Film

Stark Reality: A Different Hero for Different Times

Ian Chant

Bucking the trend of an outsider given an opportunity to overcome ordinariness, millionaire Tony Stark (Iron Man) seems like the least sympathetic of heroes. But his all-too-familiar flaws reveal a more than heroic depth of character, and he offers readers an entirely different form of escapism.

As I was watching Iron Man in the theater, there was just one note that rung false with me. It wasn’t the flying metal armor, or the ease with which it deflected tank shells. It wasn’t the idea of a man crafting a flawless, nuclear powered pacemaker in a desert hideout, under constant surveillance, from a truckload of spare Chevy parts and rusting munitions. It was just one moment, before the Iron Man armor even enters the plot. There's a shot of Tony Stark, restoring one of his many vintage cars, and listening to the frenetic, lunatic ravings of Suicidal Tendencies' Mike Muir. The man behind Iron Man is many things -- an industrialist, philanthropist, genius engineer, player supreme, and superhero, to name just a few -- but he is not, and will never be, punk rock.

How not punk rock Tony Stark is sums up a lot of the problems I had with Iron Man when I was reading comics as an adolescent. I was your classic comic book-reading kid, i.e., I was a huge dork. I didn’t know how to act around girls, I didn’t have many friends, and I spent a lot of lunch periods rolling dodecahedrons and joints in the school parking lot. I wanted characters I could relate to. I naturally gravitated towards characters that remained outside of the establishment, who had problems and concerns beyond cybernetically-enhanced megalomaniacs tearing apart bridges, or super-intelligent apes plotting the downfall of Western society.

Peter Parker had to be back from fighting villains and foiling plots in time to get to class, or before his jerk of a boss started reaming him for tardiness. And while Tony Stark had to be back for business meetings, he never had to worry about his timeliness, because the meetings, like the rest of the world, revolved around Tony Stark. I recognized that I was probably never going to be a millionaire industrialist, because my parents were not millionaire industrialists. By junior high, I had reconciled myself to working a shitty day job to support my doing the things that really interested me, and, self fulfilling or not, that prophecy has ended up being fairly accurate.

As for Spider-Man, well, who could ask for a more relatable hero? He was in honors classes. He liked science. He was uncomfortable in his skin, and around girls in particular. His best friend was cooler, better looking, and more well off than he was. And he gave us all the hope that one day, we could be married to a supermodel who would love us because of who we were, not in spite of it. Now all we had to do was get bitten by a radioactive spider.

Everything came too easily to Tony Stark. The inherited wealth, the not quite cocky ease around women, the flawless business acumen -- it all felt a little bit like cheating. It’s not that I couldn’t relate to Tony Stark; I knew plenty of people like him. The problem was that I didn’t like any of them. Peter Parker was a superhero, but you always suspected that you could slay a couple of orcs during a D&D campaign with him, superpowers or not.

Tony Stark was more like the guy who had his dad’s Lexus on the weekends and took the boat out with guys named Trev and Biff. I heard enough about the exploits of wealthy douche bags with beautiful girlfriends and effortless futures ahead of them through the public school haze of civics lectures and pep rallies. It was the last thing I wanted to read about in my comics. And perhaps most unforgivable of all, Tony Stark didn’t have any real superpowers -- he was just a guy with a lot of money and a lot of free time who used both to build a suit of incredibly advanced armor that, in all reality, functioned more as a sports car than a deterrent against super-villainy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I read a lot of X-Men and Spider-Man books during my adolescence. These were characters I could get behind. They were superheroes, sure, but not because they wanted to be. All they wanted to do was be who they were, and they were perpetually under attack for it. For the X-Men, heroism was a reaction -- if you found yourself constantly harassed by radical hate groups with easy access to giant robot technology, chances are you’d become reasonably proactive with regard to the people who threatened you. And you would police your own, knowing that the consequences of one individual’s misstep would inevitably be visited upon all of you. And Spider-Man -- well, see above. He enjoys chemistry, works a crap job, and beats up muggers in his spare time. What’s not to like?

As far as alter egos are concerned, Tony Stark’s most natural parallel is Bruce Wayne. I grew up and remain a huge Batman fan, which raises the question: why did I find one millionaire playboy so entertaining, and the other so annoying? There are a couple of reasons, but the primary one is this: Bruce Wayne is a superhero who also happens to be multi-millionaire. Tony Stark is a multi millionaire who moonlights as a superhero. That may sound like splitting hairs, and perhaps it is, but to me, it’s a world of difference. Bruce Wayne became Batman because he was driven, because he craved justice... and because he is more than a little bit emotionally damaged. Tony Stark became Iron Man because it seemed like it would be fun to fly around shooting lasers at things. But, lately, it seems like more than that.

