Agent of S.T.Y.L.E.: IRON MAN - Now THAT's a Power Suit!


Following the death of his father Howard Stark, young Tony Stark inherited Stark Industries, known for its high tech research and advanced weapons manufacturing. Months after designing an exo-skeleton called the “Iron Man Program,” Tony took a trip into a war zone in order to test out and display new weapons he'd designed for the U.S. military. During this visit, guerrilla forces attacked and Tony was seriously injured by one of his own weapons. Shrapnel was now in his body, inching towards his heart. Tony's captors offered to save his life if he first made them new advanced weaponry, with the aid of his fellow hostage Ho Yinsen, a brilliant physicist and "medical futurist."

Pretending to agree to his captor's demands, Tony decided he would instead use the available materials to create a makeshift version of his Iron Man exo-skeleton. Yinsen's research and success with using magnetic fields to treat land mine victims allowed him to create a mag-field generator to preserve Tony's heart by keeping the shrapnel in his chest at bay. This generator also acted as a power source for Tony's armor, based on his clean energy "repulsor generator" technology. Though Yinsen died, Tony took his revenge on their captors and was able to escape. Returning to the states, he now led a secret double life as the hero Iron Man, stopping terrorists, spies and super-villains. The world believed that Iron Man was an employee of Stark's whose name was kept secret and often referred to him as "Tony Stark's armored bodyguard."

Iron Man became a founding member of the Avengers and even turned his NY family mansion into the team's headquarters. Over the years, he continually upgraded his armor. In time, experimental surgery freed him from having to wear a magnetic field generator on his chest, though he still continued to operate as Iron Man, partially to make up for the many weapons he'd once helped create. During his career, Tony dealt with a variety of new health problems, as well as the realization that he was an alcoholic. Eventually, Tony's secret identity was made public to the world and Iron Man even served as Secretary of Defense for a brief time. When there came a threat that an enemy might use Tony's knowledge and secrets to attack other superheroes, Iron Man deleted his own mind, entering a state that resembled brain death. A fail-safe plan led to his mind being rebooted, though he lost over a year of his memories and now needed a repulsor generator disc surgically attached to his chest to maintain his body's autonomic functions. Tony has also truly made his armor a part of himself now, with cyborg enhancements allowing him to summon the suit at will.

Tony Stark has been portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. in the films Iron Man and Iron Man 2. The actor will be reprising the role soon in Marvel's film The Avengers, where he'll be teaming up with Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Nick Fury. So now, let's take a look at the evolution of his armor. To keep this from becoming a novel, we're focusing on those armors that were considered to be the standard suit and won't be discussing his various specialty suits (undersea armor, Hulkbuster armor, etc.) or suits worn by versions who exist in parallel universes.



So here we are with the original make-shift armor, which appeared in the very first Iron Man story, published in Tales of Suspense #39 in March, 1963. The comics have designated this suit as the “Mark 0 armor” since it was basically a prototype that Tony only used to escape his captors, one that he rebuilt as soon as he got back to the United States.

This suit looks exactly like what the name says: Iron Man. And like iron, it implies strength and weight. A comic book reader can imagine the heavy sounds of Tony's boots as he marches in this suit. All of this makes him an intimidating force, a modern-day Frankenstein robot. The helmet recalls iron masks seen in history books and science fiction films. That's an accurate symbol since Tony was practically a prisoner of the armor, forced to always have the chest unit battery attached to himself or else his heart would be ripped apart by shrapnel. What's more, Tony was in the middle of a war zone and fully intended to take revenge on his captors, so seeming like a fearsome force of brute strength is fitting.

This makes it all perfect for the origin story. But not so much for a superhero operating in broad daylight in a major U.S. city.



When Tony got home, he rebuilt the armor he and Yinsen had constructed, updating it with several miniaturized weapons and creating out of many thing layers rather than large bulky pieces. The suit was thus collapsible, enough so that it would fit inside a large suitcase. When Tony donned the suit and then attached it to the magnetic repulsor power unit on his chest, magnetic fields made the armor go rigid as it powered up and Iron Man was back in action.

