News Column

After 50 years, fans of Iron Man appreciate his humanity as much as his heroics

April 29, 2013


April 29--He has Hugh Hefner's libido, Bill Gates' bank account, Stephen Hawking's IQ and a suit of high-tech armor with enough firepower to make the Joint Chiefs of Staff drool.

Tony Stark, the alter ego of Marvel Comics' legendary Iron Man, has many heroic attributes, but since his introduction 50 years ago, he also has shown himself to be deeply flawed and vulnerable.

He has faced many all-too-human challenges, including a recurring struggle with alcoholism and an overriding arrogance that frequently alienates him from his friends and allies. Without his armor, Stark is frail, an ordinary person -- if an extremely wealthy one -- and has been critically injured on numerous occasions, including several heart attacks and a paralyzing spinal injury.

The equal emphasis that writers have placed on Iron Man's human and superhuman qualities is what makes him so interesting, say fans of the character's comics and films, the latest of which, "Iron Man 3," hits theaters on Friday.

"Iron Man is literally a shell. On the inside, he is just a man," says Carson Foley, 22, a tour guide at Ruby Falls who puts Iron Man at the top of his list of favorite characters. "He's just like any of us, but on the outside, he has this awesome power."


That balancing act between hero and superhero has defined Iron Man since 1963, when Marvel Comics introduced him in "Tales of Suspense No. 39" by Stan Lee, who also created characters such as Spider-Man, Hulk and The X-Men.

At the time of Iron Man's creation, public sentiment -- particularly among young adults -- was turning against the Vietnam War. As an armsmaker-turned-hero, Tony Stark/Iron Man tested whether the public could learn to love what they despised, Lee explained in the 2007 documentary "Marvel: Then & Now."

"At the time we did Iron Man, I was feeling a bit cocky," Lee explains in the film. "I said, 'I'm going to come up with a character who represents everything everybody hates and shove it down their throats.' The funny thing is, the book did very well."

In some ways, Iron Man's weaknesses were a breakout from the comic norm, an experiment in emphasizing the man behind the mask, says Shane Grubb, owner of Dicehead Games and Comics in Cleveland, Tenn.

"There was a time in the '60s and '70s when all the characters were really just the same with a different look," he says. "Iron Man was Marvel's first really big step out to bringing character to their heroes."

Of course, he adds, just as many fans are drawn in by Iron Man's signature armor, which originally was introduced as a means of preventing a deadly piece of shrapnel from reaching Stark's heart.

"When I was a kid, it was all about how cool he looked," Grubb says. "The suits are what everyone is always talking about when it comes to him."


Although he was a favorite of comic book fans for decades, Iron Man hit the pop culture mainstream with the first live-action film in 2008. Critics credit much of the success of "Iron Man" to leading man Robert Downey Jr., who they say fit the role of a flippant, sarcastic hero like a tailored, armored glove.

"So comfortable is Downey with Tony Stark's dialogue, so familiar does it sound coming from him, that the screenplay seems almost to have been dictated by Downey's persona," reads the Chicago Sun-Times review written by the late Roger Ebert. "At the end of the day it's ... Downey ... who powers the lift-off separating this from most other superhero movies."

After the first film's homage to the character, fans say they felt let down slightly by 2010's "Iron Man 2," which they say felt more like a teaser for "The Avengers" movie than a true successor to the first film.

Nevertheless, Foley says, he has high hopes for "Iron Man 3" when it opens Friday.

"I saw the first one on opening night and the second one on opening night, so the third one? I'll be there," he says. "I'm looking forward to it."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.


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