Everyone knows and loves Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Iron Man. However, the same cannot be said of his comic book counterpart. In the movies, Tony Stark is charismatic, endearing, and everyone’s favorite party guest. He has long been my favorite hero in the comics, but for the past decade, Marvel has been pushing him further and further into villain territory, sullying a legacy that goes back even before his role as a founding member of the Avengers.
Tony Stark became Iron Man under circumstances very similar to the first Iron Man movie. He’s battled alcoholism, brain damage, and your daily super villains that all heroes are expected to overcome. Then, in a terrible comic event called “The Crossing” (bear with me: if you’ve read it, you may want to gloss over the next paragraph, but if you haven’t, I apologize in advance), Iron Man betrayed The Avengers while under the influence of Kang/Immortus. His betrayal cost the lives of heroes Yellowjacket and Marilla, and Rita DeMara, a friend of the Avenger’s. His corruption was so complete that the only solution the remaining Avengers could think of was to go back in time and bring Tony’s younger self to combat his present self. The sight of past Tony shocked present Tony enough to bring him back to his senses, causing him to sacrifice himself to stop Kang, leaving us readers with teenage Tony as our only Tony.
If you’re a fan of Iron Man from the movies, or you are not familiar with the comics, that previous paragraph made little sense. Here’s the thing: it made even less sense to the people who read it. They killed off characters people didn’t like or didn’t care about in an attempt to display the corruption of Iron Man. Popular opinion is that the characters killed were mostly created just to be offed for shock value, which is never a good idea. A perfect movie counterpoint would be Agent Coulson’s death in The Avengers: Agent Coulson was a character created for a specific purpose in the first Iron Man movie, and, having served that purpose, he was sacrificed to become a rallying force for the Avengers to unite again.
Marvel Comics seemed to have realized their mistake in “The Crossing”; making a villain out of a stalwart Avenger was a misstep, so they left readers with a younger version of the hero. Arguably, this wasn’t a good solution. (Spoilers ahead for Avengers: Age of Ultron) The movie equivalent to this would be if Tony Stark was so hated by the other Avengers for creating Ultron, they decide to go back in time and get a young Tony Stark played by Taylor Lautner to replace Age of Ultron Tony. Yes, we should all cringe at the thought.
In the comics, we were stuck with teenage Tony for longer than anyone liked, but thankfully that came to an end due to the events of Heroes Reborn and Heroes Return. The best way to summarize these stories is “90’s”. If that isn’t explanation enough, let’s just say that a new villain was created, and the only way to stop him was for all non-mutant heroes to sacrifice themselves by entering him. But they didn’t actually die. Instead, Franklin Richards, the son of Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman, created a new planet for these heroes to live in as newer, more ‘extreme’ versions of the heroes we’ve known for decades.
These characters eventually made their way back to the original Earth and we were gifted with the Tony we always wanted. However, “The Crossing” is worth remembering because it painted Tony Stark as a traitor long before Marvel fully embraced this negative slide of one of the greatest heroes in their catalogue.
Fast forward to 2006, and Marvel’s Civil War, the comic that started the trend of heroes fighting heroes in the Marvel Universe. In Civil War, a school is blown up in an avoidable accident involving superheroes and villains. This results in the U.S. government fast-tracking a bill to force heroes to register their powers and identity with S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to better serve the people. Iron Man sees the logic in this and becomes a staunch supporter of the Super Human Registration Act. However, Captain America feels heroes shouldn’t be responsible for their actions and should be able to kill whomever they want with no consequences (I admit I may be exaggerating his position , but he was wrong nonetheless) and openly opposes the government he claims to represent.
What follows is a bloody battle between factions of heroes who either support or denounce the Registration Act, while the true villains seem to sit this fight out. Throughout the story, Tony Stark is painted as a villain by the readers for standing up for what he, the government, and the people believe in, while Captain America is celebrated by those same comic fans for fighting in sewers. In the end, Iron Man was proven right when civilians stand up to Cap saying they don’t feel safe or blah blah blah… The point is Iron Man was right. What happens next? Tony Stark becomes the new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., essentially becoming “The Man” that so much of the comic-reading youth rage against, while Steve Rogers is killed in handcuffs and martyred.
During the events of Civil War, Iron Man, along with Mr. Fantastic and Giant-Man (star of the new Ant-Man movie, comic logic!), enact a few plans to help apprehend the fugitives. These tactics include creating a robot clone of Thor called ‘Ragnarok’ that goes berserk and kills Black Goliath, and creating a prison for powered beings in the Negative Zone (an alternate dimension to be explored in the upcoming Fantastic Four movie, now that’s called synergy within an article people), to ensure the public’s safety even if there’s a breakout. Now I can agree that a hero’s death by the hands of their renegade clone is a horrible thing, but 1) Tony Stark wasn’t the only one who created it (probably should have known better than to consult Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, on robotics since he’s solely responsible for creating Ultron in the comics) and 2) if Black Goliath were in accordance with the law he would have lived long enough to die in the next event (which we know would have happened eventually).
Sure, there’s a problem with a prison in a different dimension known for its violent residents, which can only be accessed through certain portals throughout the country. But if Captain America didn’t break into the prison, no one would have been in danger while they awaited trial.
Marvel Comics continued to paint Tony Stark as arrogant and selfish despite his years of service to the public. All of this accumulated into him becoming a hated character within the comics and to the readers whose opinions are not solely based on the movies. Then Marvel decided to make Iron Man a full-on villain in the aftermath of the event Axis.
While the series itself was universally lambasted by fans, my personal gripe with it is the treatment of Iron Man. The whole point of the series was to make heroes do bad things while villains try to stop them. That actually sounds like a fun idea, and it could have been a decent story, but it was executed poorly Beyond that, there were three take away points from the series: 1) Magneto apparently is not the father of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (which carried over into the movies since Marvel Movies can’t use any of their mutants, because of legal issues), 2) Sabretooth is now ‘heroic’, trying to live up to the legacy that Wolverine left behind (Wolverine is dead in the comics), and 3) Iron Man was given the same “Superior” treatment as Spider-Man when Doc Ock took over his body.
OK, maybe it wasn’t the same treatment, but he is now a corrupt ‘hero’, fighting Daredevil and manipulating and controlling the public of San Francisco. In the Marvel Comics, the added adjective ‘Superior’ to a book’s title, means villain. Basically, they’re saying that being better, or superior, is a bad thing.
Parallel to the Axis story, Tony Stark and the rest of the Illuminati (a collection of "heroes, or as Marvel would have you believe “heroes” (notice the subtle difference) that represent different factions of people making sure the really bad things never actually happen) fight to save Earth from an extinction-level event. But Captain America opposes them, and places Iron Man as the mastermind behind this, regardless of who he was working with.
In essence, Marvel did everything they could to make characters and readers hate Iron Man as much as possible without actually having him kill a baby in front of its mother. All of this is in contrast to the image put forth in the Avengers movies, where Robert Downey Jr has created a Tony/Iron Man that everyone is enamored with. That is until the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War movie comes out; maybe we just might see Iron Man kill a baby, who knows what Marvel is thinking.
Thankfully, it appears that Marvel won’t be going in that direction with the movies and will be rectifying the wrongs done to Tony Stark, by making Iron Man the hero he was originally meant to be. Marvel will be rebooting their comic universe after the current series, Secret Wars. Following this fun romp in an imaginary land, they’ve advertised that Iron Man will be one of their central heroes on par with Spiderman, a spot I’ve always felt he deserved. It’s good to know that this slow and deliberate vilification of Iron Man is coming to an end… or is it!?