The politics of Iron Man: how Marvel sold an arms dealing billionaire to liberal America

On paper Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, should be a super villain. But somehow, he’s a hero, and what’s more, he’s the only American superhero you want to have a beer with.

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He’s an arms dealer. He’s a narcissist. He’s a billionaire. He’s irresponsible. He’s vain. He’s arrogant. He has a robotic exoskeleton.

And who is this super villain?

Tony Stark, ladies and gentlemen, probably the only American superhero we want to have a beer with.

You would never want to drink with Bruce Wayne. Dark, broody and possibly psychotic, Wayne lives with the elite. He might go to an opera with Werner Herzog and Ernst Junger, but that’s it for socialising. He wouldn’t know what to do in a bar. Recreation time for Wayne, if he has any, probably involves something masochistic, possibly hot bikram yoga.

Spiderman? Peter Parker might have a fake ID. Hell, he might a real ID, but there’s no way he gets into a bar. Challenge 21 sinks him every time. You’ll find him at home indulging in more adolescent pursuits, such as comic books and mopping up the gooey stuff on his hands. It’s some kind of spider web that shoots from his hands. It’s a superpower. That’s what he tells his aunt, anyway.

Superman? Clark Kent is a journalist so boozing should be natural territory. But he’s an American journalist, and thanks to the Jeffersonian ideal is too much of a goody two shoes to be much fun. And anyway, he’s always Snapchatting Lois Lane when she’s out on a date.

This leads to the inevitable brunch dissection.

Who’s that?”

“Clark again.”

“He’s so weird. And geeky.”

“Awww, I think he’s sweet.”

And then there’s Bruce Banner, aka the Incredible Hulk. A research scientist who turns into an angry, throbbing green monster at the least provocation is not the man you want to bring to a club.

“Hey, mate, you spilt my drink.”

Well, perhaps he’s exactly the kind of man you want to bring to a club. In the right circumstances.

No, as far as going for a drink with superheroes goes it has got to be Tony Stark all the time. Naturally, you’ll be his wingman. And don’t imagine he’ll hang around too long if the right opportunity comes up. But he’ll cover all the drinks, and get you into places the face police keep under strict control.

The trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron

Stark came from the Cold War, penned by the Marvel maestro Stan Lee as a challenge. The comic book demographic (kids mostly – reading a comic when aged over 15 back then telegraphed perversion or illiteracy. And as for graphic novels, try Soho) was turning all peace ‘n’ love as the Sixties progressed. Could, thought the redoubtable Mr Lee, a superhero based on resolutely square values succeed?

Hell, yes.        

The original storyline saw Stark wounded by the Vietcong’s fictional cousin revolutionaries, the Sin-Cong, while testing out a secret weapon. Captured and with a pesky metal shard lodged close to his heart, Stark teamed with fellow prisoner Prof Ho Yinsen to develop a magnetic generator to pull the shard from his heart, and also came up with a handy mechanical battlesuit to bust free from the commie prison camp.

Stark went on to combat reds, rival entrepreneurs, and even Morgan Le Fay when a Twainesque series saw Stark sucked back in time to the court of King Arthur.

Since then, the origin story has been updated to see Stark become Iron Man in the Gulf War and in the 2008 film version, Afghanistan. And it’s that incarnation, with Robert Downey Jr as Stark, that’s making a return to the silver screens in the Avengers: Age of Ultron this month.

Your new friend is an arms dealer?”

“Yeah, but he’s a solid guy.”

“Are you sure he’s not a super villain?”

“No, no. He’s a good guy. He really is a good guy.”

The UK makes around £7.2bn in arms exports. The US, well, that’s a cool £68bn. We don’t talk about those arms dealers much, or all the people kept in work turning out that rancid ironware. And if we do portray arms dealers in fiction, even the staunchest conservative is happy to have them play the bad guy.

Stark takes that dirty little secret and flaunts it. It’s a secret with which even good liberals and socialists are complicit (and just what keeps the NHS ticking over sure as hell isn’t paid for through Silicon Roundabout or our steel industry, if we still have one).

The arms dealer is the executive next door. Well, maybe not quite next door, but Stark is someone you can more or less understand. He’s been an alcoholic. And we all know people in the office who are on the bottle or the pills. Workplace boundaries are a little…fluid…for him; just ask his PA-cum-corporate exec-cum spouse Pepper Potts.

Stark’s a libertarian (obviously), and that’s no bad thing. Bruce Wayne would work hand-in-glove with the NSA and not miss a wink (well, if he sleeps at all). Stark? He doesn’t want government spooks rifling through his delicate under things.

I’ve successfully privatised world peace.”

There may be such a thing as a little too much libertarian narcissism. But Stark’s conservatism is Eisenhower-style. He doesn’t like the military-industrial complex. And like some Silicon Valley upstart with a cyberpunk tattoo and an ear piercing from a Leni Riefenstahl anthropology photobook, Stark is going to stick it to the old boys that do the deals, grease the wheels and get blue collar grunts mangled into human pastrami thanks to shoddy body armour.

Stark wouldn’t fall for the F-22 and F-35 fighter jet boondoggle. Jets designed to fight the Russians in the Cold War that took so long to develop the whole geopolitical map has gone full circle and now everyone’s fighting the Russians again.

All that was wasted was a few billion dollars.

Between drones and jet fighter pilots Stark knows the way. His Air Force buddies are sentimental for man flying machine. The cynics want boys in Iowa to get RSI popping Islamic State fighters with glorified remote control aircraft.

It’s your wrist giving you the trouble, son?”

“Yeah, Doc, I had a heavy week’s fighting. I’ve been all over the screen.”

Stark is the future. Man and machine become one. It’s the singularity, but he doesn’t put it like that. He is not a philosophical man, although he’ll tell you he did go to a Zen Buddhist retreat once (kicked out for slugging saki and hitting on a cute girl while sitting zazen).  Oh, and he digs Alan Watts. There are podcasts now.

There’s always the suspicion that he’ll crack one day. Too much cocaine, or booze and he’ll turn into a twenty-first century Howard Hughes. Brilliant, reclusive, paranoid and buried in a fortified compound in Las Vegas or Colorado, only eating paleo food and ordering a new MacBook every day because after one use the machine is contaminated.

The rumour is that in his next big screen outing one of Stark’s own creations will attempt to destroy him. This might mean a little introspection for Stark. Batman and Superman have caves and ice fortresses reserved for heavy-duty contemplation while Stark favours a Wrightian mansion perched on a cliff. With glass. Lots and lots of glass.

Stark is less broody, and what the Cognitive Behavioural Therapists might call problem-focused. He’s a hero for the American west. Perhaps a self-authored disaster will provoke serious contemplation, well, as serious as any contemplation can be in California.

Is that, like, Faust?”

Maybe, Tony. Maybe. Ask Zuckerberg. He was big into the Odyssey. For now, drink up your whisky like a man. That’s right, all the way. This is going to be quite a night. There’s nobody like you to spend it with because, Tony, you’re one of us.