Iron Man (proposal)

Here’s a brief abstract I wrote for a prospective paper (to be submitted in several places) about Iron Man.


Iron Man stands apart from other comic book superheroes in several striking ways. His superpowers do not come from an alien origin or a spider bite; rather, they are products of postindustrial technology. There are other superheroes whose powers are technologically based, such as Batman; but Iron Man’s cutting-edge engineering could not be further removed from Batman’s artisanal use of technology. It is also noteworthy that where most superhero costumes are disguises used to preserve anonymity and strike terror into foes, Iron Man’s suit is actually the literal source of his powers. In addition, although Tony Stark/Iron Man is a millionaire-turned-crimefighter just like Bruce Wayne/Batman, there’s a sharp contrast between Batman’s vengeful, almost sociopathic, outsider status, and Stark’s highly networked public persona, who stands at the center of corporate and military power.

For all these reasons, Iron Man is a fairly unique figure. Many American superhero stories of the last fifty years can be diagnosed as male-adolescent compensation fantasies: the nerd is empowered to strike back at his tormentors, and achieve the glory of saving the world. But Iron Man puts a strange twist on this scenario. For in his case, the redemption- and power-fantasy is also a fantasy of the military-industrial-technoscience complex, and ultimately of Capital itself. Corporations are recognized as “persons” under the law, and Tony Stark is very much the personification of a corporate entity. Iron Man’s technological triumphs, his ambivalent relations with the US military and intelligence communities, and his vulnerabilities as well (the shrapnel that threatens to enter his heart, and the alcoholism that is his constant temptation), all cross the line that separates individualist psychodramas from allegories of the ways that libidinal forces directly invest the socius (as Deleuze and Guattari would put it).

For this essay, I look beyond the recent Iron Man hit movie to consider a wide range of Iron Man’s incarnations in Marvel comics. I will pay some attention to Stan Lee’s invention of the character as a Cold War figure in the early 1960s, and to the depiction of Tony Stark’s corporate struggles and problems with alcohol in the comics of the 1970s and 1980s; but my main focus will be on Mark Millar’s, Warren Ellis’, and Matt Fraction’s radical reinterpretations of the character in the last several years. My aim is neither to critique the ideology of Iron Man comics, nor to claim that the book is somehow deeply subversive; but rather to use this comic book series in order to develop some ideas about how social fantasy works in our era of neoliberal globalized capitalism and of post-Cold War, post-9/11 paranoia and surveillance.

12 thoughts on “Iron Man (proposal)”

  1. I’m quite looking forward to this.

    I used to be a fervent reader of comics as a child. I grew up reading all the Marvel titles. I was raised in an extreme right wing home, and the pages of the X-Men seemed to be written as a liberation theology for freaks and outsiders. Looking back it is tame stuff, but compared to todays right wing wish fulfillment its practically Leninist.

    I tried to get back into comics lately and found all the Marvel heroes are registered with the government and the whole thing has taken on a centre-right gloss that is disgusting. Its like the control society is cool and sexy and everyone wants to be a part of it. Ugh.

  2. When I was a kid, I loved nearly all the Marvel heroes – except Iron man. I was raised in a very left-wing home, and always hated Iron man because he was the only hero to fight in Viet Nam! Even Captain America and Nick Fury had enough political ambiguity and surreal touches (especially with Jack Kirby/Steranko/Englehart) to stay interesting.

    Now with the movie (Viet Cong replaced by Arabs) its clear that he acted as pure corporate interest – which happened to be the same as national interest. No mythological resonance. No hounding by the press/military/humanity in general for this billionaire asshole. Even his ‘vulnerabilities’ were somewhat corporate and suburban – booze and a heart problem?

  3. Wedge —

    yes, you are entirely right — this is precisely what interests me about Iron Man, the fact that he is enmeshed with the military-industrial complex.

