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.
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.
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
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.
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?