Iron Man: Exploring the origins of the Armoured Avenger, and what makes the man behind the mask tick

Vinay Viswanath

Apr 10, 2019 09:52:31 IST

Editor's note: The characters — and story-lines — that inhabit popular comic books can be expansive, multidimensional, and often, just plain bewildering. Firstpost's #HeroesAndVillains is a one-stop definitive guide to understanding (and keeping track of) comic book characters. From the iconic to the little-known, the old and the new, superheroes and their villainous nemeses — this is the deep dive you need, and deserve.

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Some heroes rely on their superior strength to overpower their enemies. Some use superior intellect to outsmart their opponents; while others are able to employ superior planning and tactics to overcome a more powerful foe.

As Iron Man, Tony Stark is a triple threat, regularly out-thinking, out-planning and out-gunning his foes to win the day. And that’s why in a world where gods, demons, monsters, mutants and aliens are all commonplace, this genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist with no real superpowers of his own, is widely regarded as one of ‘Earth’s mightiest heroes’.

“Is it better to be feared or respected? I say, is it too much to ask for both?” – Tony Stark

Iron Man: Exploring the origins of the Armoured Avenger, and what makes the man behind the mask tick

Honestly with that paint scheme, respect and fear were literally the first things on my mind | Marvel Comics

Created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby and Don Heck, Tony Stark made his first appearance in Tales of Suspense #39, published in 1963. Stan Lee stated that he wanted to challenge himself by creating a popular character that readers should technically dislike.

Well, as an arrogant, billionaire arms-dealer with a laundry list of other personal failings, Stark at time of his debut was about as unlikable as you can probably get. When you consider the growing anti-war sentiment in the United States in 1963 as the Vietnam war dragged into its eighth year, they certainly had their work cut out for them when it came to making Tony likeable and sympathetic.

Origins

To most of the world, Anthony Edward (Tony) Stark was the first and only child of Howard and Maria Stark. But the truth is far more complex (and bonkers). It turns out that Tony is actually the son of former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Amanda Armstrong and her then lover, a fellow agent named Jude whom she killed when she found out that he was actually a Hydra double agent. Amanda surrendered her child to Nick Fury in the belief that he would ensure young Tony would be adopted into a good family.

Fury, however, may be the absolute worst, since instead of finding a good home for the boy, he just did what he apparently does with all of S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel’s unwanted children; he dumped him in an orphanage in Sofia, Bulgaria.

However, Howard Stark heard about Fury’s plans and decided to adopt Tony as his son since he and his wife Maria were having trouble conceiving. Positively heart-warming right? Well maybe not. You see, the truth was that Howard and Maria were having trouble conceiving a child until they got help from an alien (who worked in an alien-mob run casino in Vegas) who knew an alien robot who could help.

Don’t worry about it too much | Marvel Comics

Don’t worry about it too much | Marvel Comics

In exchange for making the pregnancy of their actual son viable, the robot named Recorder 451 was allowed to genetically enhance the child, however, this gene-editing also contained a ‘kill-switch’ that Howard Stark detected and removed. While his corrective procedure worked, it also physically crippled their son, Arno Stark whom they secreted away into a care facility run by the Maria Stark Foundation.

Tony, it turns out, was adopted by the Starks only so that Recorder 451 would never discover their subterfuge or the location of their biological child. This ruse would eventually have horrific consequences for an entire alien planet (and perhaps far more down the line), but that’s a story for some other time.

Tony had a largely normal childhood, apart from a strained relationship with his father who was a bit of an alcoholic and tended to be verbally abusive when he had been hitting the bottle. Tony increasingly spent his time with machines, finding their reliable, programmable nature preferable to the company of other people.

Howard Stark #1st in Arms dealing, #567,573,456th in parenting | Marvel Comics

Howard Stark #1st in Arms dealing, #567,573,456th in parenting | Marvel Comics

By fifteen, Tony was already a verifiable genius, enrolling in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and soon graduating as valedictorian. After enrolling and then being removed from Oxford by his father due to him becoming romantically involved with the daughter of a business rival, Tony spent a few years indulging in the playboy lifestyle. This ended when, at age twenty-one, he inherited control of Stark Industries after his parents were killed in a car accident. While there are some rumours of foul play or even that their deaths were faked, evidence to support either of these claims is sketchy at best.

