Iron Man is one of the five most recognisable superheroes in the world today and that is goddamn insane.
From pretty much the early forties to the turn of the millennium there were only two comic book characters that everyone knew, even if they’d never picked up a comic in their lives and that was the two DC icons; Batman and Superman. And despite the fact that Marvel’s actual comics had consistently outsold DC’s for most of their history, no one Marvel character had ever managed to achieve that kind of cultural purchase with maybe the possible exception of Spider-man. And if you were to pick a character that would upend that status quo and be the first Marvel hero to achieve that kind of instant, iconic, worldwide recognition…you probably wouldn’t pick Iron Man.
Here’s the thing, for most of its existence, the Avengers was not the cool kids’ table at Marvel. The Avengers comic book was a support network for characters who needed exposure and whose solo titles weren’t doing so hot (if they even had their own books). Know why Spider-man and Wolverine didn’t join the Avengers until 2005? Because their books were selling just fine thank you very much. So the fact that Iron Man is a founding member of the Avengers and has been with the team for almost its entire history should tell you a lot. This guy was kind of a B-lister, with more than his fair share of knocks from the bad story stick.
We do not speak of teen Tony.
So how did this character go from perennial also-ran to the most recognised face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Sit down and I’ll learn ya.
The initial idea for Iron Man was Stan Lee’s because he is a massive, massive troll and we love him for it.
See, it was the sixties and Stan knew that most of his readers were college kids who hated the military and capitalism and bathing so he thought it would be an interesting challenge to sell them on a character that embodied all those traits.
He’s a capitalist arms-dealer in the shower. Can you handle that, hippies?
I don’t think this was really a political thing (Stan seems to be a fairly middle of the road Democrat) but simply came from Stan’s unwavering ability to find niches that hadn’t been filled yet. The great Jack Kirby did the cover and so created the character’s first visual design, and then the actual first issue that Iron Man appeared in was written by Stan’s brother Larry Lieber and drawn by Don Heck. Iron Man therefore had four daddies, which probably explains why he’s trying to form a gay polyamorous harem with Steve Rogers, Rhodey and Sam Wilson in every second piece of fan fiction featuring the character.
So why was this character chosen to launch Marvel’s massively ambitious experiment in inter-movie continuity porn? Basically, he got it by default.
By the mid 2000s Marvel had sold the movie rights to most of their major properties and were starting to feel like they were getting screwed. Sony had the rights to Spider-man, Fox had X-Men, Daredevil and Fantastic Four which combined represented a huge swathe of some of Marvels’ most iconic heroes, villains and supporting characters. When the time came for Marvel to set up their own movie studio they realised they were basically left with the Avengers who, at the time at least, were very much second stringers. It was deemed that the time was not right for another Captain America movie (too soon, we needed time to heal
) and the corpse of Ang Lee’s Hulk
was still warm. That left…Thor? Well, Thor’s great and all but…
Yeah, so they went with Iron Man. How did it turn out? Weeeelllllll it was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year, completed Robert Downey Junior’s journey from washed up recovering drug addict to A-list superstar and created the future in which we now live. But does it hold up as a movie? Let’s take a look.