After saving a few people though, Tony realized he was scaring those he intended to protect and grew concerned. When a woman suggested that Iron Man would seem more like a knight and less like a monster if he were painted gold, Tony took it to heart and did just that. He spray-painted the entire suit during his second comic book issue, earning the nickname of the "golden avenger."


The gold paint adds a difference. Iron Man now seems more heroic rather than menacing and seems to symbolize the optimistic attitude of what technology can bring to the table, which is fitting for a character partially inspired by Howard Hughes. At the same time, the paint job isn't quite enough. Tony looks he's a robot from a 1960s science fiction film rather than a man in a suit of armor. I'm against this not so much because it makes Iron Man seem dated but because it's important that we always remember Tony's humanity - that the "invincible Iron Man" is actually a vulnerable man who is living on borrowed time and could easily die if his suit runs out of power during a battle.

It also seems odd that Tony was able to figure out how to make the armor fit into a briefcase but not how to make it less bulky.



Artists Jack Kirby, Don Heck and Larry Lieber may have been fine with Tony’s bulky look, but when Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man) became the new artist of the series, he decided to redesign the whole thing. A few issues after Ditko took over, Iron Man faced a villain who could over-ride his armor controls. To adjust to this new foe, Tony had to design a completely new suit, one that operated with different systems, while also significantly more form-fitting and lighter in weight. This allowed Iron Man greater speed and maneuverability while causing less of a drain on his power cells. This "proto-classic armor" debuted in Tales of Suspense #48 in December, 1963.

So Steve Ditko gave us the very first red-and-gold model, which was nicknamed the “hotrod red” look in the film Iron Man. At last, we have some contrast of colors, which is definitely more visually appealing for a superhero. The form-fitting nature finally emphasizes the “MAN” in Iron Man and makes him seem more like a knight from the future. Like the previous model, the boots, gloves, helmet and main units would fold down when de-powered. When Tony donned them, magnets would cause the collapsible leg and arm coverings to telescope out and secure themselves. When not in use, the whole thing was kept in a special briefcase, just like the Mark I armor.


A couple of things, though. Even in the 1960s, the antenna on the shoulder gives the impression that Tony’s friends can tune him into a classic rock station. The raised lines at the top of the torso also seem an odd decoration for an otherwise sleek suit. And there’s the helmet. The mouth divided into three parts implies the presence of teeth and the tips of the mask are so raised that they resemble horns. These again make Iron Man slightly villainous in appearance.

Iron Man later changed the helmet for another that he considered more comfortable and flexible. It was a step in the right direction, but the teeth impression is still there and the rivets seem akin to metal pimples. There are no visible rivets anywhere else, so they stand out. Also, in both versions of this proto-classic armor, the torso seems a bit too robotic. Tony's arms seem muscled, but his torso might belong to the Tin Man of Oz.



In Tales of Suspense #85 (January, 1967), Tony got to his lab and created a new, more powerful suit of "flexi-armor," with a slightly altered helmet and torso piece.

This here is the standard against which all later Iron Man suits are compared. This says our hero is called Iron Man not because of the material his suit is made from but because he is a hero bursting with power, strength and incredible will. The chest unit now gives an impression of musculature and doesn’t seem to be a metal barrel wrapped around Tony’s torso. We've lost unnecessary lines and seams. The helmet implies a robotic entity but is also expressive enough to let us know there is a man behind that shell. There are no rivets or strange teeth implications and artists can still do close-up shots to display Tony's eyes peering through the slits in the helmet.

This armor design was the status quo for many years. Tony would sometimes change features or rebuild half of it from scratch, but maintained this outer design consistently through various models. Even after it was officially retired, many stories have brought it back temporarily for one reason or another. It is an interesting design and somewhat timeless, a classic in every sense of the word.