Becoming Iron Man

Several years later, now an arms-dealer just like his dad, Tony would be ambushed and abducted during a trip to Vietnam (changed to Afghanistan in more contemporary retellings) by a noted terrorist leader Wong-Chu. Stark, who was gravely injured, was tasked with working with a fellow captive, Ho-Yinsen, to create a weapon in exchange for life-saving surgery to remove shrapnel that would kill him if not treated.

Unwilling to give in to these demands, Stark and Yinsen jointly developed the first Iron Man armour which they intended to use to aid their escape. With their plans threatened at the last minute, Yinsen sacrificed himself to give Stark enough time power up the suit and escape. Which he did, but only after avenging his friend in the way only an enraged nerd in power armour could.

Neeeerd raaaaage! | Marvel Studios

Neeeerd raaaaage! | Marvel Studios

And the rest is pretty much history. Since then he has continued to perfect the Iron Man armour and repulsor technology, stopped his company from manufacturing weapons, lost control of his company and all his worldly possessions, battled alcoholism and (mostly) won, launched a new company, helped create a new, more powerful version of S.H.I.E.L.D., found his long-lost brother, became the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and even did a stint as the secretary of defence. He has also founded a city, regrown his company from ashes into a major tech giant, built a second floating city for Asgard refugees and finally reconnected with his biological mother Amanda, who was at this point a retired punk rock icon. And I didn’t even mention what he was getting up to as Iron Man.

As the Armoured Avenger, Stark has saved the Earth dozens of times and was a founding member of the Avengers. Today, he remains its biggest backer, bankrolling operations, developing technology and providing a headquarters as well as housing and even a stipend for those heroes who share Tony’s good intentions but lack his means.

Turns out New York’s landlords are the true supervillains of the Marvel Universe. | Marvel Comics

Turns out New York’s landlords are the true supervillains of the Marvel Universe. | Marvel Comics

Oh, and before I forget I should mention that Stark was (and perhaps still is) also a member of a secret strategic think tank including Reed Richards, Professor X, Black Bolt, Doctor Strange that came to be known as The Illuminati.

You know what this means

via GIPHY

Uh… Illuminati confirmed? Illuminati confirmed!

Powers and abilities

While Tony Stark may not have any intrinsic superpowers, his superlative intelligence and technological mastery have given him something that few of even his most powerful peers possess, the capacity to develop new powers, weapons or abilities to overcome emerging threats.

At this point, Stark has dozens if not hundreds of Iron Man armour designs, ranging from tiny remote-controlled suits small enough to operate inside the bloodstream, Fantastic Voyage-style, to the 2,000 ft tall God Killer MK 2 armour designed to combat celestials trying to make trouble on Earth. While that’s pretty awesome, it does make trying to make a list of his abilities difficult since they change with every iteration of the armour. But in general, what most or all of the armours provide include, enhanced strength and speed, repulsor cannons, flight capability, immunity to airborne toxins and pathogens as well as resistance to psychic attacks or mind control while his helmet is on.

Another of Tony’s unique abilities is the fact that, since all his powers are derived from the Iron Man armour, they can easily be bestowed onto others at a moment’s notice, essentially allowing any ally to take control of a suit and gain most of Stark’s abilities, though not his signature personal flair.

This means that Tony can essentially create a small army of super-powered individuals in short order if needed and has actually already done so on a few occasions such as providing James Rhodes with the ‘War Machine’ armour, Pepper Pott’s ‘Rescue’ and even Peter Parker’s enhanced ‘Iron Spider’ armour. Even without pilots, all of Stark’s suits can, if needed, be remotely operated simultaneously by his newest AI creation ‘Motherboard’.

