When Comics Get Political #36
In this column, I will dive into times, throughout superhero history, that comics got political. There seems to be a constant debate if political discussion has a place in the medium. I hope to show that politics and superhero comics go together. Today we are looking at a character rather than a specific comic, Iron Man
A Right-wing or Left-wing Hero?
Iron Man is an interesting character, that poses a few questions about his political ideology. I’ve discussed him a bit before on his role in Civil War. Clearly, in that comic Tony Stark was fulfilling the role of the right-wing side of the war (at least one that was pro-government control in the Bush-era). However, as a character, his political stance can take many unique and countering positions, depending on who is writing him and how he fits into a narrative.
Off the bat, Tony Stark is a billionaire and one that comes from a wealthy family. While there is no doubt that he is a genius, he still comes into his money from a privileged place. From the start, he had the money and place in society that allowed him to access his full potential. From titles I have read featuring Iron Man, I have not seen him acknowledge this privilege (I am happy to be proven wrong here) and he is often shown living a lifestyle typical of a rich white male celebrity.
This alone doesn’t make him a right-wing hero, but certainly someone the right could point to as an icon. There is also the fact that he has built his fortune on the back of the American military-industrial complex. The Avengers are essentially high powered independent mercenaries, everything he does is for the advancement of private industry. He could be seen as a Libertarian dream, someone who advances their wealth and chooses to help others (all to inflate his ego). While this is a fairly cynical take on the character it is one that could be seen and justifiably defended. However…
Iron Man can also be seen on the left side of the political debate. While his libertarian ideals seem to be evident he is far from a Randian archetype. Selfishness is not the only driving factor for him (but he does enjoy the attention). He may be incredibly wealthy but forgoes some of his wealth to help others.
In many ways, the Spider-Man motto of “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” pertains to Iron Man as well. He uses his privilege to help the world. Even though he makes weapons he rarely puts them in the hands of anyone he doesn’t trust. In recent series, he has been seen moving away from weapons and creating things more akin to something Apple would create.
The Origin of the Character
Iron Man’s origin is incredibly political and steeped in the American political climate of the time. The Vietnam War was the hot button issue and even Marvel comics was critical of the war at times. However, this issue seems very pro-Vietnam War. Tony Stark is in Vietnam when he is attacked by a warlord named Wong-Chu. Reading the issue it gets really racist really fast. All the non-white characters speak in poor broken English (why aren’t they speaking in their native tongue to each other?) and are shown acting as violent brutes.
Tony does create Iron Man with the help of a local POW, so not every Asian character is demonized. But, the same character quickly sacrifices himself to save Tony Stark and is more of a plot device than anyone with agency. Afterward Tony Stark decides to use his newfound weapons and knowledge to further the war effort. Tales of Suspense #39 might be one of the most blatant examples of American propaganda that Marvel Comics has ever produced. In the very next issue, Stark is seen creating new weapons for the Vietnam War effort. I bet Tony Stark voted for Nixon, and this comic shows a very right-leaning Iron Man.
The Film Portrayal
Out of all the interpretations and stories featuring Iron Man, I would argue none are more important than his portrayal in the film. Iron Man was, at best, a B-List character that did not get his moment in the spotlight until he kick-started the MCU. In fact, every interpretation of the character since then has leaned on Robert Downey Jr’s breakout role. Therefore, no discussion of the character can be divorced from the film. Tony Stark starts as a carefree Randian archetype. He is selfish and is rewarded for his greed and ego. He finds no issue with selling arms in conflict areas, and the general public idolizes him. But once he is a victim of one of his own weapons, he sees the folly in his ways. When he breaks out of his prison (with the help of his newly created Iron Man suit) he decides to change his entire ideology and corporation.
No longer will Stark Industries make weapons of destruction, but instead they will try and affect positive change in the world. This is vastly different than how it was originally portrayed in the comics, and clearly, a shift left for the character. The left and right divide becomes clear when the antagonist Obadiah Stane (Iron Monger) represents corporate greed. Stane works with a terrorist organization to overthrow Stark and get Stark Industries back to making weapons.
This film came out at the tail end of the Bush-era and the discussion around and against the Iraq war was white-hot. It was clear that Stane could be seen as a stand-in for the military complex that stood to gain from the continued conflict in the middle east. While Stark was an agent of peace trying to fix the wrongs of his past. So, Tony rejecting the war (unlike the original comic) is a big deal. Some things are muddied a bit.
Tony Stark still has strong ties with the American Government (James Rhodes is a decorated military man in the Air Force and his close ally) and he never tries to turn his wealth into actually helping social services (like the conclusion of Black Panther). Also, Iron Man continues to make weapons the difference is he now wears them and only trusts himself with the ability to kill.
There is an interesting scene where Iron Man returns to the middle east and the weapons in his suit purposefully target hostile enemies and avoid harming innocent civilians. While weaponry like this would be a far cry better than anything we have today, it still suggests the best method to resolve conflict is murder in some form. Regardless, overall the 2008 Iron Man film is mostly critical of things that the right, at the time, strongly held true.
In many ways, Iron Man is like Batman. An extremely rich white man that decides to use his privilege to arm themselves to help others. The difference being Iron Man is more of an open global level superhero while Batman is street level. The problem is that their wealth is primarily used to fuel their egos and agency, instead of trying to affect social change in the world or on a community level. There are aspects here that could be argued on the right or left of the political spectrum, but I think Tony Stark might lean a little left of the center even if he may benefit from a right-leaning government. He probably would vote for Biden in the primaries.