Iron Man: Real American Hero

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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

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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

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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)

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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.

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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

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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 post-gazette.com

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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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 http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Noah_Kuttler_(New_Earth)  The picture is from Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe)

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Iron Man 3 Review

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With all due respect, Iron Man is a pretty hard character to adapt to screen. He doesn’t have a noteworthy rogues gallery and it’s difficult to create believable threats for him. Without a secret identity, there’s no worry of revealing who he is, which tends to be a heavy amount of most superhero drama. He’s also practically a one man army with unlimited arms and resources to. This makes it all the more impressive how well the Iron Man film series has turned out. I honestly believe that the series is the best comic book adaptation to date, managing to translate the franchise, which has a lot of issues, to modern film. The third film shares a good amount of the quality of previous installments, albeit with a few missteps as well.

In the film,Tony suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to the events of The Avengers ( 2012 ) His condition causes him insomnia and impaired judgement. By impaired judgement, i mean pissing off an international terrorist named the Mandarin, who declares war on Tony. Backing Mandarin is a new rival of Tony’s, a wealthy bio-engineer dabbling in human experimentation. The cast includes Ben Kingsley ( yes, Ghandhi ) as the Mandarin and Guy Pearce ( Prometheus, The King’s Speech ) as Aldrich Killian. The plot draws from several comic arcs, including Warren Ellis’ Extremis arc (the use of genetically modified super soldiers) and the Armor Wars ( Tony’s suit variations ) and the Joe Quesada’s ‘ Sentient Armor ‘ arc, which thank god didn’t factor too much into the plot since it features an armor who gets a mind of its own, falls in love with Tony,vthen becomes violent towards him.

You could call him an abusive SUITor. Get it?

You could call him an abusive SUITor. Get it?

The film acts as a reconstruction of Tony Stark as a character. Before the end of The Avengers, he was basically the world’s greatest man;not only having the wealth and brilliance of his own series, but also the love of his life and the admiration of the planet. This is a common issue in sequels; satisfying conclusions need to include character development of some kind. Therefore, the protagonist of a film should have already settled whatever problems he or she suffered from. One of the MANY reasons i found The Hangover Part 2 ( 2011 ) so stupid is that in order for the events of the film to take place, everyone would have to trust Alan enough to take him along ( despite his mistakes from the previous film ) and Alan would have to be the same reckless idiot he started as. Sure, one could say people don’t necessarily learn from every mistake, but growth of some kind is often a necessity for compelling stories. Since Iron Man ( 2008 ) is a decently written film franchise Tony Stark has loads of development, so much so that when Pepper asks what’s wrong with him in the beginning of the film, he just tells her. No lies,no drinking, he just acknowledges his PTSD. Big improvement over the guy who drunkenly beat up his best friend in the previous film in order to ‘cope’. The remaining challenge for Tony is reconciling the implications of a larger Marvel Universe. Both film and comic Tony Stark are men at the height of human potential, but they are still only human. How does someone like Tony stark cope with beings who’s abilities dwarf him soundly? He gets back to basics, which for him means tinkering and snark.

The film begins with him creating a new suit that can be summoned piece by piece onto his body via ” body computer ” ( which of course becomes a recurring Chekhov’s gun throughout the film ) which is just cool as hell. This is one of the first things i like about the film and the franchise as a whole: brand new shit every film. Yes, i know some dude at Mattel would probably make the filmmakers include new toys anyway, but for once it works perfectly for a franchise like this. Iron Man is always making new suits to do all kinds of shit, he even makes one to fight THOR of all people ( spoiler: it doesn’t work ).

Tony Stark, despite a few issues, is very much an escapist character, like James Bond. Iron Man is what every child with an erector set wishes he was making. Unfortunately, the coolness of being Iron Man and Tony’s general flippancy undercuts the ” PTSD ” he’s supposedly going through. In the film, Tony literally sees a woman get shot and a friend’s bruised body, yet still seems perfectly able to crack wise. I wouldn’t call this a huge fault of the film, however, this is Tony Stark, not Bruce Wayne we’re talking about. The character’s personality allows for his banter to be played as a coping mechanism.

In terms of pacing, nothing in the film is dragged on. There’s not too much exposition going on in the film’s beginning, which is appropriate given that this is the third film in a series. What might be a point of contention for many people is part of the reason why there’s no need to exposit: both antagonists are quite familiar.

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Aldrich Killian, Tony’s rival industrialist, is a nerd who gets rich and sexy. He’s a character originating from the Iron Man Extremis arc. As the guys at spill.com pointed out, he’s basically The Riddler from Batman Forever ( 1995 ); an awkward scientist who is rejected by the wealthy protagonist and later uses his success to beat him at his own game. Some will probably say that another evil industrialist is getting redundant, and i would agree. Mind you, this isn’t a criticism of the film, it’s more of an acknowledgment about the nature of the franchise. Who the fuck is going to fight a billionaire with powered armor unless they had the same amount of resources? Due to the level of power Tony wields, he can only really be opposed by someone like him. Guy Pearce puts in an okay performance: it’s just enough for the film, but doesn’t really distinguish itself from similar characters. I could sum up his performance as a more reserved Tony Stark. Nothing more than that. As such, he’s not so much menacing, but then it’s kind of hard to be a sexy billionaire scientist AND a personal threat, so it’s passable.

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Who isn’t like him is the film’s designated ethnic antagonist, The Mandarin. The Mandarin appeared not too long after the first issue of Iron Man’s series in 1963 and was intended to be his archnemesis, but due to the obvious racist overtones, was mostly overlooked. With he and Killian, we once again see the franchise’s habit of, without intending it i assume, having an American and a non-American antagonist. This is a carryover from the comic series, where the only threats Tony dealt with were either corrupt corporations or enemies of the state. In 1963, the boy reading an Iron Man comic would know that communist China is always fodder for villainy, and in 2013, the equivalent would be a (lets be honest) a bearded Middle Eastern dude makin’ movies. Yes the character’s racist, but without spoiling anything,the film manages to justify why so. Ben Kingsley basically plays a supervillainous version of Osama Bin Laden. I’m pretty sure a vocal coach told him that film supervillains have strange, unrealistic accents like Joker and Bane, so he sounds a lot like Richard Nixon. I find it kind of funny, to be honest, but it works in the context of the film. Since both characters are basically variations of previous ones, the film doesn’t need to build either of them. Even thought two villain comic films have become synonymous with shit, the combination of the two allows for it to avoid the pitfalls of the previous film in terms of action. In Iron Man 2 ( 2010 ), Ivan Vanko didn’t have nearly enough weapons or resources upon his first battle with Stark, so it barely manages to be compelling outside of the fact that he just jumps him. Justin Hammer wasn’t even a “supervillain”, just an envious industrial rival. It took till the end of the film before their combined threat managed to lead towards an exciting action scene. This film, on the other hand, manages to seamlessly integrate both villains into a viable threat from the moment Tony’s house is attacked. The two antagonists end up having a very logical connection that works brilliantly. This leads to the film having several exciting twists, even if some of the bigger ones might be somewhat predictable.

Final Verdict

Overall, despite some initial reservations, i believe Iron Man 3 is a sufficient end to the franchise. The film is entertaining and a great conclusion to the character development of Tony Stark. He manages to reassert his significance to the world, even outside of Iron Man, and makes a ( mostly ) logical decision about what to do with his life at the film’s climax. Hopefully the character will continue to entertain in the almost certain cameos he will have in other Marvel films.

For more thoughts on Iron Man:

Iron Man: Real American Hero