At one point, Tony experimented with making the helmet even more expressive, adding a nose to the faceplate. This just looked weird. I’m not sure why, but the nose works for Dr. Doom and not for Iron Man. Perhaps because we want to be assured that the face-plate is just that and not actually a substitute for Tony Stark’s face, whereas Dr. Doom considers his metal mask to be the only face he can show to the world since he’s horribly scarred. In any event, Tony later got rid of the nose.

Those nose, by the way, was added because artists misunderstood a remark made by Stan Lee. While looking at recent Iron Man art, Stan remarked, "Shouldn't he have a nose?" What Stan meant was that Iron Man's helmet shouldn't appear too flat in front, since the man beneath needs room for his nose. However, his question was taken literally, adding a decoration to Iron Man's helmet. When Stan later saw this and pointed out how absurd it looked on Iron Man, the nose was removed.


One version of this armor design included a new power-up feature when Tony needed to go into action. He made the torso unit so lightweight that it could easily fit beneath his clothes. Then, when he needed to go into action, he just threw off his clothes and activated a process that caused the rest of the armor to expand outward and cover his body. Pretty nifty, but making the armor lightweight enough to do this also meant sacrificing a lot of his resiliency and strength. So after a while, Ol’ Shellhead went back to storing it in his briefcase.

Since the armor was getting more advanced and, as a result, heavier now, Tony equipped the briefcase with miniaturized repulsor technology to create a small anti-gravity effect. Thus, the briefcase was much lighter than it should have been when the suit was inside and Tony (as well as any employee) could carry it with ease as if it only contained business documents.


I personally like Tony keeping the armor in his briefcase because, like the Flash’s costume ring, it keeps Iron Man unique from other heroes who simply wear their costume beneath their shirt and pants. It's also a symbol of his scientific ingenuity.

For a time, Tony's friend James "Rhodey" Rhodes took over as Iron Man. During the crossover Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, Rhodey got the armor enhanced thanks to alien technology and some scientific know-how by Reed Richards AKA Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four. Rhodey was glad to have greater firepower, but later found himself suffering from side affects from the armor's magnetic field and this suit was abandoned.



Introduced in 1985, the so-called “Silver Centurion” armor remains one of the biggest departures from the traditional Iron Man style and is perhaps the most successful one. Since Ditko's remodel years before, just about every single suit has been red and gold. But here, gold is replaced with silver and the effect is interesting. In this suit, Iron Man seems a bit colder, more robotic in personality. He also seems a little more futuristic with the angular look that dominates his form, as opposed to the more rounded look of his previous armor that emphasized a human shape. The chest power-cell that doubles as his famous “uni-beam” weapon has followed suit, changing from a disc to a triangle. And the helmet is now more angular at the bottom, giving a slightly more serious look to the faceplate.

Years later, we found out that Tony had a spare model of this suit which was nearly identical except that the uni-beam was a hexagon rather than a triangle and the helmet was once again rounded out around the jaw line, much like the classic look. These subtle alterations already make the suit seem like just another version of the classic armor rather than a serious departure. By this point, some of Tony's armors did indeed have a triangular uni-beam in the chest rather than a disc-shaped one.

To this day, the Silver Centurion look remains popular and a version of it shows up in the film Iron Man 2.



In 1988, at the conclusion of the "Armor Wars" storyline, Iron Man faked his own death. Tony Stark announced that his employee Iron Man had died and that a new man was now wearing the armor, which was a way for him to escape responsibility and prosecution for certain illegal activities he'd done in the past few months, believing that the ends justified the means. Tony then donned this new suit of armor, pretending to be the "new" Iron Man (though his Avengers colleagues and various other heroes later realized this was a lie and that this was, indeed, the original armored hero).

This suit has been nicknamed the “coffee can Iron Man” by some fans. It’s a return to the sensibility of the classic look, but strangely Tony seems to have decided that years of being streamlined is enough and bulkier is the way to go.

