Despite what the comic book says, Iron Man, at least the man behind the armor, a billionaire industrialist named Tony Stark, is anything but “invincible.” Even though he only recently gained a place in the American pop-cultural zeitgeist, he has been loved by legions of comic book fans since his inception in the 1960’s. One simple reason is summed up best in the words of Tony Stark at the end of the first Iron Man movie, “I know I’m not the hero type, with my laundry list of character flaws, mistakes I’ve made.” We even see at the beginning of the film, that the man, who would one day don the Red and Gold suit of armor, appears to be anything but a hero. However, part of his appeal is that journey to becoming not only a hero, but part of a team. It was a journey that encompassed him learning to get over himself and his vices and how to be, among many things, accountable to others.
Prior to becoming Iron Man, Tony Stark loved to drink, gamble and carouse around with women. Winning a prestigious humanitarian award didn’t faze him as he had received more then enough. He possessed a genius level IQ, and a certain level of charm. He can even quote Machiavelli’s The Prince in a weapons presentation. He is the man all men want to be and the man all women could want. Even in terms of business he just didn’t care. As long as money was made, he was happy. Everyone in his life believed that he could be better, but he didn’t think so. Yinsin summarized it best by saying he was, “A man who had everything and he had nothing.”
However all that changed during a weapons demonstration when he found himself face to face with a terrorist cell that had gained access to his weapons. They took down the unit he was traveling with and he was wounded by shrapnel from one of his own missiles and taken captive by the cell. Had it not been for the work of scientist Yinsen, he would have died. It was his time in the wilderness of Afghanistan, that much like Saul of Tarsus in the Bible on the Road to Damascus, he had an eye opening experience that changed his life.
As Yinsin dies trying to help free him, Tony is forced to take a long hard look at his life as the elder man tells him not to waste his life. They are words he takes to heart, so much so that when his assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts, questions Tony’s motives in becoming Iron Man he tells her,“ There is nothing except this. There’s no art opening, no charity, nothing to sign. There’s the next mission, and nothing else. I shouldn’t be alive, unless it was for a reason.” He is going to change things and try to make a difference in the world. He wants to be about more then making things that blow up.
The first thing he does upon returning home from captivity is announce that he will cease production on weapons until he can figure out a better course of action for his company. The reason why is he has seen that he has been part of a company that has grown accustomed to zero accountability. If the bad guys could get their hands on weapons that he designed to protect America’s soldiers in combat, then he had to make sure that wouldn’t happen again. It had happened on his watch and he intends to fix that problem.
Using his newly made armor he flies over to the Middle East and destroys all the Stark Industries Weapons that the terrorists have in their possession. He invests more time in Arc Reactor technology that can provide clean, renewable energy. When he learns the double dealing is still going on he seeks answers and demands it be stopped. Most importantly he becomes a super hero, fighting off bad guys and saving the day.
While he learns these lessons in corporate accountability, Tony also learns a thing or two about personal accountability. As it turns out, for all the good he tries to do it keeps blowing up in his face. In Iron Man 2, Ivan Vanko develops a similar suit of armor. A corporate rival, Justin Hammer, is trying to destroy his business. The US Government is trying to take his armor from him. The Arc reactor he needs to keep himself alive is slowly killing him because of the radiation. To cope with his problems he dives headlong into alcoholism, and starts to give up on life. He hands his company over to his Pepper, and it is implied he reprogrammed his armor so his friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes can assume the roll for him when he is dead, thus allowing him to become War Machine.
This is the case for Tony Stark in the comic books as well. When a tragedy involving two super humans occurs in the New York suburb of Stamford, a grieving mother lashes out at him after the funeral. Later Johnny Storm AKA The Human Torch of the Fantastic Four lands in the hospital because of an angry mob that blames all superheroes for the tragedy. Tony decides the best course of action is for all superhumans to register with the government. This action causes a rift amidst the superheroes, and a Civil war wages, one that claims the life of many superheroes, including Captain America.
Tony believes that he is the only one who can fix his problems, and as such the burden becomes too great for him to bear. In the classic Iron Man story arc Demon in a Bottle, upon seeing how his life has spiraled out of control, his friend Bethany Cabe tells him, “I know, you’ve got pressures you can’t tell anyone, but for God’s sake, let go of the troubles you can talk about. You’ve got friends…who care about you…so open up and get some of that weight off your shoulders before it breaks you.”
In a similar fashion, Rhodey tells him in Iron Man 2 “This lone gunslinger act is unnecessary. You don’t have to do this alone!”
