“I am Iron Man.”
Wow. Tony Stark has come a long way since he spoke those words in his first film. That movie revealed a lot about Iron Man to me. As I have said elsewhere, I once thought this super hero was a robot. Watching Marvel’s Iron Man a few years after it came out, I made the mistake of saying aloud, “Wait. Iron Man is a guy in a metal suit? I thought he was a robot!”
A friend of mine, who was present when I saw the film, confirmed – with great incredulity at my ignorance – that Iron Man had always been the rich, debonair Tony Stark. This compadre had mentioned that fact before, but I had never really been interested in Iron Man and the explanations had not truly stuck, as they should have. This friend watched the movie through with me and, at the end, said there was only one problem with it. What problem was that?
The problem was Tony’s playboy tendency to mock everything and everyone. Minute to minute, he was making fun of someone or something. Sometimes, it was a just and right criticism. Other times…not so much.
The Iron Man my friend grew up with is, in many ways, better than the Iron Man of today. Do not misunderstand – my friend and I both enjoy watching Robert Downey Jr. play Tony Stark. He is wonderful in the role and puts everything he has into it, and in the first Iron Man film, Tony Stark was – apparently – well on his way to becoming a great hero.
But the original Tony Stark of the 1960s was not a rich, “hip” debauchee who belittled and mocked the world and the people around him. Nor did he look at the world through the same dark, broody lenses Batman uses (though Bruce Wayne uses those lenses for understandable reasons), and he could be genuinely funny. But he did not behave like a fool just for the sake of it. The 1960s era Tony Stark was the epitome of the wealthy gentleman. He was charming, well-mannered, kind, generous, respectful, well-spoken – a modern day knight in hi-tech armor. And if that were not enough, he was also a technological genius.
Here it might be worthwhile to remind you all of the ancient axiom: that while money may indeed talk, wealth need only whisper. The Ersatz Stark is rich, but the Real Tony Stark is wealthy. The Ersatz Stark is “filthy rich” with an egotism and narcissism that demands commensurate notice. The Real Tony Stark is wealthy in so many ways that he needs neither fanfare nor self-congratulation.
Stan Lee has admitted that he based Tony Stark on American inventor Howard Hughes (something my friend deduced without any help). This is where the name of Tony Stark’s father – Howard – came from, and is something the FBI would call a clue. Like Howard Stark, Howard Hughes was contracted to work for the American military during World War II. He manufactured airplanes for them. He also made oil-well tools, and was an aerospace manufacturer (he built satellites). He was an accomplished pilot, and he often flew the planes he developed – as well as other planes – himself. Howard Hughes also made and acted in several movies (Hell’s Angels and Scarface, among others). He was a real American Hero who also happened to be a technological genius.
In the comics, Tony was a lot like Howard Hughes. The only difference between Howard Hughes and Tony Stark was that Tony focused on the development of weapons for the military more than on producing other technologies. This changed after a trip to Vietnam left him with a deadly heart injury. Though the story is modified for the first Iron Man film, it is mostly tailored to put it in today’s world. Dr. Ho Yinsen was the man who saved Tony in the comics as well as in the film, and Tony’s heart was injured in the comics when a weapon blew up near him, severely damaging his heart.
In the original comics, however, what kept Tony’s heart functioning was a magnetic chest plate that could be hidden beneath a business suit as well as his armor. The arc reactor is a creation of the films (Tony’s magnetic chest plate needed recharging every now and again, something the “self-sustaining” arc reactor does not require). Dr. Yinsen’s car battery-powered magnet is a nod to Tony’s original magnetic “pacemaker” device.
While Stan Lee held control of the helm of Marvel Comics, Tony did all right. And for some years after he left, the other Marvel writers respected Iron Man and left him largely unchanged – though they gave him a drinking problem to make a commentary on how getting drunk is bad for people. (This story arc was called “Demon in a Bottle.” How clever – and yes, I am rolling my eyes right now.) This policy of leaving Tony Stark’s personality intact was reversed in the late 1990s or early 2000s.
But for once, the reversal did not come directly through the “mainstream” comics. It came through the Ultimate Marvel Comics.