The red stripe that goes from the chest to the belt seems odd. I’m not really sure what the advantage or design purpose of that section is, unless Tony just wanted to emulate Spider-Man’s costume in some small way. The thicker neck and helmet make me wonder how easily Iron Man can turn his head. Likewise, the heavier boots make Iron Man seem a little more awkward.


Later on, Tony was shot by an ex-girlfriend, causing a serious spinal injury. He developed a new suit that used special "encephalo circuits" that truly keyed his mind into the controls. Temporarily paralyzed, Tony controlled the armor from afar. He then donned the suit again when an experimental procedure fixed his spine. His health degraded due to this procedure, however, and he was forced to wear his armor to preserve his nervous system. This later suit was slightly different, more over-sized and with "coffee can" boots.

Again, there's a little too much weight here. And I don't see how Tony can walk in those giant boots at all. Maybe he just didn't like how much taller Thor was than him.



In Iron Man #281 (1992), Tony was trapped in his plant and high-tech assassins were coming after him. Knowing he needed to sacrifice speed and maneuverability for protection and firepower, he put together the "Variable Threat Response Battle Suit" and took on his enemies. This has become known as the "War Machine" armor.

The 1990s had a trend of superhero costumes involving lots of accessories such as belts and pouches that served no purpose, as well as several blades and/or guns strapped to the hero’s body. The original War Machine looks reflects this. It’s a cynical, post-Watchmen version of Iron Man with a bit of Rambo thrown in. The plates down the torso looks like a tank tread and the monochromatic look gives us the impression of a black-and-white philosophy (“either you’re with me or against me”). These all match up with the fact that Tony was feeling very cornered and a bit desperate at this point in his life.

But while it’s interesting for a story, it’s not really Iron Man. It’s not bright, it’s not streamlined as we’ve come to know Iron Man, and it doesn’t have any kind of uni-beam or repulsor disc on the chest, which has been a staple of every other suit Tony has designed.

But Rhodey later used this suit to become a hero himself, with War Machine as his official codename. And for him, this armor works, especially when you alter it slightly. Just by taking away some pouches, this look is more streamlined and definitely more maneuverable. The uni-beam on the chest tells us this is Stark technology and not just another armored hero. The tank-like look of the suit is perfect now. Rhodey is a marine, so he needs a suit that says both “superhero” and “military.” And the monochromatic philosophy works well since Rhodey, unlike Tony, has never felt comfortable allowing for gray areas in his morality. He does not believe in manipulation for the sake of the greater good. He believes in actions telling the story of whether a person is a hero or not, not their justifications after the fact.



After faking his death for a couple of months in order to deal with health issues, Tony was once again forced to control "Iron Man" remotely. In 1993, we learned he had created an Iron Man robot with telepresence technology, sending it on missions while being able to experience what it saw, heard and even felt as if he were actually there. This telepresence armor had a very busy design that I think took away from the more streamlined armored of the past. The lack of a mouthpiece makes Iron Man seem a bit inhuman, but it also makes sense since Tony's not behind that mask, it's just a robot.

The strangest thing about this armor is breaking up the red torso unit to make the abs section golden. What's the thought behind this? To me, it looks as if Iron Man pulled up his shirt to expose his mid-riff while he heads to the beach. It's not terrible, it's just odd.


After relying on a robot for several issues, Tony at last regained his health and was ready to be a hero again by Iron Man #300 (1994). He made a new armor based on a modular philosophy. Rather than bulk it up with equipment and special weapons, he built it the suit with the ability to have different toys attach to the arms and legs at a moment’s notice, depending on what the situation called for.

This takes the idea of “streamlined” to a whole new level and there’s a lot to be said for this armor. It’s sleek, it’s form-fitting, it conveys strength. But the mouth-less helmet brings up a concern. While it may make sense for Tony to completely cover his face from the standpoint of protection, we have to accept that this is a fictional character existing in a visual medium. It is very hard for an artist to convey emotion and for a reader to understand it when there is no face.

