marvel’s Iron Man is one of Marvel’s oldest heroes, yet looks virtually unrecognizable from his 1963 counterpart. Tony Stark, true to character, has changed over time (and in many ways has changed before them) to become one of the most popular superheroes of all time – even taking into account the Justice League heroes in the DC Universe and beyond. Iron Man has gone through dozens of small iterations over his history, but the biggest changes are listed below – and most new fans of the character have no idea how far he’s come.
Iron Man is one of Stan Lee’s most enduring creations, and withstood one of the worst villains a hero can face: stagnation. Fortunately, other writers have been able to constantly reinvent Iron Man for new audiences, and the hero is more popular than ever. While the MCU’s success may have something to do with the character’s stamina, the comics have always led the way when it comes to Tony Stark.
Note that this list will only relate the main version of the character, and no other in-universe interpretations. It must be said, however, that the aforementioned variants are often are inspired by the universe 616 (the “correct” universe in all of Marvel’s existence). These include the Tony Stark seen in the MCU, as well as the other variants seen in other series (Ultimate Marvel, Marvel Zombiesand various anime series, video games and other adaptations).
Tony’s technology has of course changed drastically since the 60s, but the very extent is largely unknown, even to die-hard fans. When he debuted in Tsuspense beers #39 in 1963, Tony was an expert in micro-transistors, a relatively new technology at the time. When a near death experience in vietnam left him with shrapnel in his chest, Tony’s solution was Iron Man’s first armor, containing a massive chest plate with an electromagnet; he had to wear the breastplate all his life (and it continually required energy, without which he would die).
The breastplate eventually turned into the most familiar Arc Reactor implanted in his chest, and Stark’s area of expertise grew from transistors to microprocessors to writing complex software (up to and including creating AI). Tony also dabbles in bio-augmentation in the form of his Extremis Armor, a futuristic suit that consists of two parts: a metallic undersheath stored in his bones and an outer layer that he can mentally summon at will. Nanotechnology now allows Stark to hide all of his armor in a single dense unit (in the movies, his arc reactor).
Tony Stark, Commie Smasher
Iron Man was created at a time when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at an all-time high, and his enemies reflected that almost as much as the man himself. Stark was shaped by the Cold War; his first enemy Thrillers #39 has been “Wong-Chu, the Red Guerrilla Tyrant!” in Vietnam (later retconned to the fictional country Sin-Cong), and its other enemies followed a similar pattern. The Titanium Man, Black Widow, and the Crimson Dynamo were all sent by the Soviet Union to spy on and/or destroy Iron Man (although the latter two defected once they saw the evils of communism), and other villains like the Mandarinwhile not directly affiliated with the USSR, it nonetheless embodies communist values.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Iron Man’s popularity also increased. The character was the ultimate capitalist fighting against the ultimate communist threats – but with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tony Stark found himself aimless. Iron Man turned to fighting unspeakable terrorists in the 90s and early 2000s, but the writers eventually realized that the best way to change Tony Stark about villains was to turn him inward – fighting other capitalist enemies who embodied the military-industrial complex as it once did. Aldrich Killian (appearing in iron man 3 in the MCU) is one example…but Tony Stark would mostly fight his own demons.
Stan Lee viewed Iron Man as an unlikable character whom his readership would automatically hate (before his experience in Vietnam): a self-absorbed billionaire and arms dealer who embodied “the Man” against whom the post-war generation rebelled. Oddly enough, Iron Man’s only source of angst for years was his constant reminder of his own mortality; he often decried his situation regarding his breastplate, but the drama of early stories rarely revolved around Tony Stark’s mind and/or feelings. Today, his past eats away at him.
The latest Iron Man races (especially writer Christopher Cantwell’s latest) explore Iron Man’s inner torment more than any other period in Armored Avenger history. Even granted cosmic power and effectively become an iron god, Stark willingly gives it up because, deep down, he doesn’t believe he deserves it. Tony also has a hard time separating himself from his role as Iron Man, and this was most evident during Cantwell’s run, where a neck injury forces Stark to wear his helmet at all times – even while sleeping – to avoid premature death.
Take a hard right
Prior to 2006, Captain America and Iron Man were allies, comrades, and friends, though their relationship was nothing special (namely: Stark had more or less the same relationship with Steve Rogers as with any other Avengers). Their politics and priorities were also aligned: Both were avowed capitalists (Rogers by association more than choice) and fought required terrorists in the early 2000s. But 2006 Civil war crossover event changed their relationship irrevocably.
In the case of supporting superhero registration, Iron Man was a strong advocate: he believed that the government had a responsibility to regulate enhanced individuals and that those with superpowers should be put in check. Captain America thought self-reliance was the safest course of action, and the two came to blows. Iron Man’s actions, considered by many to be irrelevant, included not retconned after the event, meaning Tony Stark was Captain America’s dove hawk forever. The fierce rivalry between the two has not died down, even after Captain America returns from the deadand Iron Man was now more associated with the actions of the United States government than the man who wore the American flag as his costume.
His worst enemy
After nearly 60 years of superheroes, readers (and Marvel editorial) have come to the mutual conclusion that Tony Stark’s worst enemy is himself. Whereas Tony Stark certainly had his serious character flaws in the 60s and 70s, he rarely made serious mistakes or disagreed with himself; as far as Stan Lee was concerned, Tony’s entire career as a superhero was a way of catching up with his past, and he would never succumb to his warmongering, arms-dealing ways again. Unfortunately for Tony, he has changed for the worse.
The Tony Stark of the current era struggles with addiction issues, emotional outbursts, and self-destructive behavior that continually forces him in and out of rehab clinics and doctors’ offices. The infamous demon in a bottle script began this sequence, chronicling a very realistic depiction of alcohol abuse – and although Stark has since quit drinking in bulk, he struggles with other addictions; the morphine in Christopher Cantwell’s run, for example, nearly killed him. Iron Man is still a hero, but he often poses a danger to himself and his allies as much as his enemies.
Always futuristic, Iron Man never fears change like other more stagnant superheroes. The 90s weren’t kind to Tony Stark, and he almost died out (so much so that the 1996 an event Marvel vs. DC featured Iron Man in exactly two panels, and he didn’t even get a line, let alone a fight). Luckily, the writers at Marvel pulled a page out of Tony Stark’s book, and Iron Man changed over time, eventually becoming one of Marvel’s most popular properties.