantage over Cap’s rebels,which makes sense since the Registration Act is a government mandate, meaning they are legally in the right to kick their shit in any way that seems fit. And they take that to heart, at one point Stark even starts recruiting SUPERVILLAINS to force heroes to register ( note that in the above picture, Tony’s allies include Daredevil archenemy Bullseye and Venom). Once again, Tony ends up being an unsavory American archetype, in this case The Man. Rather than stand up for the ” freedoms ” that heroes are entitled to ( which is stupid but for the sake of the story i’ll go along with ), he sides with the government.


Tony’s militancy is logically left out of the film franchise; considering that we’ve been in the midst of an unpopular war makes a character so connected to the military a hard sell. Later iterations have followed suit by having Tony be a more blithe spirit, accomplished by emphasizing his love of drink and sexing.

Ultimatum #1 2008

ultimates3-2 (1)

Or in this case, drinking while watching himself having sex

In Ultimates (seen above), every single panel has him casually swigging liquor, while in Avengers VS X-Menhe references having sex on SATURN. I guess he could be considered falling into the American archetype of ” frat boy ” now. More heroically, he’s also portrayed as wanting to turn his technology towards more civil means. In the films, this meant using his arc reactor to provide clean energy, a very popular modern American cause. In the comics, this meant…flying cars.

Iron Man:The Iron Age #2 1998


So i guess now he can scratch off FLYING while intoxicated on his bucket list

Most authors’ modern interpretation of Stark distills the best elements of the character. Iron Man represents the wonders of technological progress. In real life, many scientists’ innovations have had varied impacts. One of the most famous is Albert Einstein, who is responsible for an entire branch of physics and also creating the H-Bomb. Einstein himself regretted being part of the Manhattan Project, once musing that ” The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking… the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker “. Technology will always be a Pandora’s Box, opening up the world to chaotic possibilities. Despite Einstein’s wishes, science will never have the orderly mechanics of a stopwatch. Progress causes problems ( particularly in terms of warfare ) but it also leads to opportunity. For Tony Stark that meant saving his own life, and for the Marvel Universe that meant gaining a hero. He might not be a paragon, but he’s a character that has been allowed to develop towards becoming the hero the country needs. Like many superheroes, he’s trying to create order from chaos, whether that means being a hero, attempting to register heroes, or even culling the advance of war. Just as America has changed in the later half of the century, our icons must change to suit a ( hopefully ) maturing country.


Or at least do cool shit like this

For more posts on superheroes:

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

The Best Spider-Man Issue Ever / Why Spider-Man Is A Classic Anti-Hero

Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Superman As Defined By Lex Luthor

The Lois Lane Effect

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

From Comic To TV: Green Arrow as Adapted in “Arrow”

Recommended Reading:

Iron Man: America’s Cold War Champion ( a much more scholarly version of my blog post 

Leon Thomas’ take on how the Cinematic Universe’s Tony Stark fits into a Post-9/11 America

(In case anyone is wondering, the Calculator is an honest-to-God Batman villain. Look for yourself  The picture is from Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe)


10 thoughts on “Iron Man: Real American Hero

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