Iron Man: A Classic Superhero in the Modern World

Iron ManBy Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Comic book superheroes have long captured people's imaginations.  The prototypical superhero has an extraordinary power or ability, a secret identity, a strong moral code, a striking costume, a sidekick, and a mortal enemy.  The world inhabited by the superhero is typically dark and sinister, with a formidable villain posing grave danger to the general population.  Only the superhero can save this world.  He or she (but usually he) triumphs by overcoming three types of obstacles:  family of origin issues, a unique personal vulnerability, and the fearsome villain.

The latest superhero enjoying great popularity is Iron Man, portrayed in two recent movies by Robert Downey, Jr.  Iron Man made his first appearance in a Marvel Comic book in 1963, at the height of America's cold war with the Soviet Union.  Iron Man's secret identity is Tony Stark, a brilliant weapons designer who suffers a severe heart injury while being kidnapped by a foreign menace.  In the original comic version, the kidnappers are Russians; in the first Iron Man movie, they are Afghan terrorists.  Robert Downey, Jr.To save his life and aid his escape, he constructs a powered suit of armor that transforms him into a nearly unstoppable human weapon.

What accounts for the great critical and box-office success of the Iron Man movies?  There are several factors.  First, the part of Tony Stark is played superbly by Robert Downey, Jr., who is both charismatic and likeable.  Second, as viewers of Stark's remarkable accomplishments, we are especially impressed because he is a man without an innate superpower.   He relies solely on his superb mind and fierce determination to overcome his enemies.

Third, the Iron Man movies have successfully put a modern spin on many of the classic superhero themes.  For example, narcissism, rather than humility, is seen as a virtue.   In place of the cold war is the threat of terrorism, to which all modern viewers can relate.  Modern technological gadgets are portrayed as the solution to the world's problems; we even witness Robert Downey, Jr. use his cell phone to hack into the U. S. government mainframe.  There is racial and gender diversity, with African-Americans and women showing as much physical prowess and genius as Tony Stark himself.

But with all these modern trappings, Iron Man owes most of its success to its effective use of the classic elements of the heroic journey.  There is a poignant origin story, featuring Stark’s emotionally unavailable father who plants the seeds of greatness in his son.  There is adversity for Stark to overcome, namely, his damaged heart that is failing him and requires his genius to Iron Manrepair.  The villain in Iron Man 2 is an evil Russian physicist, who is nearly Stark's intellectual equal.  Stark's inherent goodness is highlighted when he saves a small boy from certain death at the hands of the villain.

Iron Man 2 also emphasizes the hero's reliance on social support to achieve his noble goals.  Early in the movie, Stark notes with pride that he has no sidekick, yet in the final battle with the villain he concedes that he needs help from his friend, James Rhodes.  The movie ends with Stark winning the heart of his beautiful female love interest, Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow.  Throughout the story, Stark receives important assistance from both Potts and the physically formidable Natalie Rushman, played by Scarlett Johansson.

Why are we drawn to superheroes?  Put simply, we admire their ability to overcome imposing obstacles and triumph over evil.  In a dark world, their actions shine the light of hope and promise for a better tomorrow.  Below is a movie trailer for Iron Man 2.

15 Responses to “Iron Man: A Classic Superhero in the Modern World”


  • I love Comic Books. Spider Man, SuperMan, Iron Man etc. They’re such fantastic heroes. I don’t care if they don’t exist, because they have a story that can be an inspiration for all who want to be a hero also and don’t know where to start.

    “Who lights a match in the dark is creating the fire.”

    Fabiola.

  • Actually the concept of a superhero predates the comics with characters such as Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel. Though I imagine that their draw was for much the same reason as the comic counterparts.

  • Thanks for sharing, Lupine. I imagine one can almost date the superhero concept back to ancient mythological tales of Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Odysseus, and others. Also, we should consider blogging on Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel — they are excellent hero material!

  • An interesting character, Tony Stark, indeed a clever scientist that is able to fight the evil in the world with his inventions made of iron.

    Maybe in all stories of superheroes there is some truth. They are put in scenes to balance the world between light and darkness.

