Jonathan McCalmont’s always provocative SF Diplomat blog has published an interesting piece on Iron Man.

His reading of early Iron Man as a straightforward, modernist, anti-communist hero is perfectly defensible, but I’ve felt there was always something more to Iron Man/Tony Stark’s character that, typical of the work of Stan Lee, has meant that there was scope for the character to grow and adapt.

McCalmont says: Iron Man stood partly for the might and freedom of the American capitalist but also for the idea that, through science, man can not only improve and better himself but also solve the problems of the world. Iron Man stood for progress and man’s scientific dominion over nature and his power to remake the world in accordance with his own desires.

But thinking about what actually happens to Tony Stark doesn’t necessarily only support that straightforward reading. Here we have a war-mongering, arms-dealing millionaire (and a feckless playboy to boot) who is taught a lesson about humility and how to be a hero only after he has his heart ripped to shreds and he is forced to rely on very unreliable (it was always failing at crucial moments) technology. Yes, as Iron Man, Stark can do amazing things but perhaps the most memorable image of Stark in this era is of him slumped in a chair with his breastplate plugged in just to keep him alive while he moans about how all his money, fame and technology can’t buy him happiness. This image becomes by far the most frequently repeated motif after Tales of Suspense 47, when Lee takes over the full writing chores on the Iron Man stories that he had previously only “plotted” which had then been scripted by Robert Bernstein) But even in the origin issue Lee describes Stark as: “This man who seems so fortunate, who’s envied by millions… Is soon destined to become the most tragic figure on Earth.”

Above: Iron Man strikes an iconic pose of misery, courtesy of Don Heck, Tales of Suspense 56.

Now that never quite happens. But certainly when Lee takes over all the writing duties from Robert Bernstein we get a somewhat more complex and troubled Stark emotional soap opera.

Stark is a gazillionaire. And yes he’s an “adventurer”. But he’s certainly never simply the embodiment of the American dream nor the self-made hero in the Ayn Rand mode that McCalmont finds creepy. He’s a rich business man, but he was born to it. He inherited the business from his father and part of the point about his origin is that he behaves recklessly and he pays the price. He does not turn to technology to become master of the world, he is made dependent on it and it becomes his Achilles’ heel as much as the source of his power throughout the early Lee Tales.

What is interesting is how, from very shortly after his creation, Iron Man can be seen as something of a barometer of attitudes to wealth and power. Within a few years of his origin story the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War saw Stark leave the weapons business and the cruder elements of anti-communism behind, distancing himself from “the man”. By the 70s he’s in conflict with Nick Fury, SHIELD and the American government for withdrawing from the arms industry. In the 80s his dependence on technology becomes mirrored in a dependency on alcohol, his life of excess catching up with him in a way it never would with other quintessentially 60’s heroes like Bond. The 80s also saw the Armour Wars – which took on corruption, corporate espionage, weapons’ proliferation and the responsibility of a designer for the deeds committed using their creations – and saw Stark alienate almost everyone by taking the law into his own hands.

Most recently in the Civil War (I’m skipping the 90s because the decade was a bad one for Marvel and a particularly bad one for Iron Man) he has become embedded in the military industrial complex. Not just a jackbooted supporter of registration but even briefly Secretary of Defence, a member of the government. Currently Stark is (still, I think) Head of SHIELD – Marvel’s super-powered CIA equivalent. In an era of the constant “war on terrorism” and the limiting of rights Stark/Iron Man are a perfect symbol for the unity of government and industry, technology and control.

The soap opera of superhero comics doesn’t always lend itself to coherent character analysis. But Stark has always been interesting in the Marvel Universe because he doesn’t fit with the blue-collar template of heroes like Spider-man, Daredevil, Ben Grimm that mark Stan Lee’s most memorable creations, nor does he fit with the “science heroes” like Reed Richards or Hank Pym or Bruce Banner that Lee also had a hand in creating at around the same time.

Apart from Reed Richards, Stark is I think Marvel’s only really high-profile, independently wealthy hero. Stan Lee has written that he was aware, when launching the Marvel revolution in the 60s, of putting distance between his characters and those from DC – who were almost all godlike (Superman, Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman) or billionaires (Batman, Golden Arrow) and who never had to worry about “real life”. So, if Lee was aware of that difference, then I think we can fairly ask ourselves what he was up to when he created his billionaire adventurer hero. Interestingly Lee says he took Howard Hughes as his template – even in 1963 Hughes was hardly a straightforward figure (although his wackier years as a recluse and later revelations about his wilder adventures were still a little way in the future) who, after inheriting his father’s oil fortune, started as a film producer, had (probably) killed a man while drink driving incident in the 30s, moved into aircraft manufacture and recently been ousted from TWA. Hughes might be taken as an exemplar of many things, but a straightforward example of the superiority of American capitalism is hardly one of them. After all, Hughes’s most famous business exploits (the Spruce Goose, his takeover of RKO and later his attempt to buy every hotel in Texas were all failures). At the same time Hughes role in the McCarthy era and his well-known anti-Semitism would have been common knowledge in 1963 and Lee’s subsequent career, his willingness to use comics to tackle social concerns and the defiance the Comic’s Code in the early 70s suggests that he was a writer who could see the subversive side of a businessman like that.

If that’s what Lee had in mind when creating Stark, then I think we can read the character as possessing the potential to be more complicated than McCalmont allows – and certainly there’s no reason why such a character can’t be reconditioned for the modern era.

Indeed, it’s possible to see him as a perfect superhero to feature in a film in an era when the military and technology and government are more tightly intertwined than ever before. It’s possible to imagine an Iron Man film that isn’t just a slam-bam action movie but one that’s capable of saying something interesting about what it means to profit from the making of weapons in the modern world. It’s possible to imagine a story that isn’t just about glamour and James Bond gadgets, but about a spoilt rich man learning lessons about responsibility and duty – lessons that I think are inherent in the character and have been from the start.

Is that what we’re likely to get from Favreau’s Hollywood Iron Man?

Probably not, although the presence of Robert Downey Jnr – in my view one of the best actors of his generation who wasted years of his talent on drugs and drink and the rest – at least suggests some part of Favreau is aware of the potential of Tony Stark to be a two-sided coin. [It wasn’t – later ed.]

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