The Question wears a face-less mask, but we can see the shadowy impressions of her eyes and sometimes her mouth. Spider-Man’s pencilers sometimes use artistic license to have him visibly squint despite the fact that he’s wearing mirrored lenses. With Iron Man’s mouth, you can play with the angle of the helmet to give the reader a sense of a facial expression. Without it, you’re limited to his eye-slits.



So starting in 1995, this storyline line happened called "The Crossing" where Iron Man basically went evil and we found out that a villain had been secretly corrupting him for quite some time. So Tony went around fighting the Avengers and even killing a couple of characters who were no great loss, really, since a lot of readers weren't invested them and most new readers have no idea who they were anyway.

Now, some part of Tony must have been aware that he was about to totally go evil because he was nice enough to redesign his armor in an evil-ish fashion. He's suddenly one back to having these rivets on his face. And he's added large ones to his gauntlets and boots, as if to imply he's like a walking morning star weapon, ready to do some damage to those around him. He's also altered his shoulder pads to be larger and have their own intimidating rivets. And the bracers on his gauntlet are now so huge that while they increase his firepower, they also no doubt inhibit his ability to shake hands or flex his wrists. But that's a small price to pay for being a badass, right?

This design is really just trying too hard. All the decoration and extra seams serve no purpose except to say "ooh, he looks kinda tough now, doesn't it?" He's Iron Man, he usually looks kind of tough.

Now, the storyline got even stranger (and by "stranger," we mean "worse") when the Avengers came up with a solution. Tony, they figured, was just too smart and experienced for them to beat. I'm pretty sure Captain America, Black Widow, Reed Richards, War Machine and Thor all working in tandem could do it, but that's just me and this is what they decided. So they figured the only person who can beat Tony IS Tony, so why not recruit a version of Tony from a parallel reality? But just in case that parallel reality ALSO had a villain secretly corrupting the hero, they'd have to recruit a version of him that was younger, years before he was even supposed to become Iron Man.


So yeah. To defeat their friend's experience and intelligence, they recruited a younger version of him with no experience in combat, while simultaneously telling the kid "in a possible future, you go evil, so would you mind fighting you? Thanks." It even sounds worse when you try to explain it aloud to people.

"Teen Tony" as he was dubbed agreed to this ridiculous plan and built himself a suit of what was called "retro-armor." It looked a bit like Iron Man's proto-classic armor, but with horns EVERYWHERE. Seriously, Teen Tony apparently wanted to make sure no one gave him a hug because, oh, man, you were gonna get cut and you'd only have yourself to blame. He also added these weird red lines to his faceplate that made it look as if this young Iron Man had smeared lipstick on while attempting to make himself resemble the Joker.

Teen Tony fought older, experienced, evil Tony and (amazingly) lost the fight. In fact, older Tony was so annoyed by this attack (and perhaps by the ridiculousness of the entire story concept) that he ripped apart the kid's armor and caused serious injury to the boy's chest. Now, just like evil Tony years before, Teen Tony needed technology attached to his heart to keep it alive and well. Ooh, the irony. Wait, is that irony? Or should we just label it as "bizarre attempt to return Iron Man to his roots in a way that hurts readers' brains with time paradoxes and alternate realities?"


Evil Tony later realized "crap, I'm Evil!" and sacrificed his life to save the others and make up for what he'd done. Teen Tony then stuck around, becoming the new Iron Man. He did things like worry that he would one day become evil, worry that he would not be as good a hero as his older self had been (before the whole evil thing), and also freaked out when girls he knew in class were now significantly older, this being the future to his mind. Again, it seemed to be a strange attempt to make Tony relatable to readers again, since most teen and young adult readers can easily connect to the angst one feels when you've witnessed the death of an evil version of yourself from a possible future, right after he caused a serious heart injury that has forever affected your health.

