Well, it’s another of those things I’m looking to stock up in here: character crash courses! And this week, we’re talking about…what do you mean he’s already super popular, more than ever? As if I’d let that stop me!
A cool exec with a heart of steel. And, most importantly, severely crippling physical and psychological issues, and THE suit of high tech battle armour. To some of you, he’s Robert Downey Jr.. To others, he’s Iron Hitler, the asshole with the keys to the toybox.
But really: Who is Iron Man? Has he lost his mind? Can he see or is he blind? Was he turned to steel in the great magnetic field?
Now, I’m very certain we all know, but I’ve never been one to shy from a simple rundown! So, here are the highlights:
Iron Man is one of Marvel’s golden boys, their most iconic, successful, beloved characters, even before the massive success of his movie which truly launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Complex character, marketable gimmick, equal sense of drama and fun. His power levels have grown, from an ‘average’ suit with ‘average’ super strength (one any super strong bruiser could peel open given the chance), to one of the biggest powerhouses short of cosmic or magical characters (to the point almost nothing on Earth could put a dent in him).
As I mentioned earlier, the key idea is this: Tony Stark is brilliant, wealthy, and a total asshole. The most charming, intelligent, suave college jockbro you ever met. The business isn’t just his dad’s, he RUNS it himself and probably pays YOUR dad’s salary. After a run-in with terrorists and suffering a critical wound, he builds the combat armour which keeps him alive and does his best to turn his life around (he’s really sorry for laying off your dad and wants to help him open a business), battling his past demons and future foes trying to destroy him, his alter ego, or his business.
Many men would don the armour over the years (in that tried and true superhero move of identity fraud and kagemushas), but for the most part, it’s usually been about Tony Stark and his own conflicts and dramas, struggling with himself as much as with his enemies. After the initial bout of Pulp Serial Villain Of The Week stuff, success would free them enough to actually make Iron Man one of their iconic Super Soap Opera titles.
Things have changed over the years. Like any good comic book character, he’s been killed, brought back to life, traveled through time, had several digital copies of his brain made (some of which have tried to kill him), had his origin revised more than once, lost everything, got it back, lost it again, got it back again, went into space, and so forth. More specifically, things sort of got back to normal for awhile when he went back to being a businessman with tech armour, then he got benched. Punched into a coma, launched an AI copy of himself (that didn’t go rogue and try to kill him and his friends), picked a kid prodigy to be his replacement.
So that’s where he is now. But with all this change, what are the main ideas behind him? These days, we’re so busy fixating on how he plays with others that it’s easy to forget that once upon a time, Iron Man had a life outside of dealing (and messing) with the problems of other characters. Well, strap on your jet boots, folks, we’re going jets ablaze to fight and smite with repulsor rays! …Don’t look at me, I didn’t write the song.
He Has The Technology
One of the main draws of Iron Man and a major theme behind him is his tech. This may seem superficial, but let’s be frank: We’re drawn to flashy, entertaining things in comics. And that’s another reason he’s one of the most delightful characters to watch on the big screen: He’s a rakish rogue with ego and snark (but enough principles that you can root for him), and he flies around in cool, flashy armour shooting things with “Marvel Science” technology.
Sure, you could go into all sorts of in-depth analyses of the tech, what it represents, and ways to use it as more than just an action piece. Some of Iron Man’s greatest stories, in fact, dealt with his tech in that way. His tech has been an extension of himself, a crutch that he’s using to hide from his problems, an invention he wants to keep from being misused, and sometimes a literal entity that threatens his life. These sorts of synthesis of external components with internal themes is a great writing exercise, of which Iron Man gives a respectable showing.
But we shouldn’t underestimate seemingly external factors. Tech, whether from Iron Man’s armour or his enemies’, is a majorly marketable factor of him. It’s a large part of his appeal, and from a logistics, writing standpoint, it makes it very easy for writers to invent new equipment or costume changes for him, while simultaneously giving him potential weaknesses (usually when he’s separated from his armour, it suffers power failure, or someone builds something better). And unlike characters with rotary-dial hotlines, the Iron Man suit has had an easier time easing into new generations, largely because the prevailing idea is “Take our latest modern tech, then make it even better.”
And really, if we can’t just admit to ourselves that the idea of a wearable suit of robo-destruction fills us with childish glee, we really have no business reading comics for ‘fun.’
Intrigue (Business or Otherwise)
So, superficial or not, that’s tech. But there’s more to the character than the Iron, although it IS 50% of his name. Unsurprisingly now, though breaking ground back then, Tony Stark’s personal and professional life are a huge part of his stories. And one of the biggest sources of that comes from his inheritance: Stark Industries/Enterprises/Etc.