Sometimes excessive force is the most intelligent solution | Disney animation

Sometimes excessive force is the most intelligent solution | Disney animation

Finally, while I started this section talking about how Tony has no superpowers, I may have been a little bit hasty. Since the introduction of the nano-tech ‘Bleeding edge’ armour, derived from his research into the Extremis virus, Tony now carries a suit within his own body. With mentally controlled nanites, residing in his blood and beneath his skin, springing into action to create a powerful self-repairing Iron Man armour nearly instantly; sure, it’s still based on technology, but that really does seem like a superpower for all intents and purposes.

Adversaries and allies

As a brash business mogul and talented innovator on the cutting edge of technology, Tony Stark has no shortage of people who want to see him fail and are more than happy to help make that happen. Rival tycoons, like Justin Hammer (and what feels like most of his family), Obadiah Stane (and his son), Sunset Bain and many others have routinely clashed with Stark both in the boardroom and on the battlefield as they each try to ruin or acquire Stark Industries (and all of its future reincarnations) via both legal and illegal means with varying degrees of success.

Other organisations like Hydra or the Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) as well as infiltrators like Ghost and Spymaster are also a frequent hindrance to Stark’s businesses. These groups often attack facilities to steal technology or abduct personnel in order to sell or reverse engineer many of Tony’s breakthroughs, most notably the Iron Man armour and related technology.

As Iron Man, his heroics both independently and as an Avenger have earned him the animosity of even more powerful foes with a number of aliens, monsters and ancient horrors often gunning for him specifically. Interestingly, of all these foes, the (very human) Mandarin clearly takes the title as Stark’s Arch-nemesis.

A mystic wielder of ten powerful magic rings, the terrorist mastermind, ‘The Mandarin’ is the antithesis of the tech-focused Iron Man who often appears notably irked by magic users. Couple that with the fact that it was the Mandarin’s men who were originally responsible for injuring and imprisoning Stark, killing Yinsen and forcing him to become Iron Man to escape from captivity and you have a perfect personal vendetta to make their clashes more interesting.

Also, there’s a talking dragon named Fin Fang Foom that kind of hates him | Marvel Comics

Also, there’s a talking dragon named Fin Fang Foom that kind of hates him | Marvel Comics

Finally, we come to Stark’s secret worst enemy, alcoholism. While I’d normally list something like this under weaknesses, it felt like I’d be selling it short considering the sheer extent to which this condition has taken hold of Tony’s life at various points over the years.

The 1979 story arc “Demon in a bottle” covers Stark’s most devastating spiral into alcoholism over nine issues in which personal romantic failings and losing control of his company due to a mix of negligence and complicated corporate manoeuvring, sees Stark begin to seek solace from drink. This spiralled quickly and soon Tony had lost his company, his (many) homes, his fortune and all but one of his Iron Man armours. To put that in perspective, the Infinity Gauntlet and Civil War storylines only had six and seven issues respectively.

Thankfully, even a narcissistic billionaire has at least a few friends, and with their help and a lot of willpower, Stark has been able to keep his demons at bay (apart from a few short-lived relapses). Notably, it seems like all of Stark’s closest friends eventually become his employees. Pepper Potts, Happy Hogan, James Rhodes and even his biological mother Amanda Armstrong, all work for Tony in some capacity. The goal of this appears to be to ensure that key positions in the company are filled by people he trusts implicitly and also to protect those he cares about by keeping them all in close proximity to him, knowing that his enemies would probably try taking them hostage to get to him.

When facing major threats and even his arsenal of suits isn’t enough to get the job done, Stark can usually rely on a hand from the Avengers to help turn the tide of even the most intense battles. Although he’s unlikely to admit he needed their help in the first place.

Being a hero is easy, but it’s a long road to not being a narcissist anymore | Marvel Comics

Being a hero is easy, but it’s a long road to not being a narcissist anymore | Marvel Comics

Personality and Philosophy

Stark’s personality is at least partly modelled after real-life industrialist, Howard Hughes, the legendary billionaire aviation mogul turned legendary billionaire crazed shut-in. While Stark doesn’t quite match Hughes for eccentricity, the two do share a number of other personality traits, such as their obsessive personalities and a tendency for substance abuse.

