There’s a lot more going on with the Iron Man series of movies than I think we’d like to admit.
Most superheroes are outsiders in one form or another. The X-Men are all stand-ins for nerds and outcasts, Superman is literally an alien, Batman is a billionaire but so emotionally damaged that he uses a life of hedonistic irresponsibility as a cover story. They’re trying to appeal to nerds, remember, so they’re required to have a certain counterbalance to the power fantasy.
Tony Stark’s got issues. He’s an alcoholic, his heart could give out at any point, and he’s quite a bit selfish. The Iron Man canon considers those first two things to be flaws. It’s just not totally sure about the third.
Stan Lee, because he was a cootish type of man who was playing with house money after creating Spider-man and the Fantastic Four, decided that Iron Man would be a businessman. America was in the early stages of its involvement in Vietnam, and Dwight Eisenhower had warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex just a few short years before, but Lee decided he was going to make Tony Stark’s business war. Stark Industries, if it existed in our world, would be competing with Lockheed Martin and Colt, which is a less-than-sympathetic endeavour for a Silver Age superhero to engage in as his day job.
The first two Iron Man movies follow this conception of Tony Stark pretty faithfully. His early appearance in the first movie shows him giving a live demonstration of a new military system -- not something noble like, say, advanced body armor, or replacements for severed limbs, but a type of area bombardment missile, Weapons like that are the tools of empires and conquerors, and Stark is only too happy to hold up his end of his undoubtedly-lucrative contract.
He’s captured by terrorists, but they’re not the real enemy. His only real fight with them as Iron Man is something of a cakewalk. There is a long history of technologically inferior forces matching up with the latest in military hardware, and with a few vague exceptions, it is a history of grim repetition. Iron Man’s real enemy in the first movie is fellow industrialist Obadiah Stane, whose ambitions are rather limited -- he wants to take over Stark Industries. Iron Man is quite literally a story of an internal corporate power struggle, only instead of buyouts and power plays, the two rivals merely slug it out in mech suits. Tellingly, at the end of the movie, Stark defies a government order to keep his identity secret, and comes out to the world as Iron Man. It’s the best move for his stock portfolio, really -- not only does he stand behind his product, he literally stands in it.
Iron Man II is even more overt about this -- it opens with a literal product demonstration. Stark is by now on top of the world, but again, he’s besieged by corporate rivals. This time, he’s pitted against an inferior businessman, one who has no innate genius of his own, but is adept at using the talents of others. Worse, this businessman teams up with a self-made man’s two worst enemies -- a sniveling, overly-regulatory government that wants to steal the product of his sweat and genius, and a god damned communist. Stark triumphs again, but only by teaming up with a war profiteer’s natural ally -- a friendly, if slightly unscrupulous officer in the military. In the end, Stark kills the communist, establishes a favorable business relationship with the military, and forces the government to heel, just like a true Randian superman.
Then, in Avengers, something strange happens. There’s a bit of a power disparity on display inAvengers -- Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk are obviously heavier hitters than Captain America. Iron Man and Captain America especially are contrasted in this way. Stark has every advantage over Steve Rogers due to his suit -- he’s faster, stronger, more durable, has infinitely more options and information at his disposal. By all rights -- if they were intent on keeping Iron Man true to his tycoon roots, if they really wanted to keep him a cartoon version of Paul Ryan’s fever dream -- they would have had him be Rogers’ moral superior as well.
The end of Avengers, however, sees Stark reach out to love interest Pepper Potts right before he dies, betraying his former near-total self-reliance. It sees Stark embracing an ideal he formerly mocked -- that of self-sacrifice. Captain America may not be as powerful as Iron Man, but he doesn’t need to be -- Steve Rogers was always ever about winning wars over battles. He’s done the most one man can ever do to defeat another man -- he’s changed his mind. The Tony Stark of old might have been only about himself, but by the end of Avengers, he’s willingly carrying a nuke through a portal. It remains to be seen if Marvel plans on continuing this evolution in Iron Man 3, but if we see Tony Stark willingly entering public service, we’ll know something’s up.
Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.