DRAWN & QUARTERED
Not the typical superhero, Iron Man is one of the last to join the ranks of the Marvel comic movie trend.
‘Iron Man’ epitomizes height of comic complexity
The story of the not-quite-super hero is a meditation on technology
The Marvel Comics explosion of the 1960s was a period of unparalleled creativity in what had been a scoffed-at, lowbrow medium. Editor Stan Lee took comic-book heroes and added the gravitas of Freudianism, the cultural sang-froid of traditional mythology and the pell-mell, personal-crisis-driven storytelling arcs of television soap operas and transformed the lowly comic book -- in the language of the era -- into something relevant.
Transforming these visions into films was guaranteed cheese until the advent of digital film effects; suddenly, these impossible worlds, even though they're based on our own, became passable on the silver screen. The latest Marvel '60s superhero to get his own movie is Iron Man. Except for Thor and Doctor Strange, the major Marvel characters have all been filmed, some with better results than others.
Iron Man is one of the most interesting of the classic Marvel superheroes, because this hero is the least super of them all. Primarily, his powers aren't the result of magic or mystic science, like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. Iron Man is a meditation on technology and how it interfaces with our daily lives.
Iron Man is the alter ego of playboy/engineer/billionaire Tony Stark, who was based, in turn, on Howard Hughes, "one of the most colorful men of our time," Lee wrote a few years later. "He was an inventor, an adventurer, a multi-billionaire, a ladies' man and finally a nutcase."
Nutcase is the key word. The story begins with Stark, an amoral weapons inventor, being captured by the Viet Cong and wounded, with metal shards lying dangerously close to his heart. In prison he's ordered to build super-weapons for Uncle Ho but instead creates a kind of magnetized chest plate that keeps the shrapnel from piercing his heart. He adds on to this chest plate until he has a kind of suit of medieval armor, and makes his escape.
Stark discovers he can't remove the chest plate without the splinters killing him. There is no cure. All he can do is improve the technology and, by doing so, increase his weapons company's bottom line. He must, literally, invent to survive.
It isn't easy. Stark is not the most stable guy to begin with, and the strain leads to alcoholism. Having a superhero who was also a drunk was something of a revelation in those days, and a sign that the medium was growing up. Also, although Stark pretended for a while that Iron Man was someone else, he quickly shed the secret-identity trope, which, once you think about it, really didn't make much sense. Secret identities are a plot device and nothing more.
Future problems included Iron Man armor that became cybernetically interlinked with Stark's own nervous system, which made for a hell of a weapons system but was also harmful to Stark's physical and mental health. At what point does the human end and the weapons system begin? We live in an age when such guidance systems are already deployed, so it isn't science fiction, it's a commentary.
Even more problematic is Stark's growing conscience, as he realizes that the Pentagon wants Stark Industries to continually create newer and more expensive weapons systems, not to fight enemies of the country, but to enrich the military-industrial complex. It's enough to make an Iron Man reach for a gin and WD-40 cocktail.
Tony Stark's tale is a classic meme of obsession and self-discovery, as if Jekyll and Hyde were combined with Gawain and the Green Knight, and the true depths of the drama come from within the characters, rather than from a procession of biff-pow-bang supervillains threatening the universe on a weekly basis. No, it's more personal than that. How does a superhero look in the mirror -- mask on or mask off?
Iron Man is possibly the greatest fictional creation to emerge from the fabled Marvel Bullpen.