I Am Iron Man…and So Are You!

images-7With all the excitement surrounding the release of Iron Man 3 today, it’s funny to think that there was a time when nobody really gave much of a damn about Iron Man or Tony Stark. Iron Man has been a mainstay of the Marvel Universe for a long time and he certainly had ardent fans from his introduction in 1963. But for me, he was always a second string character to some degree. As a kid growing up in the 1970s, I knew of him, of course, and I wanted to like him as much as I liked Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. But there was something about Tony Stark and Iron Man that just didn’t do it for me. There was a certain inaccessibility there. Maybe it was that he wasn’t biologically powered and that relied on machinery for abilities or maybe it was the fact that he was too much of a grown-up for me to identify with. Of all the Mego action figures I pined for at the time, he was the one I wanted the least. I wasn’t alone in my lukewarm fondness for Iron Man either; I’m pretty sure Iron Man comic sales numbers from those years weren’t particularly strong compared to Marvel’s other more popular books. For whatever reason, Iron Man, while certainly an icon in his own right, wasn’t top dog of the Marvel U.

It’s been written that Stan Lee wanted to create the “quintessential capitalist” when he conceived of the businessman Tony Stark and his super alter ego Iron Man. In 1963, with cultural attitudes toward big business in flux, one can imagine that the idea of a powerful billionaire as hero wasn’t exactly something people were clamoring for. Add the facts of Tony’s connection to the military industrial complex and a growing anti-war movement at the time and you had the perfect recipe for a character people seemed destined to reject. Stark was also presented as an alcoholic, so that classic Marvel human frailty formula helped to humanize what was an otherwise inhuman sort of character for most people. Despite the winds of change working against hum, Iron Man did in fact attract an audience at the time. His popularity would ebb and flow over the years, however, and until recently, there was a sense that Iron Man could never reach the heights of a character like Spider-Man or the X-Men. But something happened along the way to elevate Iron Man from mildly popular character to his current status as a Marvel A-lister.

UnknownThere’s little doubt that lot of Iron Man’s recent popularity has something to do with Hollywood marketing wizardry and those clever minds that make it their life’s work to sell the American public things they didn’t even think they wanted. If you can make a dude in a metal suit look cool enough, the world will beat a path to your door. You have to give credit where credit is due when you look at how the Iron Man movies and associated Avengers projects have managed to play out. It’s quite an achievement. But I think there’s more to this new reverence of Iron Man than simply deft re-branding and marketing savvy. Ultimately, I think it has more to do with a cultural shift, a change in the way we as consumers of popular culture perceive a character like Iron Man. Simply put, Iron Man hasn’t changed. We have.

For all intents and purpose, Iron Man is still a billionaire playboy with a penchant for booze and celebrity. He’s still driven by fame and fortune, even if his technologically supported heart drives him to do noble deeds. But while certain less traditional aspects of Tony Stark’s personality were essentially rejected in the past, shifts in our culture now seem to have resulted in making him infinitely more accessible than ever before. I certainly like him more than ever before. Something’s changed. Where in past decades the idea of a narcissistic corporate billionaire was perhaps hard to identify with or even off-putting, we now live in a world where billionaires are perceived as almost commonplace. We live in a world where there’s a perception that anyone can get rich if they have the right idea and the ingenuity to bring their idea to fruition. Got a start-up idea? You too can be a gazillionaire overnight.

And as for celebrity, we live in a world where anyone with an iPhone and a computer can be an instant web celeb. Film yourself in a compromising position and you’re too can have a reality show. I’m not complaining about that, just pointing out that in this brave new world various brands of narcissism are in fact rewarded. Comics are a reflection of the culture at any given time, so it’s not surprising that a culture that has at its core a sense of egocentricity when it comes to money and fame is much more likely to seek out like-minded heroes. As a result, what were once seen as untouchable traits in Iron Man’s make-up are now traits that aren’t so hard to grasp or identify with. Iron Man is perhaps popular because he is, for better or worse, who we think we are…or who we’d like to be.

iron_man_16478Another element that makes Iron Man like us is the fact that he’s inextricably tethered to technology and would basically die without it. Technology keeps him alive and allows him to function as more than just a man in a metal suit. The screen of information he sees before his eyes while helmeted might as well be an iPhone, truth be told. It’s his window to a world he’d otherwise be unable to see. All the information to solve his problems is there right before his eyes and he is reliant on technology for his very existence as a superhero. Judging by the number of people I see with their heads down looking at their phones each and every day, I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that this technological tether is pretty universal stuff. Again, we see ourselves in our heroes.This is all conjecture of course. Maybe it’s all subliminal marketing and advertising that makes us love ol’ Shellhead more than ever before. Or maybe it’s just been Iron Man’s time to shine. Who knows? But if comics and comic book characters have the capacity to be a mirror of ourselves, our culture and our time in history, it seems worth it to stop every once in a while and look into that mirror. You just might find that, for better or worse, there’s a little bit of Iron Man in all of us these days.