As a former arms merchant and head of THE fictional business company, Tony ends up in lots of tangled webs by virtue of his positions and connections alone. He’s gone up against illegal and legal threats against his business, and has had to deal with governments and organisations, along with all the drama and espionage that brings.
Where Batman would handwave Wayne Enterprises as “being run by better men” or “well within his control” and do nothing but use it as a blank cheque in his quest to save Gotham/punch bad guys (until some stories actually remembered it should be a major part of his life), Tony Stark actually has to bother with attending board meetings, taking care that his employees still get paid, making sure he’s not getting in bed (figuratively and literally) with shady characters, distancing his business from immoral and destructive practices, and fighting off (again, figurative and literal) hostile takeovers. Not that Tony is in a position to lecture Bruce about getting his life together.
So on the whole, Tony’s company (and by extension, his career) has always been a major part of him and his stories, treated with as much lavish care, attention, and plot hooks as if it was a femme fatale in his supporting cast roster. This is interesting because most comic book characters seldom treat their day job as anything that important. Their secret identities, sure, but not the stuff that puts bread on their tables.
But for Tony, the Stark legacy has always held great significance, both as his family’s legacy and his personal life. Sure, it’s part of his background motivation because of his hangups about his parents and how his family got rich. But rather than just saying “I’m going to do the OTHER thing to make money!” and leaving it at that, stories are dedicated to how he runs the company and keeps it afloat. This is because at the end of the day, Tony’s also a perfectionist who loves his jobs; Stark Industries is not just around as background flavour, but because he finds it a rewarding and challenging part of his life.
Now if only we could say that about OUR jobs. Guess that’s part of Marvel’s worlds of fantasy, I suppose.
The Flesh Is Weak, Get A Robo-Suit
Now, those may be the external factors, the hardware of Iron Man stories. But this is the software that ties it all together: Tony Stark’s personal weakness as a person. At a time when Marvel was working to set itself apart from their Distinguished Competition (that’s code for DC, boys and girls!), Tony was another example of their “flawed but heroic” characters, who spoke like real people (relatively speaking) and had major issues haunting him.
It’s one thing if he was just a Flash Gordon Villain-of-the-Week title, ruthlessly bulldozing one threat after another. What sets his stories apart and makes them memorable is very much the personal stake he has in them. Through it all, Tony’s struggles are framed through his personal emotions: How it’s affecting him, how it’s affecting his friends and friendships, and things like his resourcefulness, strength of will, emotional detachment, and struggles with addiction.
His level of detachment or flaws may vary, but Tony, no matter what techno-junk is in his body, has always been a human at heart struggling to keep up with larger-than-life powers and morals, the guy who sees and lives the grey areas while trying to be as bright and honourable as he can be, even when his killer business instinct screams to fight dirty and seize every advantage.
This is something modern writing has tried to implement more and more commonly (across the industry and beyond, in multiple genres and formats), so we tend to take it for granted that every hero should have personal problems and critical flaws. If anything, we’ve taken it to the point that if a character like Bilbo Baggins or Spider-Man shows up with personal problems but an otherwise well-adjusted personality, we (inaccurately) decry them as boring or too perfect.
But it’s worth remembering the role it plays in Iron Man’s stories. Both from a historical standpoint, because it was an amazing move for its time when everyone just wanted flashy superpowered combat, and from a modern standpoint, because that’s always worth remembering.
So there you have it! A crash course on Iron Man, and the major parts about his characters and stories. So what can we learn from this?
Well, aside from the benefits of highly marketable and easily edited premises, I would say it reinforces something I’ve always believed: Good characterisation matters.
Like I said, none of Tony’s stories would have mattered if not for his personal stake in them. Marvel took a military-industrialist character who could have been widely detested back then by hippy audiences (and in the age of edgy Communist memes, could be widely detested even now), and made him an engaging character with personal stories and heroic traits. And in doing so, they elevated many of his stories, from the weird and fantastic to the cutthroat and political, to say something about who Iron Man is.
At the end of the day, whatever your plot or message, it’s your characters who are going to be the vehicle AND travel companion for readers. So you’d best make sure it’s a ride they can understand, enjoy, and connect with.
You don’t have to make them junkies, divorcees, or give them an objectively reprehensible mistake in their past just to make them interesting. Don’t mistake darkness for depth, but write what suits you best.
What you SHOULD always do instead is this: Treat your characters with real emotions, real depth, real values. Give them things they will fight and die for. Let them feel things about the problems they’re facing. And don’t be afraid to get personal, whether it’s with their secret identities or their secret doubts.
Iron Man, Iron Man, does whatever an iron can. Straightens clothes, gets real hot, smashes you up the butt. Hey there! Here comes the Iron Man!