In the last couple of weeks it became official: Iron Man is one of the biggest and most popular superheroes of our time. Not so long ago the comic book heroes were resigned to live amongst the greasy thumbs and forefingers of the fanboys at Comic Kingdom, and flicker by the hypnotic stares of children every Superhero Saturday. For so long there was only room for Batman and Superman to rule the big screen, but new technologies paved the way for a web slinging teenager in a spider suit to make a lazy billion dollars every few years and it became only logical to give every hero and his superdog a chance at the big time. For every success – Bats, Spidey and the X-Men – there were more than a few misses; even Superman had a short lived revival. But in 2008 we had a new entry into the genre that would challenge the upper-echelons. Iron Man, well known in the comics but relying on the much more recognisable Robert Downey Jr to get the attention of the wider populace, starred in what was one of the best origins films ever made. And five years, three films and too many squillions of dollars later Tony Stark has become one of the most captivating, popular and simply entertaining characters out there. So what is it about this cocky, arrogant, entitled billionaire that makes him so great?
The most striking characteristic of Tony is his personality. Born into wealth – wealth built on the back of war – he is somebody who not only knows the value of a first impression but seems to exploit the shallow nature of it. On the same night he will bed the most beautiful woman at the party and outwit the most intelligent – which more often than not turns out to be the same woman. But somehow, despite his arrogance and his privilege, he is still effortlessly likeable. One could argue it is his hard work ethic and grounded responsibility, but even before he becomes Iron Man he is irresistible. One could also argue it is because of Robert Downey Jr but I will endeavour to avoid that fourth wall argument as it shouldn’t take anything away from the character just because the actor playing him absolutely nailed it.
The introduction to Tony Stark and his elemental shell has everything you could want from a character’s origin story. After the sleazy party scenes and 1%er socialite escapades, after the awards and after the showcasing of warfare, we are somehow already attached to this guy, liking him despite ourselves. But Tony’s world is quickly turned upside down when his army envoy is ambushed in Afghanistan. Suddenly the man who had everything is kidnapped and strapped to an old car battery to keep tiny shards of his own company’s shrapnel from entering his heart. The proceeding scenes, held captive in a cave by a terrorist group working with Yinsen, the doctor who saved him and helped build his first suit, are the most entertaining in the whole series. It gives you that sense of pride that swells up when you see something great being born out of something broken. Tony escapes and goes home to redesign his suit and restructure his company. The payoff is the return to Afghanistan to deliver retribution, and from there the hero is born.
Whether or not Tony had a heart for the real suffering of the world before his ordeal is questionable, but once he became part of that suffering he developed and eye and an ear for it. From that moment his wealth of resources within Stark Industries are redirected to better causes than the wars that he was profiting from. Suddenly there was a person in the world who always had the money, the influence and intelligence to make a change, now also had the motivation – and a kickass piece of amour. But this is the same playboy billionaire who spent his spare time sleeping with supermodels, scientists and journalists alike. Surely he wouldn’t suddenly assume the alter ego status quo of the stereotypical superhero. No. Instead Tony Stark became a superstar.
It is on the back of this fame that Tony’s adventures continued and we find him in his second film living an extravagant lifestyle, resisting the demands of his government and swatting his enemies down like flies. It was all a little too easy for Tony and suddenly his charm and demeanour which always bordered on too much finally crossed the threshold. He is a character who has it all which is a character that demands adversity, but even his impending death from his reaction to the palladium in his suit is conveniently and quickly accounted for. He gets another freebie and throughout the second hour of the film you begin to question if it is nothing more than a vehicle to steer audiences toward the upcoming Avengers film. It takes away from Tony’s appeal and in the midst of all the action the glistening shine seems to have faded from his Iron charm.
Iron Man is not a perfect trilogy, and that statement is separate to my obvious disappointment in the second film but more because The Avengers hijacks Tony’s story and the latter two stand alone films build themselves around it. But that turned out to be good news for the majority of the earth’s population who have seen and loved the film. As for Tony, The Avengers became an opportunity to bring his character back on track after a shaky sequel. In a roomful of heroes, Tony quickly becomes the antagonist. Already at loggerheads with Nick Fury, he proceeds to undermine Captain America’s authority and puts doubts in the mind of Bruce Banner. This controversy also makes him the most entertaining of the group – and somewhat of a spoilt brat. But his rebellious nature soon clashes with his own sense of responsibility, his duty to do what is right. Of course he comes through in the end and helps save the day (and actually does most of the heavy lifting), but it is a testament to the diversity of his character that he can drive an engaging narrative through a film that would otherwise have had to settle on its astounding visuals.
Before I get into the next step in Tony’s evolution I will touch on one element that is consistent throughout the films and is integral in the make-up of Iron Man. The technology showcased in Tony’s lab – from J.A.R.V.I.S. to the robotics to the 3D holographic interface – shows Iron Man is a product of great technological engineering, and despite the stretch of imagination it actually makes Iron Man a much more relatable character. In a world of aliens, gods, and convenient chemical catastrophes Tony is just a man. But his utilisation of technology makes him more believable and makes his world more accessible than many other heroes. It is almost like we are given today’s world with the technology of tomorrow (or maybe of 2040). And we all love technology and live our lives on it which makes Tony a hero in that weird way Steve Jobs became a hero for so many. There are no spider bites, no shadowy mythology, no superpowers, just Tony and his lab – his really awesome lab.
A year later we see Tony again. We love Tony again. And we’re all ready for some more Iron Man action! But if you were about to head into 135 minutes of comic book film and someone told you that for the majority of the film the Iron Man suits don’t even work or feature how would you feel? A little hesitant at best? But the third film in the series goes leaps and bounds in expanding on the character of Tony Stark. It seems like all should be well for Tony but he just doesn’t seem quite right. Some obsessive lab work and creepy late night visits from his suits start the suspicions but it is his first anxiety attack where it really gets interesting. Could the ultra-cool, uber-confident Tony Stark be losing his nerve? Tony still tries to fight, declaring a personal grudge with The Mandarin but it only adds to his paranoia; answering the door in his armour and ignoring the counsel of Pepper Potts.
His grudge ends badly for him with his house and his lab destroyed, and Tony flung halfway across the country in a battered prototype. And so he is left to rely on his battered and broken body and his increasingly manic mind to rise once more. Tony is well aware that without his suit he is just another human, weak and vulnerable, but it is in this state that he can deal with his demons and gain the strength to come back and defeat The Mandarin. His original skills, his wit, cunning and survival instincts, keep us all engaged, and ultimately it is his journey back into the suit that makes the final scenes all the more gratifying.
It really is an epic journey that Tony Stark and Iron Man are taken on. It seems to play out on multiple levels as well. I mentioned not wanting to break fourth walls in commending Downey Jr for his contribution, but another brick in that wall is the concurrent perception of Tony through the quality and entertainment value of his films. I have been eternally critical (perhaps harshly so) of Iron Man 2 as a shallow film that shines an unsavoury light on his character, but without that dip in his story arc, without that adversity, could his return to form in The Avengers and Iron Man 3 have been so triumphant? It is an interesting thought, but more than anything it highlights the uncanny ability of Tony Stark to be a dick, but such an endearing dick that we can’t help but love him. Or maybe we just love him because he is Iron Man!
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