Like Hughes, Stark is also a futurist, always focused on the “Next Big Thing” in his effort to single-handedly drag humanity into a brighter future. This has led to fantastic developments in the fields of waste management, disaster management, clean renewable energy and combatting world hunger and disease to name just a few.

Stark himself, however, remains perpetually unsatisfied, quickly losing interest in anything that he feels no longer provides a sufficient challenge. This trait has made personal relationships, particularly romantic ones, problematic for Tony, who despite having no great difficulty starting a relationship, has so far found it all but impossible to maintain one as, once things begin to settle down even in the slightest, Stark becomes increasingly distant and dissatisfied until inevitably, his frustrated partners finally walk away.

This self-centered approach to most if not all of Stark’s endeavours has caused several people, both in and out of the comics, to throw Stark’s motivations for his heroics as Iron Man into question. Some believe that Stark’s altruism is derived from a mixture of guilt over his history as an arms dealer and his towering vanity, which drives him to seek out acclaim and public approval.

While that is a tempting interpretation and, being honest, there is probably at least some truth to it, I feel that this argument is unfair particularly, considering that Stark worked hard to keep his identity as a hero a secret right up until he signed on with the superhero registration act during the Civil War storyline.

Ever since his forced hiatus in a cave in Vietnam (or Afghanistan, take your pick) Stark has worked tirelessly as a superhero, a visionary industrialist and as a philanthropist to make the world a better place. And considering the massive strides humanity has made as a direct result of Stark innovations and the lives saved by Iron Man’s interventionism, I’d be tempted to say, even if he’s saving the world for the wrong reasons, that’s really not such a bad thing overall.

And as a (mostly) utilitarian hero who can usually be counted to focus on the goals achieved rather than the means taken to achieve them, I’d wager that Stark himself would agree with that sentiment. Tony Stark has been described by his peers, as the kind of man who will make the hard decisions and do what needs to be done. This kind of thinking was put to the test during the superhero civil war where Stark, chose to back the superhero registration act and go after heroes like Captain America who resisted since he (correctly) feared that not involving himself would cause the final legislation to be even more heavy-handed and oppressive.

That’s not to say that Stark will always blindly adhere to his utilitarian ideals though. Notably, Tony clashed with Carol Danvers during the second superhero civil war over her efforts to use the pre-cognitive powers of a mutant named Ulysses to create a sort of Minority Report-esque taskforce that would counter threats to global stability before they happened. After it became clear that Ulysses is not always right about his visions of the future, Tony insists that the taskforce cease operations in order to stop them from “Playing God”.

This is a sentiment that at least partially reveals Stark’s double standard towards “Playing God” since he himself has created more than one rogue AI. While his supporters would argue that it is precisely this incident that allows him to speak from experience when warning against the ill-advised endeavours of others, the fact is that despite his mishaps, at no point did Tony seem to reconsider his plans of making additional and even more complex artificial intelligence constructs to assist him.

So, the truth is that Tony only seems to have a problem with playing God if he isn’t the one doing it. But hey, we all knew that Stark’s intelligence is only matched by his ego; and the fact that he’s still standing while Hank Pym is…. well, Hank Pym is now whatever this is.

 Some days you beat the AI, some days the AI assimilates you and wears your face like a skin mask | Marvel Comics

Some days you beat the AI, some days the AI assimilates you and wears your face like a skin mask | Marvel Comics

Ultimately, when it comes to dangerous knowledge, Stark seems to believe that there are no hands safer than his own… he’s completely wrong of course, but he still seems to believe it all the same. That said, when it comes to using such knowledge for the betterment of humanity, I will agree that he is probably our best bet.

If he does come through for us, he will be unbearably smug about it but surely that’s a price worth paying for salvation... Isn’t it?

Tony Stark, potential saviour of mankind. God help us all.

 Yeah… that’s the exact smug face I’d expect him to have | Marvel Comics

Yeah… that’s the exact smug face I’d expect him to have | Marvel Comics

Updated Date: Apr 12, 2019 11:58:30 IST

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