"I am Iron Man."
Four simple words, for a character than only be described as complex. And while Robert Downey Jr. prepares to take flight once more as the Armored Avenger in Iron Man 2, we at Newsarama decided to dig in a little bit deeper into who Iron Man really is, in this installment of Dial H for History!
While Tony Stark has always seemed like the cool exec with a heart of steel, what might surprise you is that he's one of the "youngest" of creator Stan Lee's Marvel pantheon, making his first appearance in April 1963. Hot off the heels of counterculture icons like Spider-Man and the Hulk, Stan had decided to give himself a new challenge: To create a hero who also happened to be the Man.
"The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military," Lee recalled, in an interview on the Invincible Iron Man DVD. "So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist ... I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him."
Originally a playboy defense contractor styled after Howard Hughes, Tony Stark's genius ran not in "repulsor rays" or "arc reactors" like in the film, but with transistors -- in other words, using tiny circuitry and magnetism to increase strength and repel metal. Soon that insight became a liability, however, as he was seriously injured from an exploding trip wire in Vietnam. Kidnapped by Communist agents, Stark was forced with a dilemma -- build the Communists weapons, or die from the shrapnel that was nearing his heart with every beat? Always a lateral thinker, Tony thought outside of the box -- he used the tools and supplies given to him by his captors to create an armored, weaponed suit, complete with a chestpiece that would keep him alive.
Unfortunately, Tony's escape came with a cost -- he could not take off the Iron Man chestpiece, or he would risk swift death by cardiac arrest. Coming up with elaborate cover stories to explain why the once-voracious playboy would not appear shirtless, Stark also made public Iron Man, calling him his "personal bodyguard." Whereas many Marvel series dealt with radioactivity, aliens and mythological threats, Iron Man remained true to his Cold War roots, righting Communist saboteurs including the future Avenger known as the Black Widow and his Communist opposite number, the Crimson Dynamo.
In addition to his exploits as a solo hero, Iron Man became one of the trusted leaders of the Marvel Universe, having been drawn into action as a founding member of the Avengers. First manipulated by Loki to battle the Hulk, Iron Man went one-on-one with the not-so-jolly green giant, before Thor broke up the fight. Tony was also on the scene when the Avengers recovered the man who would become his best friend and his greatest rival: the original Captain America, who had been frozen in the Arctic near the waning days of World War II. Through it all, Tony -- and artist Don Heck -- would continue to revise his armor, moving from a bulky gray outfit to a golden suit, before moving toward his better-known streamlined red-and-gold look.
But even as Tony's suit became more and more streamlined, his world became exponentially more complex. By the late 1970s, David Micheline had taken over the book, having Tony begin to question his company's role in weapons manufacturing, just as he was put right in the crosshairs of both S.H.I.E.L.D. and industrialist Justin Hammer. Hammer sent operatives including Whiplash and the Melter to battle Iron Man, all the while secretly hacking into Tony's armor -- eventually causing the suit to kill an ambassador in broad daylight. The stress began to crack the Iron Man's resolve, as he fled to the bottle to drink his troubles away in the seminal story "Demon in a Bottle." The story resonated with fans for years. "Stark has issues with booze," said Iron Man director Jon Favreau to the Los Angeles Times. "That's part of who he is."
Yet Tony would fall off the wagon once more, this time battling the industrialist Obadiah Stane. With Stane looking for a hostile takeover of Stark Industries -- including manipulating Tony's love life with Indries Moomji -- Tony was physically a broken man, drowning his sorrows with any drink he could find. Passing out amidst a drunken battle with the villain Magma, Tony gave up his dual identity to his friend James Rhodes, an American soldier he met while escaping Vietnam. Rhodes became the second person to wear the Iron Man suit, and he became a hero in his own right, battling foes such as the Mandarin, the Zodiac, and the Radioactive Man and even joining the West Coast Avengers.
But Tony had his own road to walk -- he had drunk himself out of a job, out of his wealth, out of his life. Homeless and a shell of his former self, Tony was called upon to be an everyday hero, helping deliver a baby in the cold of a New York winter. Having survived his own dark night of the soul, Tony regained his will to live, creating the Silver Centurion armor to gain a new lease on heroic life. Unfortunately, one of Tony's first battles back on the field was with Rhodes, who had become twisted and aggressive because of feedback from the Stark-calibrated armor. While Rhodes had given Tony's new designs a major test, it was Stane himself who brought Tony back to the fold full-time, donning an "Iron Monger" suit to kill the Armored Avenger. As Tony defeated his arch-foe, Stane killed himself, depriving Tony of the satisfaction of putting him in jail.
Yet Stane's Iron Monger suit was only the beginning. In 1987, Tony realized that the Iron Man suit was no longer unique, as he discovered the super-villain Force's armor had Stark Industry designs. Fighting armored foes such as the Beetle, Stilt-Man, and the Guardsmen, Iron Man found himself on the wrong side of the law -- even sucker-punching Steve Rogers in the midst of an escape attempt at the Vault. Expelled from the West Coast Avengers for accidentally killing the Titanium Man, Tony fakes the death of Iron Man, destroying the Silver Centurion armor and building a new suit of armor to rejoin the team as the "new" Iron Man.