Gabe Roth lives in Los Angeles and spends much of his time “keepin’ it real.” He’s @gaberoth on Twitter.



  1. I think you’re on to something. We’re all much more integrated into a technological world than we used to be.

    It didn’t hurt that Robert Downey Jr. is pretty, can act, and oozes charisma. It’s hard to pull of the likable jerk (don’t try this at home!) but RDJ and his writers have done a great job at it.

  2. Wow. This makes a lot of sense. There are thousands of “Tony Starks in their own minds” running around out there. I was just thinking the other day about the narcissism things like Facebook and Instagram or YouTube breed. I too (child of the 89’s) never gave a damn about Iron Man, and neither did any of my friends, but with the cultural shift you speak about, it makes perfect sense. I think he also feeds on our desire to not picture billionaires as “old, fat, white guys,” he definitely gives us the “you can too” feeling that you wrote about. Great article as always Gabe.

  3. This is a good and interesting article. I do think though that the recent popularity of the character has much more to do with RDJ’s charismatic portrayal of him as a smarmy quipster super-hero

  4. Yeah, when I was first getting into comics, I loved the Marvel stuff, but I really disliked Tony Stark. Rhodey was my first Iron Man, anyway, and he always seemed like a cooler dude to hang with than the spoiled playboy. Definately, RJD took a character I could care less about, and made him awesome.

    One of the cool things about the movies, and something that I think contributes to it’s populatity, is RJD really seems to infuse a “it’s the 21st century, get with it” attitude to the character. When Tony leaves all these old white generals, senators, and CEO’s standing with their mouths open while he does some awesome technical cartwheel, I imagine the 16 year old kid with a blog is thinking “yes exactly! Why do I have to explain how the router at home works to my parents!”. I believe the “technical world we live in” aspect to your article is dead on!

  5. The shift in our culture observation as it relates to Iron Man is spot-on, Gabe. The reason Jerry Maguire worked as a movie was because the guy who starts out as the “I can get my players and myself the big money sports agent and all-around ladies man” is transformed into a more humble and accepting of a single mother good guy. It was the mid-90’s and that world and all that came with it was still a behind-the-curtain mystery to most. If the movie had not ended the way it did and Jerry was relatively the same guy it would have bombed, I believe.

    The first Iron Man movie is basically the same character from beginning to end, only having changed some of his business practices. His love interest was always Pepper, he just couldn’t accept it at first. And she’s single. Great article. You called it, Gabe.

  6. I was watching a behind the scenes thing on HBO about IronMan 3 before it came out and the director was saying how enjoyable and frustrating at the same it can be writing for Robert Downey Jr, because there’s such a fine line between who Tony Stark is and who Robert is and 9 times outta 10 what he said they write for him Downey delivers it funnier or better than what they had scripted. My point to this is maybe IronMan is so awesome right now because Robert Downey Jr is perfect to play him and just as awesome himself. IronMan’s always been a solid character and I truly believe had they not cast Robert Downey Jr to play Ironman (which was a chance no one wanted to take) that if Ironman wouldn’t have been so good, this whole Avengers franchise would’ve not took off with all the success & momentum it carries. But yeah, the technology, “demon in a bottle” being played by someone who practically lived Tony Starks life already (save for Ironman of course), it really does all add up to a serendipity kinda point in time for all of it.

  7. Personally I don’t like Stark, I don’t think we were ever really meant to, but today I can see his appeal, probably down to the actor who plays him. I’m a longtime collector of his comicbook and have been slowly driving myself mad reading his facist bullyboy tactics…oh well, it’s only comics.

    Hate the effect the movies have on the books though. I wish they’d hit their peak with the masses and fade into memory

  8. Grant Morrison actually brought this kind of thing up in “Supergods”, in a world obsessed with fame and money is it any wonder Batman and Ironman are the 2 biggest names (bad paraphrasing) ? I think we have changed as a culture, we want money,fame, and women and now it’s so close but still so far and here’s a guy who has it all and is a superhero.

    I think the movie just made a bunch of things click into place; Tony being abducted by Middle-Eastern terrorists, fighting back against them, double-dealing weapons, trying to redeem himself, clean/free energy, all that just ties into a post-9/11 world I think.

    I as well didn’t care for Iron Man before 2007 (except for the Ultimates and Ultimate Iron Man), he didn’t have much in the way of cartoons to help sell him to me aside from a few appliances in “Spider-Man:TAS”. I got the concept right away, but he was just never marketed (?) right or something, RDJ kinda changed all that and gave us what the character is about. Now I think I understand the character better and can understand the comics now. But after IM3 is over and we move on, I wonder who will be the next big hero to capture the Zeitgist?