And the “mainstream” comics, as usual,were far too quick to capitulate to this character assassination from a separate universe.
This transformation introduced the world to the Tony Stark Robert Downey Jr. plays to perfection in the Avengers’ themed films. Instead of encapsulating the ideal of the wealthy gentleman, Tony Stark was made the representative of the hyped, hipster, spectator, wannabees, never-will-be types that are with us today.
It is a sad fact, but a good number of rich people today are no better than badly behaved children. When Marvel decided to “update” their characters in the Ultimate Marvel Comics, they determined that the Tony Stark we had known since the 1960s was staid, boring, and would no longer capture readers’ interest. After all, as the curator of the New York City Natural History Museum in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, told Larry Daley, “People want what’s next.” That is, they want the next attraction, party, fad, etc.
My friend is not one of those people. Neither am I.
That, however, has no bearing whatsoever on the writers/editors/managers at Marvel Comics. Therefore, in Marvel’s Ultimate comics, “mainstream” comics, and films, Tony became the typical rich brat raised with a silver spoon in his mouth who partied all night, was almost always drunk, and had twenty women all over him the minute he walked into a room.
The only thing he retained from his introduction in the 1960s was his genius intellect – which, if nothing else, has been increased. According to Dr. Yinsen in the first Iron Man movie, Tony can give a coherent, fascinating speech on technology even when he is so thoroughly drunk it is a miracle he can stand up. Despite the effects of his drinking and partying, he still retains the capacity to speak about scientific facts without making a mistake.
However, this particular “good” alteration does not do Tony very many favors among the fans that prefer his previous depiction. His ability to fire off wonderful zingers notwithstanding, no one likes to see Tony Stark picking on Captain America – unless, of course, they are Cap-haters. No one likes to see him insulting Thor, telling Bruce off, or otherwise trying to cut down his teammates with words. That is, unless these particular people hate most of the other Avengers anyway.
The Tony Stark of the 1960s willingly deferred to Cap because of his experience and outstanding record on the battlefield. Likewise, Cap was quite agreeable to the idea of stepping back and letting Iron Man take care of anything that was scientifically out of his league. The two never jockeyed for command of the Avengers. They respected each other equally and were more than prepared to back each other up whenever they needed to do so. They were friends of the best and highest order, like Aragorn and Legolas in The Lord of the Rings.
As everyone (including me) who is expecting/dreading Captain America: Civil War knows, however, things did not stay this way between Cap and Tony. I am not sure, but it may be that Marvel is taking the same route as DC Comics. Originally – as far as I understand things – Batman and Superman were fairly good friends. They had their differences, their differing views shaped by different life experiences, but they agreed on the principles which were at the heart of their work as superheroes.
Some time ago – perhaps it was also in the ‘90s – this friendship between Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne completely tanked. Batman and Superman have fought each other nearly to the death in several dozen stories over the last few years. This rivalry, if that is indeed what it is, is the focus of DC’s next big film: Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Since they wrote the Civil War comic book story, Marvel has been playing up the same idea with Captain America and Tony Stark.
Does this mean that I think that Captain America: Civil War will be a terrible story? I will not know that until I see the film. It is entirely possible, as it is with any movie.
On the whole, though, I am looking forward to Captain America: Civil War. But one of the things in the movie that I am not looking forward to at all is the fighting between Tony Stark and Captain America. I am not looking forward to this anymore than anyone in the actual War Between the States enjoyed watching brothers on the Union and Confederate sides trying to kill each other. I do not enjoy this because Tony and Cap are, after a fashion, brothers.
They are not only brothers-in-arms (or brothers-in-Avenging) but they are brothers in that they each represent great aspects of the United States. Captain America represents the military prowess, patriotism, hope, and home and hearth values the United States was founded on and still stands on. For that reason, he will always be our best and most beloved super hero.
Iron Man/Tony Stark represents the collective ingenuity of the United States. Although the Marvel writers have long plagued him with the question, “Does the suit make the man, or does the man make the suit?” the fact is that this ‘question’ is stuff and nonsense. As I have said elsewhere, there would be no Iron Man suit without Tony Stark.