    Some say that Superman’s story derives from a ancient legend. You can read the story in the Bible (Genesis chapter 6) where Angels materialize as humans and had relations with women. Their progenies were called the Nephilim, half humans half gods, but unable to procreate. Also Hercules derives from this account.

    But Iron Man is different. Maybe it derives from the book of Daniel chapter 2. The King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a statue made of different metals, representing a succession of reigns. The last reign is made of iron and represents the United Nations. Indeed there are many similarities between Iron Man’s character to solve everything with a great amount of resources and the United Nations that makes war with High Tech. Iron Man is a hero, but I don’t really think that he is in reality the good guy, like Superman or Hercules.
    In the book of Daniel there is also mentioned a war between the King of the North against the King of the South. For a long time it was thought that the King of the South was Russia.

  • Thanks for your comment, Peter. There are many Biblical heroes and I hadn’t thought of drawing a parallel between some of them and Iron Man. I also am struck by your observation that Iron Man may not be in the same class of “good guys” as Superman and other superheroes. You may be right; Iron Man seems more flawed, more ‘gray’, which is very common among heroes portrayed in film over the past 25 years.

  • Iron Man became a very interesting character in the 80s when he fought and vanquished his greatest foe: Himself. I don’t know if this was addressed in the movies (I haven’t seen them), but Tony Stark is an alcoholic. He twice lost control of his alcoholism– the second time to the point where he lost his business and Rhodey had to take over as Iron Man– before finally overcoming his inner demons.

  • I love your website, it has helped me so much. There is one in particular that I try to start my morning with every day.:) :) Lindsey Vowell

  • ^Thank you for sharing! We’re grateful if anyone can find some value in our hero profiles. Now you’ve made us curious which hero profile you start your morning with. Please let us know if you can. Best wishes to you.

  • LOL! That is an amazing post. Thanks for sharing.

  • I think another reason the Iron Man movies have been successful is because Tony Stark, not just Iron Man, is the alter ego that everyone would like to be. He’s reached the epitome of what most people would call the American Dream. Thankfully his friends (Rhodey, Pepper) are there for him when he gets carried away.

    Stark’s life combined with Iron Man’s abilities makes many of us want to be a hero. That desire, and the adoration of Iron Man and other heroes alike, can compel us to do the right thing.

  • I partially disagree with the choice of adding Iron Man as a hero as he seems he would fit the bad superhero more than the self-less Batman , Spider Man , Capitan America type. Without going into any more detail it's kind of ironic that his super-powers come from self- destructing technological virus.
    Tony Stark comes off to me as a narcissistic technological -savant that uses his knowledge and power to protect America from its Enemies- sounds like Cold War II .

    H.T

  • In the comical world and movie world I would say Iron Man is a hero. He is a different type of hero. He does not have a true super power, he just knows how to use what he has to his advantage. He is a genius and because of that is very wealthy. You can’t say he is not a hero because he saves the planet many times along with many people. Maybe the question wouldn’t be to ask if he is a hero, it would be to ask if he is a hero, saving people from things that he created?

  • Tony Stark is a brilliant man with an overly inflated head. Every hero has their “fatal flaw” and while Stark’s certainly gets his in trouble, he can don the suit and become Iron Man to fight his way out of it. Saying it that way doesn’t make it seem too noble does it? Iron Man is certainly a hero for protecting America and Tony Stark is one for inventing it, but I would never want to look at him as a role model-something that true heroes should all be able to say.

  • Iron Man is one of my favorite super heroes because he uses his success and intelligence to protect the people. Although he may not have all the traits that are found in heroes, he has one of the more important traits and that is selflessness. Every time Tony Stark gets into the Iron Man suit he puts his personal wellbeing to the side and he protects the people. Iron Man is a true hero and one of my favorite.

  • Since its inception in the 60`s Iron Man had all the ingredients to be seen as a superhero. A rich dude against terrible odds and money couldn`t save him. Having to rely on his skills, once he was out of danger he was never the same person again and this was masterfully portrayed in the first film.

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