  4. Steven–with regard to your thesis, it’s interesting that the very qualities that make Iron Man distinctive in the U.S. make him run-of-the-mill in Japan, where a large number of superheroes (those known as “mechas”) derive their powers from postindustrial techno-suits and are often personally intertwined with (or deputized by) corporate/state entities. In this regard, Iron Man is in fact the most Japanese of American superheroes. (And in the rather tawdry Marvel Mangaverse, which I DO NOT recommend, I believe he’s actually known as the “Iron Man Mecha” or something similar.) When one considers the highly corporatized nature of the Japanese economy, the trope of the mecha-man lends some salient cross-cultural support to your argument.

  5. P.S. Can’t believe I forget to mention Shinya Tsukamoto’s
    “Tetsuo/ Iron Man” films, in which the fantasy of postindustrial techno-corporate intertwinement takes on the quality of a nightmare.

  6. I wonder if Obama represents a kind of superhero at this point at least to his deepest admirers.

    I don’t think McCain does at all to anyone.

    My hero right now is the British philosopher Mary Midgley. I’m hugely enjoying her books. I am in the middle of her autobiography The Owl of Minerva. She says the funniest thing on p. 95. She’s trained as a classicist and thinks it was funny that she had to spend so much time versifying in Latin and Greek since almost no one could read it, and saw it just as a stupid exercise, or rather, as “a desperate kind of crossword puzzle,” and that “I can only think of one educational exercise that has been carried on in this way — namely, the state of things in English Studies a little time back when students had to learn the bizarre language of post-structuralist literary theory in order to write their essays in it” (95).

    Quite a hoot. Midgley didn’t write her first book until she was sixty and now she’s ninety and has about ten of them.

    She’s heroic to me in her common sense.

    Sorry to be off topic, or tangential at best, but it’s 97 degrees in Philadelphia, and I’m dotty, what.

  7. For what its worth, I remember Iron Man always being against magic and transformative shape shifting powers. Usually the characters that could do this were sorceresses or female mutants. This was apparent especially during the 1990’s story Operation: Galactic Storm (in real life Operation: Deser Strom was being perpetrated by the US against Iraq).

    THe other armored hero in the Marvel comics is War Machine. He’s got an Iron Man looking suit except it has a gatling gun and a missile launcher. He’s black and I think trains superheroes for the government, whereas Stark is the head of Shield (CIA) I believe.

  8. “My aim is neither to critique the ideology of Iron Man comics, nor to claim that the book is somehow deeply subversive;”

    This! I’m glad you explicitly state this, because those two ways of examining texts are so incredibly formulaic and played out.

  9. Are there any viable theories of social capital? It seems like the concept of social capital has long been an integral part of tertiary education for women, who for many years attended school as a means to expand their pool of potential suitors. Women took courses in the humanities as a way of learning to appreciate their own social capital and that of their prospective mates.

    Meritocracy is meaningful for individuals acquiring a marketable trade. It is meaningful in a somewhat different way to someone acquired by a spouse with a marketable trade. Is there a way that a third generation college graduate with a throughly unmarketable advanced degree in the humanities can be distinguished from a junior high school dropout who likes Marvel comic books?

  10. You might be interested in my take on the film:

    I must admit I never read any of the comics, but for me, the most important part of the film at least was the decision to stop Stark Industry’s weapon-manufacturing capacity. In the end though, I thought the film was more simply ideologically confused than anything – it couldn’t seem to make up it’s mind whether it wanted to be anti-war or pro-war and wound up being very strongly both at different times.

  11. After reading your blog, thought you would be interested in this…

    CNBC will be airing a revealing interview with Jon Favreau on “Conversations with Michael Eisner” taking place Tuesday Sept 30th at 9p ET. They discuss Favreau’s introduction to entertainment, Iron Man, working on Wall St as well as a host of other topics. Check out a clip of the interview at

    Additional web extras can be found at

    Please let me know if you would like any additional information.

    201 735 4730

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