To return to the point, the original Tony Stark is the modern day knight. He comes from ‘old money’ (nobility), he works hard, and he is inventive. He does not need to go on knightly adventures and do knightly things. But he does these things because they are right and just.
Tony has enough money that he could comfortably sit at home and remote-fly his armor(s) across the battlefield. He does not need to fly into a fray with Kang the Conqueror, Galactus, Loki, Ronan the Accuser, or even low-budget villains like Batroc the Leaper. He could easily sit at home all day, making armors and fantastic machines, all the while whining about the fact that his heart has been damaged and he will never be “normal” again.
But Tony Stark has more Iron in him than that. He does not have to physically enter the battle but he still chooses to do so. He puts himself in harm’s way to protect people, to stand with his friends, to stand up for what is right and true and good. He may not stand as rock steadily as Cap, but let us remember that Tony’s suit can fly. Cap stays grounded so that he never loses focus. Tony, just like the American ingenuity he represents, is so nimble he can fly into space, fix a satellite, swing by a collapsing oil rig and rescue its workers, all before heading back to Avengers’ Tower to have breakfast.
Tony’s inventiveness is something he carries with him, the same way Hawkeye always has his skills, no matter if he has a bow or a gun on him or not. As Obadiah Stane pointed out in the first Iron Man movie, Tony built his first arc reactor in a cave, using nothing but scrap metal and the ramshackle machinery the Ten Rings terrorists had to hand. And they had not been kind to this machinery, either!
So no one can tell me with a straight face that the Iron Man suit made Tony Stark. If he can, in the dim, dank recesses of a cave, cobble together a suit of armor that would make Sir Lancelot Hulk-green with envy, then he is Iron Man – not the suit!
So why has Marvel pitted Tony Stark against his brother Avenger Steve Rogers? The surface reason – which is never more than skin-deep – is that civil wars always pit brother against brother.
Okay. Fine. If Marvel’s Civil War story arc was that simple, I might buy that explanation.
But it is not that simple. Civil wars start because of a divide within a country. In Marvel’s Civil War, however, the divide is something much deeper and of their own creation. Marvel’s “mainstream” writers did not simply turn Tony into a rich snob with a whiplash tongue and “No respect,” to quote Drax, after they followed in the Ultimate writers’ footsteps. They set him up as the fall-guy for the faux war between the “intellectuals” and those who believe in hope, patriotism, home and hearth. Then they went a step too far and had Cap, who believes in all those values, beat him. On top of that, they made Tony feel bad about Cap’s “death” (which was reversed, naturally, when Marvel learned they could not last more than three years without Steve Rogers as Captain America).
Now why did I call the ‘war’ between “the intellectuals” and the rest of us who cherish the principles of home and hearth a ‘faux war?’ I call it this because it is a manufactured war, a smoke screen designed to be used by a few proud snobs to ruin the link between the ideals of home and hearth and the nimble quick-thinking of the geniuses. Real intellectuals, real geniuses, are what the original Tony Stark once was; they are versatile knights with courtly manners who fight for truth and justice. Tony happens to wear a fancy suit of hi-tech armor when he goes out to do battle. The principles, of course, remain unchanged for those real people who are like Tony Stark.
I would, I think, enjoy Civil War and other recent story lines maiming Tony Stark more than I currently do if the writers had done one thing differently: Marvel should have made someone else their intellectual fall-guy and left Tony where he belonged, on the side of the Avengers, shoulder to shoulder with Captain America.
I will be watching Captain America: Civil War. And I do not doubt I will enjoy every minute of what Cap and his team say and do. But at the same time I will be mourning the decision of those who choose to follow Tony Stark in the film. Most of all, I think I will grieve greatly that the Invincible Iron Man – Tony Stark – has been laid low by the real people who “have no respect” for him.
No, Tony is not my favorite Marvel hero. But he was a hero, and dragging a hero into the mud is never a cause for celebration. It is, instead, a sign of a great lack of respect for what is good, true, and wonderful in this world – and in humanity.
Until next time.
The Mithril Guardian