As the '80s waned into the '90s, Tony's adventures stretched the limits of science. His nervous system was at one point controlled by a biochip after being shot by his ex Kathleen Dare, and eventually his nervous system became so compromised that he supposedly "died" on the operating table. Before his demise, Tony created what would be Rhodes' new identity, with the War Machine armor, a heavily-armed "variable threat assessment" armor that had even more firepower than Stark's own suit. Tony's demise would in fact prove to be a cryogenic rebirth, and he went on to form a new iteration of the West Coast Avengers known as Force Works. Yet as the '90s progressed, Tony's story lines became even more complicated, eventually being taken over by Immortus, replaced by an alternate reality teenage version of himself, and even being shunted into a new "Heroes Reborn" reality by the mutant known as Onslaught.
The 2000s, however, proved to be where Tony would get a new lease on life. Stark revealed his secret identity to the world, and soon became the U.S. Secretary of Defense. That position would soon be taken from him, however, as the Scarlet Witch would use her hex powers to make Tony drunk, causing him to lash out at an ambassador before the United Nations. The unhinged Scarlet Witch's betrayal would cause far more pain than that, as she launched an attack so fierce that it killed Hawkeye and the Vision, as well as leaving the Avengers team (not to mention those Mutants) in shambles. Tony resigned as both the Secretary of Defense and as Iron Man, even as he continued to secretly wear the armor.
Writer Warren Ellis would take Tony's new status quo and supercharge it for the new millennium. Having Tony fight against a domestic terrorist injected with the Extremis virus -- a programmable injection that "hacked" its users body to give them unmatched strength and firepower -- Ellis new that speed and compartmentalization was the way of the future. With Tony hopelessly outmatched against his new adversary, he realized the only way he could win was to take a similar treatment. Hacking his body with Extremis, Tony and his armor became one, with an inner sheath hidden underneath his skin to control not just the suit, but any and all Stark Industries technology connected by wireless. It was a bold new era for the man behind the suit.
Yet Tony's streak of tragedy after success would come back soon enough. After a battle between the villain Nitro and the New Warriors killed hundreds of people in Stamford, Connecticut, it was clear that the public had had enough of superpowered beings setting up their own rules. With Congress speedily passing the Superhero Registration Act, Tony became the public face of the Pro-Registration Movement, believing that following the act and training heroes would allow them to remain in business.
Unfortunately, the tables had turned from the Armor Wars, with Captain America going underground in protest of the law. The fighting became fierce, with Tony crossing several ethical lines -- including cloning his deceased friend Thor, who then killed the hero known as Goliath. The rivalry became an all-out Civil War, with Iron Man ultimately winning the battle, if not the clash of ideologies. When Captain America was assassinated on the way to his trail, it was Tony -- the newly minted Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- who felt the burden of guilt most of all.
Soon thereafter, however, Tony would have his most public appearance yet -- the multiplex. With Marvel Studios putting the gas on its feature film releases, Iron Man -- despite having a fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants production experience -- became a critical and commercial success, earning more than $318 million despite going nearly head-to-head with the billion-dollar Dark Knight. "At the end of the day it's Robert Downey Jr. who powers the lift-off separating this from most other superhero movies," said Roger Ebert, who even admitted he had little previous knowledge of the franchise.
But while Tony was enjoying some box office success, his tenure as head of S.H.I.E.L.D. went poorly. With a new series helmed by Matt Fraction, it was proven that even Tony Stark could be laid low -- his first battle as the new head of S.H.I.E.L.D. was against Ezekiel Stane, the deranged son of Obadiah, who was creating repulsor-enhanced suicide bombers in a plot to bring down Stark via asymetrical warfare. While Tony won that fight, he was soon blindsided by the Secret Invasion of the shape-shifting Skrulls, who knocked out both his technology and his Extremis-enhanced biology. With Stark Industries in ruins and standing as a mere mortal once more, Tony was fired from S.H.I.E.L.D.... in exchange for the deranged Norman Osborn.
Deleting the Superhero Registration data for fear of Osborn misusing it, Tony was then the World's Most Wanted man, running from place to place in hopes of deleting the one last repository of the superhero community's secret identities -- Stark's brain. Succeeding in wiping his mind clean of all knowledge -- including the ability to breathe on his own -- Stark was knocked into a vegetative state, which he was only able to recover from by "rebooting" his brain. Yet there were consequences -- while Tony was able to regain his personality and his wits, there were breaks in the "reboot," causing him to remember nothing prior to his Extremis enhancements -- including the Civil War, the Secret Invasion, and Captain America's death. Creating a new suit of armor -- this one powering his brain functions instead of his heart -- and diving headlong into rebuilding his company.
With Iron Man 2 out today, and the Resilient storyline driving through his own comics series, there's no telling where the character of Iron Man might end up -- but it's clear that this is a man who, despite the kinks in his armor, is always struggling to fly higher and faster than anyone else. Is it the clothes that make the Iron Man? Or the hero that's inside? A character that is as unpredictable as he is bleeding-edge, only time will tell where the Iron Man will end up next.
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