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Iron Man at 50: Tony Stark still seeking redemption

Published: Thursday, March 28 2013 3:45 p.m. MDT

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Before Tony Stark became the man inside the Iron Man suit, he was a precocious boy who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. Stark entered MIT at age 15 and inherited the military-industrial enterprise Stark Industries upon his father's death.

But when Stark learned that terrorists were using weapons produced by Stark Industries to wreak international havoc, he was transformed. From that moment on, he could never satiate his appetite for battling bad guys and, it seems, setting his own ledger straight in the process. Stark's alter ego, Iron Man, evolved over time to become a protagonist unique among the ranks of comic-book superheroes because he's ever driven to somehow make up for his past misdeeds and incurable character flaws.

“There’s this ongoing theme of redemption (with Iron Man)," said Mark D. White, a College of Staten Island economics professor who curated and edited the book "Iron Man and Philosophy" in 2010. "(Stark) is a man trying to redeem himself — a man that basically supported war, but is now trying to find a way to use his brilliance as his skill for good, to benefit humanity rather than help it destroy itself.”

Stark remains racked with demons he may never exorcise, 50 years after Iron Man's first appearance in Marvel Comics in March 1963 and weeks before "Iron Man 3" hits movie theaters in May. Many aspects of Stark’s persona — like his keen intelligence, technological savvy or incisive pragmatism — can and do appeal to legions of fans. But the central theme of the Iron Man franchise, extending across printed page and silver screen alike, is that of an imperfect man who finds his redemption fighting evil.

In the beginning

Iron Man graced the cover of the March 1963 issue of Marvel comic book “Tales of Suspense.” In this first iteration of the superhero, Iron Man’s suit was completely gray.

At the time Marvel Comics editor Stan Lee introduced Iron Man to the world, the Cold War raged and the U.S. government was just beginning to dip its toe into the Vietnam War. In those circumstances, the new hero’s anti-communist mantras played well in certain sectors of the public. However, that’s not to say everyone embraced Iron Man and Tony Stark right off the bat.

“I think I gave myself a dare,” Lee recalled in a 2008 documentary about Iron Man. “It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military. … So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich.”

By December 1963, Iron Man had dumped the monochromatic suit for his now-familiar yellow-and-red color scheme. He got his own comic book in May 1968; writers hatched a storyline centering on Stark’s alcoholism in 1978. As technology evolved, so too did Iron Man.

“Tony relies so much on his armor to fight villains and fight crime,” Mark White said. “And as the stories went on through the decades, the armor became more intricate, it became more tied into him personally, culminating in the mid-2000s when the ‘Extremis’ storyline was written and he actually modified his body chemistry to incorporate the armor.”

Roads to redemption

During his maturation process from the 2008 "Iron Man" movie to its 2010 sequel, Stark found increasing meaning in the service he rendered to society.

“The first film is about how Tony Stark is a playboy who does whatever he wants,” said Spencer Perry, a writer and critic for the website Superhero Hype. “And then in the second film it’s about how he grows up and he realizes, ‘Maybe I can do good with this.’ …

“We live in a hostile world where we don’t take a lot of time to think about fantastical things that happen in the world. There aren’t a lot of reports about good in the news anymore. So to see these (superhero) characters doing good things in television shows and other stories, I think that really resonates with people on a certain level.”

Although the Iron Man analyses of White and Perry emerge from different paradigms, they both consider the two recent "Iron Man" movies to be accurate depictions of how the title character has been portrayed in comic books. Furthermore, they also concur that redemption is a consistent common thread tying together the Iron Man franchise across sundry decades and media platforms.

White’s personal affinity for Tony Stark is rooted not just in the character’s ability to achieve a certain level of redemption in the first place, but also to sustain and maintain his hard-earned progress.

“(Stan Lee) gave Iron Man a heart ailment so people would sympathize for him,” White explained. “Because otherwise a rich, womanizing playboy industrialist doesn’t arouse much sympathy. …

“The fact that he’s got these flaws like his addictive personality (means) he’s got to overcome them to be who he wants to be. So it’s this constant struggle, not only for redemption but (also) for self-improvement and maintaining the character he wants to be rather than the person that he’d be if he just let it all go by starting to drink again or sleep with a lot of women.”

A key ingredient to Iron Man's redemptive flair is a resiliency that often defies logic.

"In the face of adversity he always overcomes," said Tony Yeafoli, a comic book aficionado in Las Vegas. "He doesn't stop and he always manages to overcome his trials. He's a success story that tells us that, no matter how bad things get, we can still move forward. We just have to find the courage to keep fighting — even when the outcome isn't completely clear."

Box office bonanza

With Robert Downey Jr. cast in the title role of 2008's “Iron Man,” the film won widespread praise from critics by combining wry humor with ambitious action sequences.

“The first ‘Iron Man’ movie came out at a time when superhero films were making the transition from being a two-dimensional studio product based solely on the comic books,” Perry said. "(‘Iron Man’) really put up a standard for making comic book films accessible to the public. You don’t need to know anything about Tony Stark when you go into that movie, and when you’re done you’re going to be totally in love with the character and what he does.”

In 2010 Paramount Pictures followed suit with a sequel, “Iron Man 2.” Both of the franchise’s films grossed more than $300 million at the domestic box office. “Iron Man 3” drops on May 3.

“Throughout production for this film they’ve referred to it as a ‘technological political thriller,’ which is something that sounds really exciting because it sounds different from the rest of the Iron Man films," Perry said. "Hopefully we’ll see another turn of Tony Stark as a character in the upcoming film.”

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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