Teen Tony also came up with a new suit of armor during this. His suit was... wall, it was rather like a simplistic version of the classic red and gold look but with enormous honking gloves (which later got trimmed down a bit, thankfully, because holy cow). Not terribly interesting. And now there's really nothing to distinguish him from his predecessor. He's just a new version of Iron Man and it may as well be the older, mustached Tony underneath that helmet. "Iron Boy" did come up with a new way to armor up. The gold parts of the armor were actually hard-light holograms that integrated with the armored body pieces. But from the art, we can't tell that, so it doesn't seem special.



Teen Tony then seemingly lost his life, along with many of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, while fighting the energy creature known as Onslaught. Of course, they weren't truly dead, it turned out. They'd been sent to a different version of Earth where they were living new versions of their old lives. Captain America, Iron Man, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four all starred in new titles and new lives starting in 1996, under the banner: Heroes Reborn.

Living his life anew on this Counter-Earth, a new version of Tony Stark, complete with facial hair, was developing a flying suit of armor he called "Prometheus." There were some failed tests and Tony was still working on the thing when terrorists attacked his labs, aided by Dr. Bruce Banner. Banner wound up becoming this creature known as the Hulk and Tony was injured. To save his life and stop his attackers, Tony donned a new version of the Prometheus armor, becoming Iron Man for the first time (again).

This armor says one word to me: “Excess.” Seriously, what else can be thrown onto this suit? We’ve got some weird control panel looking thing on the chest that looks like it serves no purpose and isn't as visually appealing as a simple glowing disc. We have a mouthpiece that doesn’t show the mouth, it just shows more red armor underneath. Did Tony have the foresight to build a voice filter into the helmet? Even if he did, we don't need to see it. This suit also has thigh-guards that don’t connect to the boots and gauntlets that awkwardly extend over the elbows. We’ve turned the Iron Man’s trunks into a full on protective cup design.


These cables seemed to be everywhere, making it seem rather busy and thrown together instead of giving the impression of sleek, advanced armor. Just how do those cables work? How do they connect around the neck and shoulders like that without rubbing against each other and tearing? The comic implied that Tony had to connect those cables individually. How long did THAT take every time he needed to go into action? What if he connects one of them in port A when he meant to put it into port B? Will he start flying backwards?

And why are there exhaust ports on the back where there are no rockets on the back? The rockets are on the boots. Not only that, but what if some clever enemy puts a banana in those exhaust ports? The whole suit could blow up! All together, this makes Tony resemble a Michael Bay Transformer and that's just not right!

Now, the Heroes Reborn event ended and all the heroes were able to leave Counter-Earth and return home, with their memories restored, in a mini-series fittingly titled Heroes Return. In Tony's case, this got a bit confusing. He resembled the original Tony who had turned evil and had those memories. But he had died before the events of Onslaught and Heroes Reborn, so how was he sent to Counter-Earth? And this version of Tony also had some vague memories of the life of Teen Tony? Where had the kid gone?


It was discovered that Evil Tony's body was missing from its grave. Furthermore, a complex time travel story reminded everyone that Evil Tony had not truly been responsible for his evil action, he'd been under mind control, and really, what superhero hasn't been at some point? So it seemed that the cosmic force which sent all the heroes to Counter-Earth had also resurrected the original Tony Stark of the Marvel Universe timeline, who was no longer evil since he'd regained control of his mind in his last hours of life. Perhaps the Teen version of Tony was missing because he'd been sent back where he belonged or perhaps his life force had been necessary to bring back original Tony and they had merged in the process. No way to tell. Since Tony now literally had a new lease on life and since the Avengers were willing to forgive him for his actions while under mind control, the original Iron Man was now back in action.

And we'll see what armors he's since then in Part 2, next week! Until then, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!

[Alan "Sizzler" Kistler is an actor and author living in New York City. He is the author of The Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook, The Unofficial Batman Trivia Challenge and The Unofficial Spider-Man Trivia Challenge. He is a creator and host of the weekly podcast Crazy Sexy Geeks, available on iTunes. Alan has been recognized as a comic book historian and a Doctor Who historian by various publishers and media outlets. He thinks Isaac Asimov should be required reading in all schools. He can be found on Twitter: @SizzlerKistler]

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