As I continue to grow older, I find myself falling prey to one of the most persistent and underrated hobgoblins of life -- I keep screwing things up. Not in any hugely life altering way -- at least, to the best of my knowledge -- not yet. But little stuff. Little stuff, I fairly consistently muck up. It’s something that a mostly clean, suburban American adolescence fails to prepare you for, this incredible knack that life has for not going your way. The fact that, despite your best intentions, and sometimes even because of them, you will stumble. You will fail. You will misunderstand, you will lash out, and you will put your foot in your mouth at the worst possible moment. You will, on occasion, just make a bad call. I’ve made my share of blunders, and I’ve found myself standing accountable for at least most of them. And the more that happens, the more I find I have in common with Tony Stark.

Image: Marvel Comics

From his roots in destroying military weaponry he helped create, to his character defining Armor Wars storyline and his recent role heading up the Superhuman Registration Act in Marvel’s Civil War epic, Tony Stark often finds himself cleaning up messes that he is at least partially responsible for making. That’s not being a hero -- that’s taking simple responsibility for your life. But sometimes, taking responsibility is just what you need to do. And who among us can seriously say we’ve never made a mistake that we wished we could just blast with a repulsor ray? Tony Stark just happens to have the luxury of doing so rather often. And who can blame him?

But here’s the thing about Tony Stark -- even at his worst, he’s just kind of a jackass. That’s something that all of us are guilty of at some point in our life. But when he realized what a jackass he was being, when he understood firsthand the harm that he was doing, he stopped. He changed for the better. He did everything in his considerable power to make amends for the havoc that he had wreaked. That's something not all of us can say. How many times do we realize that we’re doing something to hurt others and write it off? We chalk it up to over-sensitivity on the part of others. We tell ourselves that our faults go unnoticed in the face of larger wrongs to the world. In one way or another, we shirk responsibility for our actions. Yet Tony Stark mans up and does what he can to make the world a better place. It is not extraordinary, but it is commendable.

And, grudgingly as I may admit it, this is where Stark earns his place in the pantheon. As with all the really greats -- think Stan Lee’s Spider-Man, Frank Miller’s Batman, Peter David’s Hulk, or Brian Bendis’s Daredevil -- it is Stark’s all too human fallibilities that make him a hero. That Tony Stark doesn’t always know whether he’s making the right decision is something readers can relate to all too well. And more than most heroes, he understands that the worst messes we ever have to deal with are the ones we made ourselves, and that they are many. And some of them can’t be solved with a laser blast.

Perhaps Stark’s most well-publicized weakness is his alcoholism, a disease that reason dictates superheroes, like police officers, would be especially susceptible to. Like his defective heart, it’s something that Stark has to be constantly aware of, constantly on guard against. It’s an ailment that many of us have seen firsthand, and one that emphasizes the essential human frailty and fallibility of the man inside the suit. I like that in a character, and I appreciate the attention given to these characteristics by director Jon Favreau in the recent movie, and by writer Matt Fraction in the newly launched Invincible Iron Man series, especially in a genre that, for all its recent growth and transformation, tends to remain steadfastly and sometimes frustratingly true to it’s pulp roots.

So why is it that now, when my real life much more closely resembles Peter Parker’s, do I find myself much more interested in the adventures of a millionaire playboy with a suit of armor that fires lasers? Call it Robin Leach Syndrome, but I find it more interesting to see how the other half lives. When I was a kid, Spider-Man’s working man heroism held a certain romance, for the same reason that many things seem vaguely romantic -- because you’re not doing them yet. Now that I work said crappy day job and have to put off the things I want to do in favor of manning an industrial oven most days, a lot of the sheen has come off of Peter Parker’s daily life. When I was fifteen and Peter got stiffed out of a paycheck from the Daily Bugle, it seemed funny -- after all, he was still going home to an inexplicably luxurious loft apartment and a supermodel wife. Now I just cringe, because the weekly I write for hasn’t paid me yet and I don’t know how I’m going to make rent on my less than luxurious studio. To put it another way, I used to like Spider-Man because his life was what I thought mine could be like, even though he had superpowers. Now I enjoy reading about Spider-Man less because his life is like mine -- except I don’t have superpowers.

Tony Stark is nothing like me. His life could not be more different than mine. Yet I find reading about him more interesting now than I ever have, for the same reasons that I read comic books, science fiction, and fantasy in the first place: to escape; to be entertained. Reading about characters that I relate to is all well and good, but more often than not, I want a character who is nothing like me. I want to read about a billionaire playboy in a robotic suit for the same reason I want to watch Star Wars -- it’s fun, it’s light, and there are going to be a lot of things blowing up, probably in space. It’s that variety than ensures that Orson Scott Card will always have his place on my bookshelf, and that I’ll occasionally put down an excellent issue of Strangers in Paradise to watch Tony Stark seduce a movie star, fight a dragon, and take over a rival company in one issue. No, it’s not relatable -- but sometimes that’s just not the point, is it?

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image