Here’s a brief abstract I wrote for a prospective paper (to be submitted in several places) about Iron Man.
IRON MAN AS SOCIAL/CORPORATE FANTASY
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.