His unwillingness to trust others or ask for help causes problems, not just in his life as Tony Stark but in his life as a superhero. In the Iron Man cartoon from 1994 his actions anger his team, so much that all but two of them (War Machine and Julia Carpenter AKA Spider-Woman) quit effectively disbanding the group. He was even willing to stage a wedding to lure the bad guys out, a move that angered many of his team-members, especially the woman he pretended to marry.
His actions are so infuriating at times that team-mate Clint Barton AKA Hawkeye once sarcastically comments, “He goes in alone, gets in deep, we save his bacon, and then he goes off alone again. Now there’s the makings of a great leader!”
He is supposed to be their leader, yet he is a man they cannot fully trust. In Iron Man 2, Natalie Romanov, AKA Black Widow files a report on him for SHEILD that among many of his flaws includes self-destructive tendencies. We even hear him intone in the trailer for The Avengers that SHEILD has said that he “doesn’t play well with others”. He is left surprised that they could use his help if he is so dangerous.
Tony often believes his lone gun man policy is the best strategy. In the cartoon series, when his team is disbanded he thinks to himself that this is the right thing, but in the end, he learns how wrong he is. He learns that it is only by asking for help from those who care for him that he can truly be invincible.
He sees just how much they are willing to do for him. In the first movie, Pepper is willing to express her concerns for his safety, and is very angry when she learns he was dying from radiation poisoning and didn’t tell her. She’ll go and retrieve files from the computer of former friend Obadiah Stane in the shady business deals when he is locked out of his own company. She calls him out many times, but he just dismisses it, not even noticing how much she cares.
When he is misbehaving during a birthday party in Iron Man 2, Rhodey engages with him in a knock-down drag out fight, the two of them both in armor, to try and knock some sense into his head.
He tells him,” You’re not fit to wear this suit!”
While Tony may have made the armor, Rhodey knows that the man inside is more then a drunken frat boy. He knows and has seen that Tony can do greater things. What kind of friend would he be if he didn’t? The process may total Tony’s house, but he would rather destroy that, than see Tony destroy himself. Even before Tony became Iron Man, Rhodey tried to get him to act more responsible.
Gradually, he learns to open up and trust them. He learns to be accountable to others and it is a lesson he learns time and time again. What exactly does it mean to be accountable to another person? Perhaps that is best symbolized in the poster for Iron Man 2. We see Iron Man and War Machine standing back to back. We see it also in the film as they face off against Vanko’s drones. It is even seen in the trailer for The Avengers. Iron Man stands back to back with Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow as they face off against destruction.
Being accountable means you stand back to back with some one in the midst of chaos and confusion and help of each other up amidst what ever maelstrom life may throw at you. It also means that when your friend is slipping you are willing to smack them upside the head to knock some sense into them as you know they can be better. It means in spite of any misunderstandings you may have, you still stand by them until the bitter end.
However, it also means something else: accountability means being willing to open up and ask for help. It means being willing to own up to your mistakes and make amends. It means humbling yourself and accepting that you cannot do everything on your own. It means realizing that you are not alone in whatever you are facing and willingly taking the hand of those beside you.
Tony Stark. Billionaire industrialist. Genius inventor. Armored Avenger. All these terms apply to him, but as it says in Demon in a Bottle, “A hero is, above all, a man.” As such to truly be invincible, that means as he needs to be one thing, accountable.
This blog post is dedicated to my own team of “super-heroes” Dean Erickson, Jason Baalke, Mark Spurbeck and Josephine Salmi. Thanks for always having my back.
Film .Favreau, John. Iron Man. 2008. Starring Robert Downey, Jr, Gwynth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges
Film. Favreau, John. Iron Man 2. 2010. Starring Robert Downey, Jr, Gwynth Paltrow, Don Cheedle, Sam Rockwell, and Mickey Rourke
Michelinie, David. “Iron Man: Demon In A Bottle
Waid, Mark. Civil War.
TV Show. Iron Man. 1994. Various episodes.
This post is not authorized, prepared, approved, licensed, or endorsed by Marvel Comics, Marvel Studios, Marvel Entertainment, Walt Disney Entertainment, or Paramount Pictures or any persons involved in the creation of Iron Man. The views and opinions in this post are strictly those of the author and do not express the views or any of the aforementioned groups or their subsidiaries.
Iron Man created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby.
Photo credits: 2006 Marvel Comics, 2009 Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures