Anthony Edward Stark is a complicated character when the mood strikes. By that, I mean he’s frequently used for issues and then abandoned when the issue isn’t favorable. Stark was introduced as a rich man being humbled by the machinations of war. Being a debonair man of the 60s cut from the same cloth as James Bond and Howard Hughes, Stark is a man defined by his autonomy. Unfortunately, he has to shift from war profiteering to defining a method to save his life. I don’t feel that I need to recount his origins to a generation that has now seen the most widely observed iteration in one of the most widely scene comic movies of all time. So, we’ll look at the subtext.
The first decade of the character’s life was spent finding ways to say that he’s still a functioning man. Sometimes, the stories were a bit too spot-on and we had to have things like the need to recharge the chest plate and various tech limitations. For the era, it made sense due to tech limitations. What was neat about the textual implications was that we were seeing a man that the incoming Hippie Generation was portray as devious. But, now he’s just a man trying to redeem himself while reclaiming his manhood. Reclaim his manhood, Tony did. Whether it was throwing down with Madame Masque, Joanna Nivena and Pepper Potts; Tony didn’t a let physical handicap stop him.
Stark as alcoholic has come to define the character in a way that “The Killing Joke” has been saddled on Batgirl. While the Layton/Micheline run of the late 70s/early 80s is one of my favorite Marvel creative stretches, there’s so much about that era that people selectively choose to run into the ground. Nobody tries to bring back the roller skates in the boots or that haircut. However, everyone from Mark Millar to Jon Favreau feels the need to give Tony a crutch. Nobody can let a character be a dick just to be a dick. Matt Fraction would later try to explain some of the personality quirks following Civil War. Basically, Tony is going to do what he does because he feels it is right.
While that might not work for everyone, it’s who the guy has been since Day One. He might become far more compassionate to issues such as diplomatic affairs, foreign relations and fraternizing with mutants; Stark will only do what he feels best suits him. This guy is Ayn Rand’s shower head fantasy, but he’s riding his biggest wave of popularity in his existence…what happened? American celebrity culture happened, people. First World Civilization has taken Post WWII Celebrity Culture to such great heights that we now feature high profile individuals’ basic lives as our featured source of news and entertainment. Some of these people are entitled pieces of garbage, but they’re rich and famous.
Iron Man is Marvel’s customizable hero and he wears the armor well. Tying back into that idea of Celebrity Culture, we have to acknowledge that Iron Man is the first Marvel character to truly adapt to the times. He looks like Timothy Dalton, John Oates, Pierce Brosnan and Robert Downey Jr. when the era requires it. The armor changes to suit the mission and fit the current art style. If his supporting characters get boring or don’t want to wear the basic armor as Iron Man, they get the super death War Machine killer armor. The merchandising implications are insane and they all stretch deep into the wallets of susceptible fans.
The sheer genius behind the design and continued evolution of the character is insane. However, there is a downside to such openness with a character. You get the goofy blocky Anime influence designs of the early 90s. Then, there’s the Barbie Action Style influence armors for any environment. Why not just make the original armor capable of dealing with it? Why does the armor have to be blue? Didn’t the first movie address that red and gold was enough to counterbalance the effects of little to zero atmosphere? Invading a country, kids? Let’s throw on the Stealth Armor because it’s jet black!
The modern take on Iron Man skews one of two ways. He’s either the super celebrity rich pretty boy that everyone loves ala Robert Downey Jr in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or, he’s the comic book version that no creator really gets Post Extremis. After Extremis, he helped a Skrull Invasion of Earth accidentally. He helped run the Superhuman Registration Act into the ground. Stark then had to fry his brain to keep his secrets from falling into Norman Osborn’s possession. He had to euthanize Happy Hogan with his Extremis powers. Pepper grew cold and distant to him. Tony got a few new armors. Then, he learned that he was adopted and that his distant cousin Arno was his parents’ birth child.
There was also some cool stuff with The Mandarin, as his rings went sentient and started hunting people down like a bizarre Sinestro Corps. But, it’s like Marvel spent the last few years using the Iron Man movies as a cover for throwing anything against a wall to see what sticks. I love that from an inventive writing standpoint, but only 20% of the plot stuck to the wall. That’s better than the past few years, but we’re just searching for scraps at this point. Every Marvel character is a great concept at heart, it just takes a keen eye to find those moments where they shine.
Presently, Tony Stark is a passive aggressive snot that’s suffering from the Inversion Wave of the “Axis” crossover. He’s indirectly blackmailed San Francisco into buying into his DNA rewriting nanobot laden software. If that wasn’t enough, he’s adopted a sidekick in the form of Teen Abomination. Teen Abomination isn’t directly tied to the original villain, but he’s a 13 year old gamma irradiated bastard child of former Stark bodyguard Happy Hogan. Just take a deep breath and eagerly await the coming of “Secret Wars”.